Monday, March 31, 2008

We're Going to Get a Great Education Bill! April Fool's!!!!!!!! I couldn't resist. Actually, we may get some money out of the session, but it probably won't be too much.

The Senate unveiled its education funding bill last Thursday morning. The bill provides approximately $30 million in new per pupil revenue for school districts through the elimination of the permanent school funding subtraction, making that revenue new money. The ironic thing is that the Senate partially pays for that by sending the remaining QComp dollars back to the general fund (similar, but not the same, to what the House did). The Senate provision is approximately $30/PU or $36/ADM. The House simply spreads the QComp dollars as part of their one-time revenue enhancement of $51/PU. The Senate basically takes it one more step with pretty much the same (albeit) smaller result. The advantage in the Senate bill is that the permanent school fund change is not a one-time event and, if gaining final approval by the Legislature and garnering the Governor's signature, would provide on-going revenue for school districts. But initially, it would simply be somewhat of a "swap," with QComp money being used to fund a portion of the Senate plan.

Elsewhere in the Senate on Thursday, the portion of the Education Policy bill accompanying the Education Funding bill was pared back dramatically with a strike-everything amendment. This move was expected, but what was a bit disconcerting is that a number of provisions that were perceived, at least by the lobbying community, to have little or no controversy associated with them were removed from the bill. One of the removed provisions was that of eliminating that nasty little statement on a referendum question where the same per pupil amount is being renewed that insinuates that there will be a tax increase by voting for the question. That language will be re-inserted in the bill in the Senate Tax Committee tomorrow morning.

End Game Starting to Take Shape. All of the funding bills are going to be rolled into one mega-giant-enormous-colossal-humongous-behemothic-jumbo-mammoth-Brobdingnagian-elephantine- mother of all mothers omnibus "everything but the drain plug for the kitchen sink" budget correction bill. The bill will contain both budget cuts and a few budget increases and reserve fund adjustments to balance the $935 million revenue shortfall facing the state for the remainder of the biennium.

This obviously sets up a real showdown, as it will likely elicit a gubernatorial veto. What happens after an initial veto (and I admit I am assuming a veto and a failed override attempt, and you know the old saying about assuming--call me if you don't) is anyone's guess, but the Legislature will likely have a number of vehicle bills at its disposal that it could load up with various provisions and send to the Governor in smaller bits. Whether any of these efforts would be successful is likely dependent on the ability of the Governor and the Legislature to be able to find some level of agreement and that is hardly a slam-dunk at this juncture.

In the end--and this would be a tragic end--no one may get anything and the Governor may be left to solve the budget problem by himself through the use of the various budget reserves and unallotments of existing appropriations (which can only be employed after the budget reserves are emptied). This is the exact opposite of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss' "best of all possible worlds." While not being the worst of all possible worlds, I think one could see the worst of all possible worlds from the world that would result from the Legislature dropping everything into the Governor's lap. Here' hoping cooler and contemplative heads will prevail as the Legislative Session moves into its next phase.

Hope to See Some of You on Thursday. It's MASA spring conference time and I hope to haunt the hallways at the Bloomington Sheraton to see as many of you attending the conference as I can. It's always good to see membership in a more relaxed setting and it's always a relief to get out of the Capitol this time of year. If I don't see you, have a great conference.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I Love a Parade (Of Amendments). It's that time of year. The education bills--both funding and policy--are making their way to the floor, but to get there, they have to make those final stops and at each and every one of those stops, a veritable plethora (not just a plethora, but a veritable plethora) of amendments is waiting, just hoping to be attached to the bill. Some of the amendments are things that were mistakenly left out of the bill by an earlier committee. Some of the items are instances of compromise language where various sides of an issue have worked together to come up with something more palatable to all parties. Some are bills that did not "make the cut." And, last but not least, some are just things that are coming out of left field.

The House K-12 Funding Division met yesterday (Tuesday, and I would have posted this yesterday, but the hammerheads at Comcast--Don't get me started. Don't even get me started.--couldn't get out to fix the broadband at Casa de Brad) and flew through their amendments in fairly short order. There are the usual amendments like (1) Change the compensatory formula and take money from Minneapolis and St. Paul, (2) Change the integration revenue formula and take money from Minneapolis and St. Paul, (3) Dream up new ways to take money from Minneapolis and St. Paul, and (4) Invade Minneapolis and St. Paul and divide up the resulting booty among the other 339 school districts (Okay, maybe the last one was a fever dream). All of these amendments were rejected.

There was a surprise, however, with NCLB. The House K-12 Funding Division, in an overwhelming vote, opted to withdraw Minnesota from NCLB. Whether this remains in the final legislation or is merely there as a lever to use in negotiations with the Governor is yet to be seen.

An amendment to allow school districts to start before Labor Day in 2010 and 2011 was successfully attached to the bill, which brings us to the next hearing at which the House K-12 Omnibus Funding Bill (HF 2475) was heard. Today, the House Education Finance and Economic Competitiveness Finance Division heard the bill and the Labor Day amendment was deleted. The other amendments pertaining to compensatory and integration revenue were also offered again and, as expected, were unsuccessful again.

The Senate E-12 Budget Division heard SF 3001 this morning. SF 3001 (Wiger) is the Senate omnibus education policy bill. Today's hearing was pretty much "The Day of the Living Dead Amendments," with zombified policy initiatives that simply refuse to die coming out of the woodwork. It was like the old "Thriller" video (a still photo from that work on the left) with worse dancing (and this dancing was of the verbal sort). The hearing convened at 8:30 AM, broke at noon, and re-convened at 6:00 PM. The omnibus policy bill will now be attached to the E-12 funding bill, which will be unveiled tomorrow at 8:30 AM. It will be interesting to see what the Senate has concocted in its effort to provide funding for schools in the year ahead.

One issue that continues to crop up is the discussion of revisions to the state school report card. There is one provision to this proposed tool that is causing--rightfully in my estimation--a considerable level of consternation. The new report card would contain, along with measurements of achievement, a survey that would record students' qualitative feelings about the school. I'm all for getting as much information as possible, but one wonders who such a survey could cause problems for schools. Let's say you have a teacher--a good teacher--with high expectations and who is a "tough" grader. How would sentiments toward such a teacher be expressed in a totally anonymous survey. Would such a reaction be fair? How could these reactions hurt a school? Would charter schools and post-secondary institutions use information like this against a school if they could? These types of questions need to be answered before something this "soft" can become part of the report card.

Let me know if you have questions in the coming days. Hopefully, my home internet will be up and working and I will be able to record the legislative comings-and-goings without breaking a stride.

Monday, March 24, 2008

We're Back! The spring break is over and the Legislature re-kicks it starting tomorrow. The big activity tomorrow will be the House K-12 Funding Division's work on their version of the K-12 funding bill. I described that bill a bit last week, but as a refresher, the two main provisions are: (1) $51 per pupil unit in one-time money and (2) the ability to transfer $51 per pupil unit from the total operating capital fund to the general fund for the coming school year only. Little, if any, of the Governor's proposal is part of the bill.

During tomorrow's mark-up, I imagine there will be efforts to insert some of the Governor's recommendations into the bill and it is my guess that none of them will make it. One thing to remember is that the Governor paid for his new initiatives with a change in the payment schedule for districts in statutory operating debt.

As many of you know, most school districts receive 90% of their state funding in the same fiscal year with the remaining 10% coming in the subsequent fiscal year. For districts with statutory operating debt, the percentages are 97% and 3% respectively. The Governor recommended that districts in statutory operating debt be treated like all other districts and have their payment schedule conform to the 90%/10% framework. This would save the state approximately $6.1 million, but would force the cash-strapped districts in statutory operating debt to borrow more heavily to meet their budget needs. In other words, it would be a sort of "Robin Hood in reverse," ala Dennis Moore (pictured at the right with the incomparable John Cleese portraying the knot-headed highwayman) at the end of the old Monty Python sketch. That shouldn't be allowed to happen.

I'm hoping that things don't drag out for too long, but one never knows in this business.

How Does It End? As we move into the high-stakes portion of the session, the question asked most often is: "How is this going to end?" There are a number of possible endings, but two are most likely.

The first was outlined by Lori Sturdevant from the Minneapolis StarTribune a couple of weeks ago in the Sunday Opinion section. In her article, Sturdevant talks about the Governor taking things into his own hands. I doubt very much that he would do that unless he was left without a choice, as the political consequences can be very extreme--and generally not in a good way.


The other most likely scenario is that of an agreement between the Governor and the Legislature that would resemble some of what the Governor proposed (without the sales tax cut, but with the foreign operating corporation loophole closure), but would rely more on the current budget and cash flow reserves to close the budget gap. The trick in reaching an accord such as this one will depend on whether either side sees it in their best interest (politically, of course) to settle.

Other possibilities exist. The Legislature could pass the Governor's budget (or most of it) and try to "hang" him with it. A small possibility exists that greater tax increases could be enacted, but that is unlikely in the midst of a recession. Or they simply could use all of the budget reserves and some of the individual program budget reserves that exist throughout state government to cash-flow the state until the next budget cycle.

Whatever direction they choose, I can assure you that there's going to be a much fun (but then again, I consider root canal surgery fun) before the Legislature adjourns, most likely in early May. May 19 is the constitutional end-date and because it is the last day of the biennium, no legislation can be passed on that day due to a constitutional prohibition to that end. I'll try to keep you in the loop as things take shape.

Another Interesting Publication. The College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota publishes "connect!" a magazine featuring discussion on education issues facing Minnesota and the nation. The latest issue features Stan Mack, Robbinsdale superintendent, on the cover and has an issue about the bitter referendum campaign in that community last November.

The latest issue of "connect!" can be found at this link:

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ending with a Flurry. It's Good Friday and we're two days into the legislature's spring break. I don't think anyone headed down to Daytona Beach or Cancun for break (the thought some of these people scantily-clad, surfing and downing jello shots is something right out of a Salvador Dali painting), but instead took a well-deserved deep breath in anticipation of the long home stretch to come when the Legislature rec0nvenes on Tuesday, March 25.

On Wednesday, the House K-12 Funding Division released the first draft of its omnibus funding bill for the 2008 session. It includes an additional $51/PU in basic one-time funding. It also includes the ability for a district to transfer $51/PU from the total operating capital to the general fund for the 2008-2009 school year only. Shown at the left is Representative Mindy Greiling, chair of the House K-12 Funding Division, outlining the contents of the bill at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. (There I was, taking pictures at a press conference, just like a member of the--gasp!--press! I felt just like Jimmy Olsen.)

Briefly stated, this is an emergency bill. We have heard testimony throughout the session from districts across the funding spectrum that the coming year is going to be extremely difficult in terms of meeting students' needs. And it hasn't mattered whether or not the district has passed a referendum or not. It is estimated that nearly 90% of districts will either be cutting programs or reducing fund balances (often both) as a result of the current funding crisis.

The $49 million needed to fund $51/PU in one-time money (I'll talk more about the perils--or perceived perils--of one-time money later) comes from three main sources: (1) unused alternative compensation revenue that would cancel back to the general fund if not awarded prior to the end of the fiscal year, (2) revenue from the state budget reserve, and (3) revenue that will result from the Governor's recommendation to cut another 4% of the agency budget for the Minnesota Department of Education.

One-time money is always a bit of a misnomer. If one wants to get really technical, any legislative appropriation is one-time money. There is never any guarantee that money will be appropriated again after its initial instance. We surely expect that once a level of funding has been reached that movement will only be forward from the established position, but there is precedent for both backward and sideways movement in regard to the overall education budget, alhtough it is rare.

Where the Legislature gets a bit testy regarding this is that they know that the education lobby will come in next year and insist that we won't have received new money until this $49 million has been replaced. The Legislature will argue that the 2008 appropriation--if this were to become law--wasn't put into the base and that dollar one going into education next year will mark an increase in education funding. This debate obviously doesn't reach the level of the discussion of the seating arrangement at the First Council of Nicea, but for some it is troubling. Maybe it's because I've been around so long, but I wish we could call a truce on this during the 2008 session. Schools are withering on the vine and really don't care if the financial nourishment is labelled water, agua, or Wasser. The education lobby and the Legislature can deal with the verbal gymnastics and tortured interpretations next session. Call me the uber-pragmatist, but there is a simple fact that is apparent to everyone who is paying attention that needs to be addressed and addressed now.

The one-time fund transfer was largely promoted by Representative Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport), who represents a number of SEE districts and who has a majority of the districts he represents either in statutory operating debt or right on its doorstep. Every year the education funding panels in both the House and Senate are inundated with requests from districts for the ability to move a surplus in one funding category into their general fund. This year was no different and in the hearing where a number of these proposed measures were being discussed, Representative Heidgerken mused something to the effect "Well, for one year, why don't we let everyone do it?" It won't be automatic. A district will only be able to transfer the $51 of capital money to the general fund after it passes a resolution stating that their capital needs are being met.

I suppose a district transfers at its own risk, to some extent. I think everyone realizes that buildings and equipment usually get the short end in the tussle for revenue as education is largely a "people" business with a much greater investment in labor than capital and that capital dollars are dear. But again, the circumstances facing districts are dire indeed and this proposal could be extremely helpful to a number of districts trying to limp it to the next funding year.

These provisions, along with others, will be amended to HF 2475, which will be the omnibus bill number.

A reporter asked me after the press conference whether or not I thought this had a "ghost" of a chance. Depends on which ghost. I wouldn't give Casper much of a chance, but I wouldn't put it past Beetlejuice.

Casper vs. Beetlejuice:
The Mission to See Which Apparition Can Beat the Legislature into Submission.

Current odds are sitting at 99-to-1 in favor of Beetlejuice. Although he's officially dead, Casper lacks a killer instinct.

An Ode to Mindy Greiling. Well, not an ode. I'm hardly Percy Bysshe Shelley, but I think that the entire education community owes a debt of thanks and respect to Representative Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), who, as chair of the House K-12 Funding Division has worked tirelessly and creatively to provide greater funding for schools this year. Further, Representative Greiling has been insistent that the measures that we take in the short term help line us up to think about the comprehensive funding reform. Next week, the House will introduce a bill that follows much of the discussion held this past summer in regard to the work performed by the PS Minnesota coalition. The price tag on this bill is going to be considerable and it certainly isn't going to happen this year.

Even if a commitment is made to comprehensive funding reform, it will probably take several bienniums before the funding to reach the goal of true funding adequacy can be reached. This effort will not be for the faint of heart, but it is an effort from which we cannot back down. It's not only the resources in the form of both time and money that we have invested that should make us want to move forward, but the fact that the Legislature is now taking this effort seriously and is willing to promote it that should serve to steel our nerve and redouble our efforts in this area.

So, thanks Mindy.

Next Week. The House K-12 Funding Division will be marking up (marking up is legislative-ese for amending for final committee approval) its bill on Tuesday. On Thursday, the Senate E-12 Budget Division will be unveiling the first draft of its 2008 omnibus education funding bill on Thursday morning. It will go through the bill that morning and then reconvene later in the afternoon to mark up the bill.

I will keep you posted of developments. In the meantime, keep stressing to your legislators the need for increased funding for the coming school year.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

One More Day. We're just a day away from the second committee deadline and a short spring holiday break. The education policy bills are moving through the appropriate committees and the House K-12 Funding Division will release its version of the omnibus K-12 funding bill tomorrow. What will be in it is anyone's guess at this point, but given the budget constraints, I don't foresee a big funding increase (unless, of course--and there is rumor of this--that the spending is accompanied by a significant income tax increase).

All was fairly quiet in both funding division hearings today, although there were some fireworks (more like sparklers) in the House K-12 Funding Division. Representative Frank Moe's (DFL-Bemidji) HF 3107. HF 3107 would repeal all referendum authority beginning in FY 2010 (the 2009-2010 school year). Under and amendment added during the hearing, districts would be able to employ board discretionary levy authority up to the 28% referendum cap. Brainerd Business Manager Steve Dickinson testified in favor of the bill along with Robbinsdale superintendent Stan Mack. Materials prepared by SEE showing the inherent unfairness of the referendum were included in the presentation as well.

Referendum authority is not going to be revoked and I don't think that was the true intent of this bill. We always have to remember that 90% of the school districts in the state currently have referenda in place. Statewide, the total amount of referendum revenue amounts to approximately $720 million and the average amount of referendum revenue per pupil is $760. As has been said repeatedly in the past year, when the referendum is paying for basics and not extras, there is something seriously wrong with the funding system. The discussion of the proper role of the referendum is at the heart of HF 3107 and it produced some very interesting discussion.

Following HF 3107 was discussion of HF 3108, a bill introduced by Representative John Benson (DFL-Minnetonka) that would provide a full inflationary adjustment in the referendum allowance for districts above the cap. Currently, all districts below the cap can build a full annual adjustment into their referendum question. Districts above the cap can collect an additional one-quarter of the increase in the formula allowance (in other words, a 3% increase in the basic formula would net a 0.75% adjustment for a "grandfathered" district). While this is much better than the usual bill introduced by the "grandfathered" districts to completely eliminate the cap, the proposal is not without its problems.

I wasn't intending to testify, but a statement made during the bill's presentation brought me to the witness stand (and I told the whole truth and nothing but the truth and a lame joke). Whenever the districts above the cap testify about the referendum, they never avoid mentioning that districts receiving sparsity are not bound by a referendum cap. Granted, some of the smallest districts in the state, particularly Kittson County Central, have huge referenda. But the average referendum per pupil for districts receiving sparsity is approximately $530. The state average is $760 per pupil and the average for the "grandfathered" districts is over $1,600 per pupil. This makes the fact that districts receiving sparsity not being bound by a cap a distinction without a difference and I had to point that out for the sake of clarity.

Perhaps the highlight of the day (forget day, try session) was testimony given by a representative of the Minnesota Family Council in regard to HF 3731 (Walker), which pertains to teaching of comprehensive sex education. Needless to say, the concept of comprehensive sex education goes well beyond what the more conservative Minnesota Family Council would prefer (and hey, that's fine). What made the testimony entertaining was the description of some of the items taught in comprehensive sex education by a rather straight-laced woman. In a recent interview, Will Ferrell described humor as always present when there is a juxtaposition of contradictory items and that's what this was. To hear a well-dressed, well-spoken woman channeling the late Lenny Bruce (okay, I'm going more than a bit overboard) made my eyes as big as pie plates.

So, it's one more day and a deep breath. I'll report on the details of the bills coming out of the education funding divisions.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Don't Blog for a Day (Shame on Me). Don't blog for a week. I think I need an oil tanker to carry that much "shame on me." Seriously, there was a ton going on last week that I didn't take the time to report and I apologize for that. I'm lucky I'm Scandinavian and can haul around more shame than a 20-Mule Team (as in 20-Mule Team Borax).

Last week marked the lead-up to the first policy committee deadline. Like a Napoleonic army slogging toward Moscow, the policy committees in both the House and Senate worked to get as many bills as possible heard before Friday, March 14. Committees worked into the evening and most every legislator who requested a hearing received one.

An interesting observation for someone who has spent considerable time working around the Legislature is the changing role of the committee chair. Back in the day (pull up a seat next to the cracker barrel and we can set to whittlin'), committee chairs served as filters for which bills the committee would hear. For about the past dozen years, most anyone requesting a hearing receives one, but prior to that, the most important meeting a lobbyist would have involving his client was a meeting with the applicable committee chair to convince the chair that the bill merited attention at the committee level. Often, committee chairs had an idea of where they wanted to committee to go in terms of policy and bills that were not in the direction of the committee chair's intentions simply weren't heard. Authors often converted unheard bills into amendments for later in the session, but committee time was generally devoted toward going deeper into a limited number of concepts as opposed to covering the entire spectrum of educational thought. Both approaches have their strengths, but hearing almost every bill certainly does take a lot of time and takes a toll on the legislative energy level.

Two committees that logged a lot of seat time were the House and Senate Education Policy Committees. On Wednesday, March 12, the Senate Education Committee went approximately 7-and-a-half hours straight (save for a 10 minute break) to go over a multitude of bills, including the Senate Education Policy omnibus bill. On the left, Senate Education Policy Committee Chair Chuck Wiger (furthest to the right) confers with Senator Sandy Rummel as Senator LeRoy Stumpf looks on during the marathon committee meeting. Some of the items in the Senate omnibus education policy bill include revisions to the state report card, changes to the current referendum ballot question that make it clear that a district seeking to simply renew a levy at the previously approved amount is not seeking a tax increase, and the Minnesota's Promise framework developed by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

The House Education Committee also held a series of hearings (none of which lasted 7-and-a-half hours) to both cover remaining bills and unveil their omnibus education policy bill. House bill provisions include proposed changes to the report card similar to those in the Senate bill, correction of the conflict-of-interest interpretation prohibiting spouses of public school employees from serving on a school board, and statewide technology standards.

Links to the current omnibus policy bill engrossments (versions):

HF 3316:

SF 3001:

It Wasn't Just the Policy Committees.
Both the House and Senate education funding committees met as well, with the House K-12 Funding Committee putting in a bit of overtime on Friday to hear a slate of bills. Included among those bills was HF 3733 (S. Peterson), a bill that clarifies and provides oversight to the state alternative compensation program. Shown providing testimony for Representative Peterson's bill in the picture at the right was Chisago Lakes teacher Teri Hansen (on the left). One of the frustrations with the state alternative compensation system is the relative inconsistency supposedly shown in the acceptance of proposals in the alternative compensation system. HF 3733 would seek to bring greater consistency by creating a board to review successful and unsuccessful proposals on a periodic basis in an attempt to promote greater commonality among bargaining units seeking entrance into the program.

The deadline for the funding bills is Friday, March 28, which will make next week an extremely busy one indeed.

Regional Meetings Wrapped Up. Our string of spring regional meetings finished on Friday, March 14, with a meeting in Isanti. Like the rest of the regional meetings, it was spirited and provided quite a bit of insight as to where the organization wants to head as we continue through the legislative session. I hope membership enjoys the regional meetings as much as I do. I have always felt that the free-flowing discussion at the regional meetings gives people a chance to gain a better understanding of what the legislature is trying to do and have the opportunity to ask how many of these proposals affect their own districts.

Another aspect of the regional meetings that is so valuable is the opportunity to talk about issues that affect education but are not before the legislature. One issue we talked about in detail at the Isanti regional meeting was that of home foreclosures and how falling home values may not be something that simply turns around quickly. A number of counties with heavy representation in SEE rank among the highest in terms of foreclosure statistics as a percentage of homes. Isanti, Sherburne, Mille Lacs, and Kanabec counties lead the state with percentages above 2.0%. Wright, Chisago, Pine, and LeSeuer counties all have foreclosure rates between 1.5% and 2.0%.

The foreclosure issue--and it needs to be stressed that this is not all due to sub-prime mortgages--is causing a lot of stress in exurban counties. How it came to this is anyone's guess, but it is going to have an effect, both in financial and attitudinal terms in the years ahead.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One Day on the Road (But I Finally Made it Home Last Night). Apologies to Dave Dudley for my paraphrasing of his country classic, but I logged a few miles yesterday in my 18 divided by 4.5 wheeler. The morning began in Dassel for the fourth of our fifth regional meetings. As per usual, it was held at Hojies Grill and Smoke House on the west edge of beautiful downtown Dassel. In a shameless commercial plug (no payold here, boy I wish!), I want to give Hojies the Brad Lundell (Oops. Talking about myself in the third person. Me and Bo Jackson.) Seal of Culinary Excellence. Nice little backroom for a meeting and one great and reasonably-priced menu. If you're up for a little drive west on Highway 12, check it out.

Meanwhile, back to the less tasty items being cooked up in St. Paul. The discussion in Dassel really keyed into a couple of things that are troubling schools, foremost, a brewing financial crisis. As is the case throughout the state, even many of the districts that passed referendum levies last fall are poised to either make cuts or reduce their unreserved fund balance for the coming year. Further, the fact that special education is being prorated (something we knew was going to happen) and the fact that going to current year funding has made it difficult to deal with "dirty" special education data (something that we might have guessed, but did not know--in Donald Rumsfeld's terminology an "unknowable unknowable"), many school districts are faced with an even more difficult situation.

I wish I could confidently predict that there will be at least some new revenue for school districts in the year ahead, but it is going to be difficult to realize that goal without some luck and outside-of-the-box thinking. There is no question, however, that schools throughout the state are in need of emergency assistance.
Back to St. Paul. I managed to get back to St. Paul to monitor the Senate Education Committee hearing, which featured several very interesting bills. One bill that received a lot of discussion and scrutiny is Senator Chuck Wiger's (DFL-North St. Paul) SF 3574, a bill that would increase the compulsory attendance age (in other words, the age at which a student can drop out) from 16 to 18. This subject has been whacked about over the past two decades and both sides have legitimate arguments in why the age should stay at 16 or be raised to 18. I can assure that every one of those arguments received airing on Monday.
Other bills that were discussed included one calling for the creation of an office of early childhood education (SF 3153--Clark); continuing discussion of proposed changes to the school report card (SF 2882--Rummel); and my favorite, SF 3137 (Saltzman), that would limit the Minnesota Department of Education's ability to make rules. It appears that a compromise will be reached on the latter and MDE's ability will not be totally curbed. I will keep you posted as it moves forward.
On to Faribault. My day ended at the Faribault School Board meeting. Dr. Bob Stepaniak is currently serving as the interim superintendent in Faribault and it was great to see him again. It was also great to meet the new members of the Faribault School Board. I can't say it enough: This is the favorite part of my job! The discussion was lively (more lively than my presentation by far) and the questions were great! Things are busy at the Legislature right now, so it's more difficult for me to get away, but don't hesitate to ask if you'd like me to come out to your district. Given the state of affairs in St. Paul, I may welcome the opportunity to get out of town!
Groovy Tuesday. Don't you mean "Ruby Tuesday." That would be more accurate, but if I'd have written that, I wouldn't have been able to tell you about the time my two brothers got in a shouting-turned-to-shoving match regarding the title of that Rolling Stones' hit. Well, enough of that.
There was a full slate of hearings in the education-related committees today, with meetings of the House Full Education Committee, the Senate E-12 Budget Division, and the House K-12 Funding Division. The House Education Committee perused the MDE technical bill (HF 3316--Mariani) along with HF 2955 (Simon) that tightens up school background checks and HF 3467 (Norton) that modifies the process by which a teacher may take a leave of absence to teach in a charter school.
The Senate E-12 Budget Divsion discussed bills related to facilities. Senator Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont) has introduced SF 2834, which would raise the lease levy from $100 per pupil unit to $150 per pupil unit. In the picture at the right, Senator Rosen is joined by (from the left) our old friend Nordy Nelson, currently superintendent in St. James; Dr. Tom Melcher, who needs no introduction; and Elk River Superintendent Mark Bezek. SF 2834 would be of great assistance to a number of SEE districts that are growing and may be having difficulty passing bond levies. The lease levy has not been increased in a number of years and, as is the case with a number of education-related expenditures, the price of rental property has risen dramatically.

The House K-12 Funding Division handled HF 3329 (Brynaert), which establishes a new school report card, and HF 3593 (Marquart), which revises how reciprocity agreements between school districts in adjoining states are handled. At left, House Education Chair Representative Carlos Mariani and Representative Marsha Swails, who represents the South Washington County School District, listen attentively to Representative Brynaert's presentation on HF 3329.

Dr. Keith Lester and the Brooklyn Center School District had their bill--HF 3423/SF 3204--heard in both the House and Senate funding divisions. As is well known, Brooklyn Center has had a tremendous amount of difficulty avoiding cuts for the past few years, as it has become hard for them to add to their modest referendum of just over $300 per pupil.

And, as is the case WAY too much these days, I managed to stay on the Capitol grounds until long after dark (which is getting more difficult with the early onset of Daylight Savings Time). I halfway expect to run into Bela Lugosi in the Capitol hallways talking about the "legislators of the night." The Senate Transportation Committee heard three bills related to student transportation this evening, all authored by Senator Rick Olseen (DFL-Harris), shown at right testifying with Captain Ken Urquhart. The bills were:

  • SF 3535--establishing an office of school bus safety.

  • SF 2988--changing training for drivers of Type III vehicles.

  • SF 3561--increasing the allowable weight for a Type A bus.
Each of these bills was recommended to pass, with some likely to be folded into either the omnibus E-12 funding bill or transportation omnibus policy and funding bill. The Type III legislation, which currently exempts teachers and coaches from the stiffened requirements, is of continuing interest to school districts throughout the state. I will keep you posted on its progress.
Interesting Event on the Horizon. I don't subscribe to a large portion of the policy medicine prescribed by the Center for the American Experiment, but I will admit they have some very interesting programs. An upcoming program will be of particular interest to educators, as Dr. Chester "Checker" Finn, Jr., will be in Minneapolis to deliver an address and promote his new book at a lunch on Thursday, March 27. Finn has been a prominent voice in the education reform debate for more than the past quarter century. Agree with him or not, he has been very influential and, having seen him speak before, I can attest that he gives a great presentation.

Check out the link below for further details. Cost is $30 for non-members.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Backed Up End o' the Week. Sorry I didn't get entries onto the blog for the last Thursday and Friday. It was extremely hectic with night meetings and a regional meeting wedged in on Friday. Along with that, all sorts of shenanigans were breaking for me on Friday afternoon, all of which made it nigh on impossible for me to get any of the late-breaking events to you.

Thursday was an extremely action-packed day, with a very interesting hearing taking place on Thursday morning in the House Education Committee. I have written briefly in a past edition about HF 3596 (Faust)/SF 3317 (Saltzman). This bill would put an extremely high burden-of-proof on the Minnesota Department of Education in the areas of rule-making and rule enforcement.

In fact, it is MDE's position that they would be prohibited from providing any input or interpretation on a piece of legislation if this were to become law. The bill is drafted very tightly and I suppose an argument could be made that in the strictest sense, MDE's abilities to provide guidance to districts would be greatly curtailed, but it is not the intent of this bill to prevent MDE from doing its job. Rather, the bill's intent is to limit MDE to implementation of legislative directives and to not "free lance" into areas where the Legislature has been silent.

Another misconception is that the furor from which this bill springs is the recently promulgated special education rules that are currently before the Administrative Law Judge. Again, this is totally untrue. Granted, there is frustration with those rules (and the fact that MDE appears to be enforcing them before they have taken effect). Many of these rules exceed federal rule and statute and should have been subject to the task force review authorized by the Legislature last session. Efforts to have them included in that process were gruffly rebuffed by MDE, causing no small amount of irritation.

No one is entirely blameless here. The Legislature should write tighter laws and maintain a stronger presence when rules are necessary. Hopefully, this bill will create a better balance between the legislative and executive branches and policy will flow more smoothly into the enforcement system.

This bill is the Minnesota Administrators of Special Education's number one legislative priority during the 2008 session. Shown at the right (from left to right) are Robbinsdale Program Director Daryl Miller (a fellow graduate of the "Harvard of the Midwest"--that's Augsburg College for those of you keeping track at home--who was an All-American wrestler during his time there) and Representative Tim Faust (DFL-Mora) comparing notes after the bill was heard in the House last Thursday.

SF 3317 (Saltzman) will be heard on Monday evening in the Senate Education Policy Committee.

HF 3596/SF 3317 Link:

Governor's Budget Released. I don't know if the Governor reads my blog (one never knows, of course), but when I looked at his budget shortfall solution, I couldn't help but think that he went with my suggestion to employ Felix the Cat's Magic Bag of Tricks in the efforts to close the budget gap.

I don't want to cast "aspargus" (as one malapropping legislator used to utter), but the Governor's proposal makes Felix's Magic Bag (carried by Felix at left) look like a wallet. The Governor is using a lot of one-time money, making some cuts, and, get this, proposing the sales tax be lowered by 1/8 of a cent to: (1) offset a proposed increase in the corporate tax for foreign operating corporations, and (2) as an economic stimulus.

The proposed sales tax cut is not that far-fetched in one respect; that being offsetting the expected the 3/8 cent sales tax increase that would take part of the "Outdoors and Arts" amendment passes this fall and the recently-enacted increase in the gas tax. That makes sense at a level. Although it's been awhile since I cracked anything resembling an econometrics text and performed any multiple regression analysis on economic behavior (and I actually did both of those things once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away), a 1/8 cent cut in the sales tax would have little, if any, effect on economic activity, especially given the other pressures at work in the economy.

In the realm of education, there are no cuts proposed and a few isolated proposed programmatic increases. These increases for the Fiscal Year 2009 are for the following programs:
  • $2.7 million for increased teacher training delivered through the Math and Science Institute.
  • $1.0 million for the Minnesota Virtual Education Program.
  • $400,000 for the Principals' Leadership Institute.
  • $250,000 for Minnesota Teach, a program that provides an alternative pathway to teaching for mid-career professionals.
  • $250,000 for the UTeach Program at either the University of Minnesota or MnSCU to recruit math and science teachers.
  • $158,000 for declining pupil aid for the Rushford-Peterson school district.
Although there is nothing earth-shattering here, each of these programs would provide some assistance to Minnesota's education system in several focused ways. However, none of them will do anything to arrest the level of program cuts taking place at school districts throughout the state.

Minneapolis Star Tribune Story on Governor's Supplemental Budget:

Governor's Office Link to Materials:

Improved Ability to Respond is Forthcoming. I have been told that membership would like to respond to some of my blog items without posting a comment. I will be talking with Shell Perrington--webmaster extraordinaire with whom the organization works--about putting an e-mail link on the site so that all of you can submit your bouquets and brickbats. I look forward to improving this aspect of the blog because I really enjoy hearing from each and every one of you.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Heavy Laden Hump Day. Another busy day with our metro regional meeting and a slate of hearings at the Capitol. There was good turnout at our metro regional meeting, as about 20 folks battled the sloppy rush hour weather to join in spirited discussion of the legislative session thus far and plot strategy for the remainder of the session.

The main bill of interest is HF 2798 (Morgan) /SF 2815 (Saxhaug). That bill, as discussed on the blog before, would increase the basic formula amount by an additional 2% for the 2008-2009 school year and eliminate the special education formula funding gap. That bill will be heard tomorrow in the House K-12 Funding Division.

The House K-12 Funding Division took testimony from 8 Minnesota school districts this afternoon and each of these districts made a strong case regarding the need for additional revenue for the coming school year. Three SEE member districts were among the districts that testified. Pictured on the right is Amy Gitchell, a parent from the Brainerd School District. Amy did a great job describing the magnitude of the cuts being made in Brainerd as a result of the unsuccessful levy campaign last fall. Other SEE member districts included St. Cloud, which also had a levy fail last fall, and Stillwater, which was successful with their renewal question, but were unable to garner further revenue as two additional ballot questions failed. The message is clear: More revenue is needed for the next school year and hopefully, the Legislature can make that happen.

The Senate Education Policy Committee took up the aforementioned SF 2815 (Saxhaug) this afternoon. Besides increased funding, both HF 2978 and SF 2815 contain language that would eliminate the requirement that a referendum ballot read "Voting 'Yes' May Raise Your Taxes" when no additional revenue is being raised through a renewal election. Several SEE members have contacted me regarding this bill and while a conflict made it impossible for me to testify in person, I informed Senator Saxhaug of SEE's support for the bill and he mentioned that in his bill presentation.

Nice Work by Minnesota 2020. If you remember Matt Entenza's--Minnesota 2020 Founder and President--presentation at our November SEE meeting, you will recall his assertion that Minnesota 2020 would involve itself in the key issues facing Minnesota and work to provide strong evidence of the need for change. Minnesota 2020 has made good on that promise already in several issue areas and today launched a foray into the education funding debate with the release of "A Chilling Call to St. Paul: Minnesota Superintendents Speak Out About Minnesota's Failed Funding System." Gee, I wish the title had been more direct (Hey, where's the sarcasm emoticon on this thing!).

Seriously, great work by John Fitzgerald, a former newspaper reporter who is a fellow at Minnesota 2020.

Link to report:

There Will Be Blood (Well, Maybe not Blood Exactly). But there is going to be some wrangling tomorrow in the House Education Committee as HF 3596 (Faust) is heard. HF 3596 seeks to put the brakes on what is viewed as excessive, and unauthorized, rulemaking by the Minnesota Department of Education.

I don't think anyone contends that the Minnesota Department of Education shouldn't be able to exercise rule-making authority in many instances, but one of the things that appears to have been happening over the last decade or so is increasing "rule creep," as rules are sometimes developed without going through the formal rule-making process or that rules that do go through that process often go far beyond the intent of the Legislature.

Whether or not this bill becomes law, it is certainly part of a discussion that must take place. The Legislature may need to be more clear in its legislation when rules are required to place greater constraints on the subject matter that is to be covered and the scope of the rules. It should also make certain that when rules are needed, that the formal rule-making process be used.

It is the Legislature's constitutional duty to set policy and the Executive Branch's duty to implement the policies that result from the interplay between the Legislature and the Governor in the policy development process and are then approved by the Legislature and signed by the Governor. At the very least, this bill should bring attention to a troubling trend and foment discussion throughout the remainder of the Legislative Session.

Don't worry. I'll duck if furniture starts flying.
Me Oh My. How Time Does Fly. That's not only the title of the late John Hartford's greatest hits collection (I give it four stars out of four, five stars out of five, six stars. . . .I think you get the picture), that's the state of affairs these days at the Capitol as well. It was "go, go, go" from 8 AM until after 9 PM in the education world, as education committee hearings and other hearings at which issues of interest to the education community were heard.

The day began in the House Education Committee, where the main item of discussion was HF 3472 authored by Committee Chair Carlos Mariani. HF 3472 is the House companion to SF 3151 (Torres Ray), which was heard Monday in the Senate Education Policy Committee. As in the case of the Senate hearing, a strong case was made as to why more cohesive strategies may be needed to address the achievement gap in a more systematic manner. The bill does require each district to do planning on how to address the gap and that will certainly lead to more work by administrative staff, which is a tall order given the fact that the staff needed to provide the support may be on the chopping block for cuts or, in the case of many districts including a great number of SEE districts, does not exist.

At the same time, this bill dovetails nicely with the efforts of PS Minnesota and those calling for comprehensive funding reform. In order to create the wide base of support needed to generate true and lasting interest in investing more in the current education system, we absolutely must show how opportunity for and achievement of students will be improved. It is incumbent on our system itself to recognize where we can do better and how additional revenue will provide us with the chance to develop workable solutions to the challenges we face as we prepare students for the 21st century global economy (there's that phrase again).

Not all was sweetness and light in the discussion of this bill, however. Dr. Karen Effrem, lobbyist for EdWatch nee Maple River Coalition (pictured at right) voiced her concern with the bill. In her testimony, Dr. Effrem expressed skepticism that more planning would solve this problem and that the roots of the achievement gap lie with cultural changes and unsound educational practices that have eroded achievement levels for many students. I am not going to "dog" Dr. Effrem, who I have always found to be a poised, polite, and passionate proponent for EdWatch policies (Man, I love alliteration!), but it's not many times in the course of a career when one can hear a lament of no-fault divorce, the soundness of phonics, and derision of integrated mathematics all uttered in one breath (well, close to one breath). Seriously, while many of us don't necessarily agree with the sum of Dr. Effrem's points, as EdWatch's lobbyist, she does provide viewpoints that need to be considered as we move toward education reform.

Off to the Senate. The Senate E-12 Budget Division heard a number of fund transfer bills on Tuesday morning, including one for the Rocori school district. Rocori Superintendent Scott Staska (shown at left with SF 2397 author Senator Tarryl Clark) made the case that ISD #750 should be allowed to transfer revenue generated in their disabled access account to their undesignated general fund balance. There is always concern expressed regarding precedent when these bills are discussed, but Scott made a very strong case as to why Rocori should be allowed to do this. Funds are tight and every little bit (and $82,000 is hardly a little bit) helps as school districts attempt to steer through what appears to be a continuing atmosphere of crisis in terms of funding.

House K-12 Looks at Facilities. The House K-12 committee spent their hearing time discussing a number of bills dealing with facilities. Of these, two are of great interst. The first of these , HF 2980 (Benson), would make all districts in the state eligible for the alternative facilities program, increase the lease levy, and increase deferred maintenance revenue. Given the budget crunch (and the reluctance to increase property taxes), it is difficult to envision this
passing in 2008, but it does provide a start to a "to-do" list in terms of facilities for the comprehensive funding reform efforts. Representative Tim Faust's bill on facilities, yet to be introduced, adds to the HF 2980 template.

Link to HF 2980:

Into the Night. The House Education Committee reconvened at 6 PM and the main subject of discussion was the Task Force Report on where Minnesota's special education laws and rules exceed federal requirements. Discussion was polite, but the hearing room was filled with both parent advocates and special education providers. The process of determining the "whats," and as importantly the "whys," of instances where Minnesota exceeds federal guidelines is always a tense process and the nine members of the Task Force--along with Bureau of Mediation chief James Cunningham who facilitated the process--who slogged through seven meetings should be commended for their hard work.

It can be argued that the Task Force did not complete all of its work and a bill has been introduced--HF 3621 (Hilstrom)--to reconvene the Task Force. That bill will be heard Thursday morning in the House Education Committee and it will be interesting to see which tack the committee takes on this matter.

Diving into the Health Care Pool. The Education Minnesota mandatory health care insurance pool bill (HF 2747--Betzold) was heard last evening in the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. Being occupied in the House Education Committee, I was unable to attend that hearing, but did supply a letter to Committee Chair Linda Scheid outlining SEE's opposition to the mandatory nature of the legislation. In other words, as long as participation is mandatory, we're against it.

The bill was amended, passed, and re-referred to the Senate Committee on State and Local Government.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Flying Into Week 4. The fourth week of the 2008 Legislative Session is underway and this week is going to be pretty much action-packed. There weren't many hearings today, but I am here at the Capitol into the night covering the Senate Education Committee's hearing.

The Senate Education Committee has had an impressive slate of bills before it this afternoon and evening. The first bill heard in the committee was SF 3151 authored by Senator Patricia Torres Ray (DFL-Minneapolis). The goal of SF 3151 is to narrow the achievement gap that currently exists for all students, but particularly for subgroups of students from different racial and ethnic groups. A distinguished list of testifiers provided support to this effort. Pictured at the right are (from left to right) Senator Torres Ray, Rochester Superintendent Dr. Romain Dallemand and St. Paul Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen.

The achievement gap continues to be one of the most pressing issues before policymakers nationwide and Senator Torres Ray's bill provides aggressive solutions requiring both planning and execution on the part of Minnesota's school districts. Senator Torres Ray offered a "strike-everything" amendment (an amendment that dramatically revises the bill from the first word while maintaining the basic policy direction) in committee, making the language found on-line obsolete. I will have copies of the strike-everything available for discussion at the next round of regional meetings.

Minnesota's Promise Gets Senate Attention. After receiving a hearing in the House Education Policy Committee last week, Minnesota's Promise (SF 3250--Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake) received consideration in the Senate Education Policy Committee today. Two SEE member district superintendents provided testimony for the bill: Dr. Keith Ryskoski of Stillwater and Dr. Deb Henton of North Branch (shown at left preparing to testify).

Minnesota's Promise has provided a very valuable blueprint for the future of education policy in Minnesota and its proponents hope that action will be taken this year to get portions of the legislation enacted into law to guide the adoption of future education policy. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the efforts of the MASA and the University of Minnesota in the development of the Minnesota's Promise plan will be influential as the state moves forward in this policy area.

Full Day Tomorrow. It'll be morning, noon, and night tomorrow as the day will be packed with legislative action. Perhaps the most interesting hearing will be in the House Education Policy Committee tomorrow evening when the Task Force Report on the where Minnesota's special education statutes and rules exceed the federal government's will be discussed. I don't know if there will be verbal fireworks, but my guess is the atmosphere may get a bit tense.

Don't hesitate to call with questions. I can be reached at 612-220-7459.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Busy Week Done. Busier One Ahead. The third week of the 2008 Legislative Session proved to be a very busy one, as the first policy committee deadline looms just ahead on Friday, March 14. Add to that our round of SEE regional meetings and there'll be some hopping going on in the weeks ahead.

At the St. Cloud Regional meeting, a question was asked about whether there were any Labor Day start bills before the Legislature. It didn't take long to find out that answer. Representative Kathy Brynaert's (DFL-Mankato) HF 3262 was heard in the House Education Policy Committee on Friday afternoon and was recommended to pass as amended. Under the amended bill, school districts could start school on August 31 for the 2009-2010 school year and August 30 for the 2010-2011 school year. The bill passed the committee with little opposition (although resort interests and a representative of the State Fair testified against the bill), but will now head into choppier waters. The companion file--SF 2835 authored by Senator Ann Lynch (DFL-Rochester)--has yet to receive a hearing.

Another bill of interest heard in the House Education Policy Committee on Friday afternoon was Representative John Benson's (DFL-Minnetonka) HF 3181. HF 3181 is a bill sponsored by the Minnesota Association of School Business Officials (MASBO) and contains two very interesting provisions. Of these, the most important is the call for the Minnesota Department of Education to convene a task force to streamline the data reporting system and work to eliminate redundancies and confusion that exists in the current system. As we all know too well, the current reporting system resembles a reincarnation of The New Deal, with acronym after acronym lying on top of each other. Let's see, UFARS, STARS, MARSS, The CARS, Sylvia Plath's THE BELL JAR, and JACK PAAR. Okay, so I've gone over the top a bit, but I think you get the picture.

Highlights for the week ahead include a report from the Task Force that compared federal and state special education standards in Tuesday evening's House Education Policy Session, a presentation on statewide school fiscal woes in the House K-12 Funding Division on Wednesday (with testimony coming from several SEE districts as part of that hearing), a hearing for SF 2815--Senator Saxhaug's (DFL-Grand Rapids) bill to increase general education, special education, and modify the referendum ballot language--in the Senate Education Policy Committee, and a hearing in the House K-12 Funding Division on Thursday in which the companion bill to SF 2815--HF 2978 authored by Representative Will Morgan (DFL-Bursville)--will be heard.

Things will be flying for the next couple of weeks and I will keep you as up-to-date as I can, but if there are information gaps, but best place to stay in the loop is to head toward the Minnesota Legislature's homepage. There's a wealth of information there!


Speaking of Regional Meetings. Great crowd in St. Cloud on Friday and I'm looking forward to seeing good crowds at all of our stops during this swing. Please register if you haven't so that we will have a sufficient number of copies available for everyone at each stop.

Interesting Article. Phi Delta Kappan does great work, but I found this article from Michael Rebell, Executive Director for the Campaign for Educational Equity, especially interesting and timely, given our funding problems in Minnesota.


Rethinking Schools. Not an article, the name of a magazine. This is another publication I've come across that provides some very interesting articles. Published in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by Rethinking Schools Limited, the magazine gives some firsthand accounts of how vouchers have worked (or in the estimation of this group, largely haven't worked) under the Milwaukee program.


Adding to the Excitement. The Governor's supplemental budget will probably hit the Legislature this week as well and given the bad news of last week, it's probably not going to be chock full of overwhelming wonderfulness. At this point, all indications are that the Governor intends to "spare the classroom" with his cuts. The problem with any cut to education is that it somehow will find its way to the classroom, especially if the cut is made to an essential service somewhere else in education delivery system.

I will get the budget documents up as soon as they are available.

In the meantime, I've come up with the person who can solve the state's budget crisis. Well, he isn't exactly a person. And, come to think of it, he isn't exactly real. But my vote for budget wizard goes to Felix the Cat. Hey, the guy's got a magic bag! Who knows what he can do with a magic bag? I'm guessing there is at least a billion dollars in that magic bag and even if there isn't, Felix can get together with Poindexter and figure something out. Well, that's my plan anyway. And even if he can't help with the budget crisis, I'm sure Poindexter can help efforts related to STEM. Righty-Oh!

Felix and Poindexter pictures credit: Mohawk Media.