Wednesday, June 24, 2020

House Holding Hearings.  With the special session in the rear-view mirror (and perhaps another one on the horizon), the Minnesota House education-related committees are holding hearings to gain perspectives on how schools, students, and families fared during this Spring's distance-learning period.  Today's hearing featured testimony from students, parents, and community groups and centered on the challenges experienced, especially in communities of color and low-income households that characteristically face greater barriers to achievement.  It was a very impressive and impassioned set of witnesses and I urge everyone who has never had the opportunity to listen to Sondra Samuels, the director of the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, to tune in to the hearing at the link I've provided and listen in.  Samuels always does a wonderful job.

Education committees examine the report card on distance learning

The YouTube episode of the hearing is midway down in the story.  Tomorrow (Thursday), the House Education Finance Division will be hearing from a variety of school support groups (social workers, counselors, transportation providers).

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Special Session (Number One) Comes and Goes.  It was a week that really flew by and in the end, major issues fell by the wayside.  The Special Session convened on Friday, June 12, and ran through the early morning hours of Saturday, June 20.  

This special session did not resemble recent special sessions in any way, shape, or form.  It has been the practice of gubernatorial administrations and legislative leadership over the past two decades to have all legislation pre-agreed to prior to a special session being called.  The nature of this session was bound to be different given the on-going debate over how to best address the medical and economic effects of the COVID-19 virus and that certainly turned out to be the case.

The Legislature came in with a healthy to-do list, first of which was to make a determination as to whether to extend Governor Walz' emergency powers that were first invoked with the Executive Orders in reaction to COVID-19.  There was no vote whether to restrict those powers during the regular session, but since the adjournment of the regular session, the Governor must call a special session every 30 days to provide the Legislature with an opportunity to restrict those powers.  That means there will likely be several special sessions between now and the start of the 2021 legislative session next January.  The Senate did vote to cancel the Governor's authority, but that bill did not pass in the House, meaning the Governor's authority remains in place.

StarTribune: Minnesota House blocks bid to end Walz's emergency powers

The political reaction surrounding the killing of George Floyd was unforeseen when the Legislature adjourned in May, but that has certainly taken center stage, even upstaging the bonding bill and COVID-19-related initiatives during the week-long special session.  Both the House and Senate passed comprehensive packages aimed at police reform, but the House proposal was broader and much more aggressive in its initiatives aimed at modifying police behavior.  The House proposal also addressed a number of underlying issues that many believe have contributed to disparities in law enforcement practices.  While hopes ran high that a meaningful compromise could be reached, the reluctance to remain in session by the Senate majority along with the multi-faceted nature of the issues involved, prevented an agreement from being reached.

Star Tribune: Police reform efforts collapse in divided Minnesota Legislature

The bonding bill also fell by the wayside.  There was hope late in the regular session that a compromise on the aggregate size of the bill could be reached and that there would be an accord on the last day of the session, but with a super-majority required to pass the bonding bill and neither minority caucus willing to provide votes for that to happen, the fruits of the serious negotiations being undertaken by the majority caucuses and the Governor never surfaced.

There was also legislation proposed to distribute the Federal dollars being delivered to the state that will be passed through to local units of government that also died.  Both the House and Senate passed legislation that would have accomplished that, but the bills were not identical which would have required a conference committee to work out a final compromise package and there did not seem to be the appetite for that to transpire.  Legislators in both parties are urging Governor Walz to distribute the revenue without legislative approval, which may well happen with the blessing of the Legislative Advisory Commission.  "What is the Legislative Advisory Commission?" you might ask.  Here is a descriptive link:

Minnesota Legislative Advisory Commission

Here is a StarTribune story on the issue:  City, county leaders press Gov. Tim Walz on $841M in COVID-19 aid

Given the inability to find common ground on the larger issues addressed during the special session, it was somewhat surprising that the omnibus education policy bill passed.  The bill was a scaled-down set of proposals that all were agreed upon during the regular session, but time ran out before the bill could pass both bodies.  The bill passed 67-0 in the Senate and 117-9 in the House.  Kudos to both Education Policy chairs, Representative Cheryl Youakim and Senator Carla Nelson for getting this one over the finish line during tense times on other issues.

Here is a link to the bill language:  HF 33--2020 1st Special Session Law Chapter 8

Bill Summary:  HF 33 Bill Summary.  This is the bill summary that went to the House floor.  An amendment was added (Article 1, Section 4) on the House floor last Friday providing the Ogilvie school district with a fund transfer.  That was the only change to the bill.

Stay Tuned.  I am sure many of you are wondering the state's next steps when it comes to how schools will open this fall.  Right now, the Minnesota Department of Education is preparing for three approaches:  (1) school as normal, (2) a continuation of the distance learning model adopted last spring, or (3) a hybrid model that would incorporate both distance and in-person instruction.  Many districts are trying a hybrid model for summer school and it will be interesting to see the results of those trials.  It is interesting that Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers is, at least at this point, leaving the decision on whether to open in a traditional sense up to local school districts.  Wisconsin and Minnesota have taken different approaches to dealing with a variety of issues related to COVID-19 and this may be another instance of that.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Catching Everyone Up.  It has been awhile and there hasn't been a lot to report up until the last week.  Like every other segment of society, it took the Legislature awhile to get its institutional feet underneath it and things are now moving quickly toward next week's constitutionally-mandated adjournment on Monday, May 18, at midnight.  The budget news from earlier this week (more on that later) makes it virtually impossible to see any additional financial investment coming from the state this year with the revenue situation for the next biennium also looking extremely bleak.

On the education front, it appears the House will be moving a very limited amount of revenue around from several budget areas that show a surplus to other areas that only received one-time revenue last year.  This is a miniscule amount of revenue.  The Senate has yet to unveil any spending bill and if there is any spending from that body, it will likely mirror the House in terms of amount.  Even if the economy hadn't fallen as markedly as it has, it was unlikely that there would have been a significant increase in the amount of revenue going out to school districts for next year.  There was hope that the increase in school safety revenue enacted last year could have been extended for another year, but beyond that, there wasn't a lot of buzz surrounding increased funding for K-12.  The House was looking more at early childhood education and the Senate was zeroing in on tax cuts.  While that didn't preclude additional dollars going to K-12, the final pre-pandemic legislation (at least from my vantage) was probably not going to include a significant investment in that area of the budget.

Both the House and Senate are working on policy bills right now.  The House has constructed its omnibus policy bill and the Senate has been hearing individual bills that may be incorporated into an omnibus bill.  What is more likely happening is now that the House has assembled its bill, the Senate may look at the bills it has heard and informally pre-conferee a bill with the House and fashion a final agreement to send back to the House that would include measures that both bodies have agreed upon.  It's not a perfect way of doing business, but I have found the process to be more transparent than I thought possible as the process has morphed from in-person to online.  Below is a link to the House omnibus education policy bill.  It is hoped that agreement on final policy bills can be reached by the end of this weekend and all next week can be used on the floors of the House and Senate to pass the measures.

HF 163 -- Author's Delete-All (There were amendments added to the bill at Wednesday's hearings, but there isn't a document available yet that shows those changes.)

For those of you who don't know what a delete-all is, it is an amendment that strikes the previous language from the bill and inserts an all-new version of the legislation.  Think of the bill number as a vehicle that picks up passengers along its journey through the legislative process.  Sometimes, the original language is retained and individual amendments are added as the bill moves along.  But when a wide range of new proposals are being added to the bill, the cleanest and most efficient way to incorporate these new initiatives is to start over and insert one comprehensive amendment that addresses everything the bill's author--and also that preferences of other legislators--wants to have in the bill going forward.  There may still be language added or subtracted from the bill through the amendment process (as happened in the House Committee on Wednesday), but the bill generally expresses the direction of the committee members that are in the majority. 

As is often the case, this isn't the way the process is described in most civics books, but even in years less confusing than this one has been the process usually unfolds in this manner.  It's a stay-tuned week.  Deb Griffiths has done a great job with her weekly updates describing how things are moving (or not moving) along, so if you haven't subscribed, do so.

State Economic Woes.  We are seeing an economic free fall nationally and no state or locality will be immune to the ripple effects of the slowdown caused by the pandemic and subsequent decisions to slow its spread.  Minnesota's situation mirrors the situation throughout the country. The state went from a projected surplus to end this biennium of about $1.5 billion to a projected deficit of $2.4 billion.  Almost all of the turnaround in the budget forecast comes from a steep drop in the amount of revenue collected by the state through the income and sales taxes.  The losses from are projected to be much lower collections of the income and sales taxes varies by about $300 million with the income tax loss being higher.  Given the fact that income tax plays a much heavier role in Minnesota's revenue collection system, I was somewhat surprised that the gap wasn't greater, but seeing the lines outside of Home Depot, it's obvious that while people are buying less, they are still buying things.  Here is a link to the MMB report.  I don't know if we'll get a clear picture anytime soon, but the June budget forecast should provide a more concise description of what has happened and what likely will happen revenue-wise going forward.

MMB May State Revenue Update

Sad News to Report.  I received sad news last week when I was told former Prior Lake-Savage Superintendent and SEE Executive Board Member Sue Ann Gruver passed away after a long battle with cancer.  Sue Ann was a true educational leader who was also an ardent supporter of educational equity.  Her list of accomplishments as a lifelong educator is extremely impressive and her influence will be felt in the many lives she has touched for years and years.  I know I speak for the entire SEE membership when I express my deepest condolences to the Gruver family.  I cannot say enough how much Sue Ann meant to all of us in the organization.

Monday, April 13, 2020

State Starting to Feel Economic Downturn.  The House Ways and Means Committee heard from the Commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget Myron Frans and State Economist Dr. Laura Kalambokidis gave an update of Minnesota's fiscal situation as the state begins to experience the economic ripple effects resulting from society-wide adjustments to the COVID-19 virus.  Economic activity in Minnesota began to slow as businesses shut down and the shelter-in-place orders were issued by Executive Order.  Revenue collection from three of Minnesota's primary taxes--individual income, corporate income, and sales--were all down.  The corporate franchise tax was up and the net effect of these dynamics is a drop in $103 million off the state's bottom line.  As outlined in the Minnesota Management and Budget Revenue and Economic Update document released last Friday and linked below,  IHS Markit--the firm that provides macroeconomic projections for Minnesota's budget forecasts--predicts a 5.4% decrease in national gross domestic product for 2020 and with Minnesota's economic performance tied very closely to national measures, we can expect the $1.5 billion forecasted budget surplus (much of which has been spent on COVID-19 related interventions and supports) to dwindle dramatically with a deficit looming as the Legislature convenes in 2021.  IHS Markit projects that the national gross domestic product will increase by more than 6% in 2021, but that will not make up for the revenue lost during the downturn.  This all bears watching and the IHS Markit projection is based on a relatively optimistic "V" recovery (rapid slide followed by rapid recovery, hence the V-shape) to which they assign a 45% level of probability.  IHS-Markit assigns a 35% probability to a more pessimistic recovery that would stretch into 2021.  It is difficult to tell how consumers will react even when the shelter-at-home restrictions are lifted, which makes projecting revenue numbers extremely difficult.  In another item, the federal stimulus package (considered modest in IHS-Markit's view) is factored into their economic performance numbers.

While the committee absorbed the troubling economic news, a larger portion of the committee process was dedicated to trying to map where the Legislature and the Governor can, and perhaps will, go from this point forward.  We are closing in on the end of the regular session and there is concern about how a precipitous downturn in revenue collection will be addressed during the interim.  The Governor could call a special session, but he also has the ability to reduce state expenditures in a variety of spending areas and that power has been used in previous times of economic trouble.  While the budget reserve sits at $2.4 billion, keeping that in place until the absolute last minute will be crucial and one legislator urged the administration to use unallotment powers before exhausting the budget reserve.

There will be difficult discussions over the coming months and today offered what will be the first taste of what lies ahead.

Link:  Minnesota Management and Budget Revenue and Economic Update

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Breakthrough on Insulin Availability Bill.  In a positive sign that the Legislature is making progress on key issues that were high priorities entering the 2020 legislative session, the conference committee on the insulin availability bill came to agreement yesterday and it is expected that the entire Legislature will vote on the measure when it convenes again next Tuesday.  There were several bills the Legislature deemed necessary to pass this year and the insulin availability bill ranked high on that list, in the eyes of many second only to the bonding bill.  The reaction to COVID-19 has dramatically changed how the Legislature is conducting business and the fact that agreement was reached under these circumstances is clearly a positive sign that necessary items can--and likely will--be addressed as the Legislature continues its work.  

The Legislature must adjourn on Monday, May 19, and it will likely want to pass a bonding bill before it adjourns.  In addition, it will want to put its stamp on policies that have been covered by Governor Walz' Executive Orders.  Both the House and Senate have been working on sets of proposals dealing with education.  As I reported on Tuesday, the House held a remote hearing on its proposal that day and the Senate has also been working on a parallel set of initiatives.  The Senate has been dealing with all COVID-19-related discussions in a working group setting where individual committee chairs are brought into that process to cover issues related to their committees' jurisdiction.  The task force has yet to cover E-12 education issues, but I anticipate that will happen shortly.

Here is a link to the story on the agreement on insulin availability:  House, Senate expected to vote next week on insulin agreement

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

House Education Funding Division Back in Action.  The House Education Funding Division held its first Zoom meeting today to discuss a funding bill that is taking shape in the House.  While Governor Walz has issued Executive Orders that are governing the funding and delivery of pre-K through 12 grade education, some questions remain and the House bill discussed today--HF 4415 (DE10 Amendment)--aims to answer a number of those questions and address some crucial funding issues.  The bill's chief author, Representative Jim Davnie, outlined these items as the primary goals of the bill:

  • Hold districts financially harmless to the extent possible.
  • Code employees in the category in which they were originally hired.
  • Allow greater flexibility for districts to transfer within district funds.
  • Codify the provisions allowing the waiving of achievement testing that were enacted as part of the recent Federal stimulus package.
  • Allow high school seniors to graduate on time.
  • Adjust deadlines for licensure renewal.
  • Allow student teachers who have nearly completed their practicum to gain full credit for their experience.
One item that is in the bill that differs from items on which there is clear guidance is the House bill would require districts to pay their hourly employees for scheduled hours that have been reduced due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.  The section relating to this issue is found in Section 1, Subdivision 2, on page one and runs on to page two.  Many school districts are following this to the extent possible, but given the likely fiscal challenges that districts will be facing over the next few years, the desire to save dollars where one can is present.  Guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education allows for laying off hourly employees whose employment is not attached to a specific funding stream and the House would like to stem that.  A number of hourly employees and paraprofessionals testified in favor of the House legislation.  MASE Executive Director Gary Amoroso testified on behalf of the management end of the school equation (SEE is included in that set of groups).  It's a very difficult issue.  Everyone understands the value of the hourly employees and they have clearly stepped up as schools have had to convert to distance learning and would like to be in a position to see them made whole, but the looming financial challenges that school districts will be facing may make that difficult.  Hence, the tension.

Representative Ron Kresha asked the question that everyone must ponder as we work through the crisis is (and I paraphrase) "What decisions will need to be made when we are staring at a considerable budget deficit next biennium?"  Minnesota's state budget forecast--like budget forecast everywhere--have gone straight South since the pandemic and the short- and medium-term economic outlooks are troubling.  All indications are that there will be a considerable budget deficit when the Legislature convenes in 2021 and if we turn back the clock a decade, we can all remember the difficulties (with a state shutdown mixed in) in trying to put together state budgets during that stretch.  Stay tuned.  The immediate task is to protect revenues for the remainder of this biennium before we even think about that rocky road.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Latest.  I neglected to include Governor Walz' Executive Order relating to education in my last entry, so here it is:  Executive Order 20-19.  This order extends the distance learning directive until May 1, 2020.  Distance learning officially began today and I am certain many of you are experiencing "first day of school" issues.  These are trying times, but I know that school officials from top-to-bottom are up to meeting the challenges associated with this unprecedented pandemic.

The Legislature was slated to return to work on April 14, but given the Presidents new guidelines on social distancing that stretch to April 30, full resumption of legislative operations on April 14 becomes less likely.  There has been talk of somehow trying to hold committee meetings online, but incorporating comprehensive public input in such a system would be challenging.  In terms of timeline, again it's important to note that the regular legislative session must adjourn on Monday, May 18.