Thursday, January 08, 2009

Shared Service Initiative Gets Aired. The shared service initiative authored by Senator Terry Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) and supported by Governor Pawlenty (R-Minnesota) was heard in the Senate E-12 Budget/Policy Division this morning. The proposal received a mix of support and constructive criticism with a few comments questioning how it would actually work and what the net effect would be for school districts.

Much of the foundational work for this proposal was performed by the Minneapolis office of Deloitte and Touche and Steve Dahl from their office provided input on both the expected framework of the shared services initiative and some of the successes enjoyed by districts in other states--mainly Pennsylvania--where the program has been in place.

From the school community, most of the testimony was qualified support. MSBA provided some scenarios that could prove troublesome, but the point was made repeatedly that this bill is merely the template and that--seeing the bill hasn't been introduced--it's not even at the starting line yet.

My testimony echoed what I wrote on the blog yesterday. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach in theory, but the frustrating thing is that the Legislature's attitude toward shared services has been similar to the behavior of the tides over the past three decades. It seems when enrollment is declining or money is tight, everyone talks about sharing services. The minute either of those dynamics reverses, everything goes on the formula. There is certainly nothing wrong with the latter (or the former), but if the Legislature and Governor want to support the sharing of services, they should make certain that other actions they take do not erode the ability to share services, especially direct services.

My point here is that the Legislature, in the 1990s, made two decisions that really worked against the sharing of direct instructional services. The first was sending special education and vocational revenue to the individual district and not to the cooperative where the services were provided. This action complicated the manner in which districts paid money to cooperative ventures and required more time spent on calculation than when the revenue was sent directly to the cooperative. Further, it put the cooperative on shaky financial footing.

The other disastrous decision that had an adverse effect on cooperative learning settings was the decision to roll transportation into the general formula and eliminate the non-regular transportation category. Transportation between learning sites was funded through the non-regular transportation category, which was comprised of aid and levy. When districts could no longer count on this money being reserved for this purpose (and inflation and other transportation needs ate away at the amount nominally reserved for transportation services), many districts found it more difficult to afford sending students to the cooperative settings.

Further--and why this always puzzles legislators is beyond me--districts tend to follow the direction inkled by legislative action. If the Legislature takes actions that seemingly encourage cooperation, districts tend to cooperate. If the Legislature takes actions that seemingly discourage cooperation, district tend to not cooperate.

Where this heads from this point is anyone's guess. The Legislature won't be putting this on a fast track, so there will be plenty of time for anyone interested to voice their concerns.

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