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.

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