Advocates say school funding needs an overhaulby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
About two thirds of the school districts who asked voters for more operating money got it. The unsuccessful districts will now face varying levels of financial challenges. Parents who were in favor of many of the levy campaigns gathered Wednesday at the State Capitol to urge lawmakers to fix what they see as a flawed education funding system.
St. Paul, Minn. — There were 99 school districts seeking voter approval for a levy referendum, including some with multiple ballot questions. The final tally from the Minnesota School Boards Association showed one or more measures passed in 67 districts. Voters rejected proposed tax increases in 32 districts.
The White Bear Lake school district was among the referendum successes. But school board Chairman Rolf Parsons said he thinks voters statewide sent two strong and contradictory messages.
"The first message: thousands of Minnesotans support public education, and they're willing to reach into their pockets to pay extra for excellent local schools," he said. "The second message: thousands of Minnesotans are overwhelmed by skyrocketing property taxes, and their only opportunity to say no is to their local school board."
Parsons said a funding system that relies on voters approving local levies is creating unfair financial disparities among school districts.
Debi McConnell, a parent who worked on a partially successful levy campaign in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district, compared the referendum to rolling dice.
"The children of the state of Minnesota deserve a quality education that is not funded by gambling at the polls," she said. "It won't take long and many failed levies before the reputation of our education system in Minnesota starts suffering."
McConnell and other advocates say they want lawmakers to provide supplemental funding to school districts in the 2008 session. They also want the state to take on a greater share of the cost of public education, but won't say where the money should come from. Currently, the state provides 78 percent of school district revenue, compared to 22 percent generated from local levies.
State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said school funding in Minnesota is a shared responsibility. Seagren said levy referendums are an important part of the state's tradition of local control.
"If you looked at a number of the initiatives this year, they were proposing specific things like reducing their class size, or going out for technology funding," she said. "So, there's always going to be opportunities that local districts would like to ask their voters for that might be over and above what the state is already providing. And those should be options that schools should be able to consider and the citizens should be able to say yes or no to."
Seagren said the state's economic forecast may limit the amount of extra money available next year for schools. Her boss, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has also insisted that any new education money be tied to classroom results.
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chairwoman of the House K-12 finance committee, said she wants parents and other advocates to hold lawmakers accountable on this issue. She favors an income tax increase on the state's highest earners as one way to get more money to schools. Greiling also wants the state taxpayers to take the pressure off districts to pass local property tax increases.
"I'm a big fan of local control for extras," she said. "But for the basics, it really has to be state funding. That's what our constitution calls for."
Greiling is co-chairing a House and Senate task force that's currently studying education funding issues. A report is due to the full Legislature in mid-January.
- All Things Considered, 11/07/2007, 5:19 p.m.