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.

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