Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Busy Day. With the policy committee deadline looming Friday, the Capitol was a veritable beehive of activity as policy committees are striving to hear as many bills as possible by the end of this week. Bills that make it out of all the policy committees to which they are referred are considered "alive" as individual pieces of legislation. Much of next week will be devoted to hearing of bills in the House and Senate whose companion bill from the other body met the deadline. Confusing? Add to the fact that bills that fail to meet the deadline can always be offered as an amendment later in the process and you've got the proof for the saying that "nothing is ever really dead at the Legislature."

The Senate Education Committee was the site of most of the meaningful action today as the panel heard the charter school reform bill, much of which was suggested by the Legislative Auditor's Report on charter schools released late last year and authored by Senator Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury). The Senate legislation closely resembles that of the House with one key difference. The provision removed in the House K-12 Funding Division that would have created a 36-month moratorium before a charter school could be established within a one-mile radius of a school that has been closed or a district that has either been dissolved or part of a consolidation is contained in the Senate bill and survived an amendment to remove it from the bill. Kudos to Senator Saltzman for working extremely hard with all parties to put together this bill. While the charter school community is disappointed with the 36-month moratorium language, Senator Saltzman has inserted language in the bill that would allow the affected district to lift the moratorium or for the Commissioner of Education to waive the moratorium if a strong enough case can be made.

The committee also heard SF 1800, Senator Lisa Fobbe's (DFL-Princeton) companion bill to Representative Jerry Newton's HF 1701. This legislation is, as reported last week, the result of deliberations between special education providers and the special education advocacy community and makes a lot of progress both clarifying special education law and removing many of the provisions of Minnesota law that exceed or are redundant with federal law. With identical language now being part of the respective education policy packages, it is very likely that this effort will bear fruit. . .and sweet fruit it is.

The House K-12 Funding Divsion heard bills that would raise both the referendum and debt service equalizing factors. Given the condition of the state budget, the prospects for these bills is about as promising of that of an ice cube's on the 4th of July, but it is extremely important that these bills are heard. Representative Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), a long-time advocate of property tax equity, gave a very impassioned pitch for his HF 1222. HF 1222 would set the equalizing factor at 140% of the state average referendum market value per resident pupil unit (slightly over $700,000/Resident Pupil Unit). Because the equalizing factor would be expressed as a percentage of the state average, the amount would automatically increase as statewide property values grow as opposed to the current equalizing factor which is expressed as a fixed amount and has lost "value" to districts as property wealth has grown.

As I reported yesterday, Representative Paul Gardner's equalization bill--HF 1643--that increases the first tier of equalization from $700/PU to $1,000/PU and increases the equalizing factor to 200% of the state average referendum market value per resident pupil unit will be heard tomorrow. I will be testifying on behalf of SEE.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Moving Right Along. We are in the midst of our round of SEE spring regional meetings and I'm glad to say that attendance is healthy and the discussion is lively. But man-o-man is all of this really complicated.

First, we're in the midst of the largest budget crisis in the history of the state with a divided government, with each of the three parties have a distinctly different vision as to how to get out of this mess.

On top of that, the recently-passed federal stimulus package has added a layer of complexity to the process. At this juncture, it appears (and I readily admit this may be a mirage) is that the federal money will be used to back-fill cuts that the Governor and Legislature will make to balance the state budget, but the how's of that process remain to be determined and will consume most of the rest of the legislative session to develop.

These and many other subjects have been and will be discussed at the regional meetings. I hope to see many of you at the remaining two meetings, next Monday in Isanti at the Creamery Cafe and next Thursday at the St. Cloud District Office.

Equalization Bill Up Thursday. HF 1643, introduced by Representative Paul Gardner (DFL-Shoreview), will be heard in the House K-12 Funding Division on Thursday afternoon. The hearing will begin at 2:45 in Room 10 of the State Office Building.

The bill increases the referendum equalization factor to twice the statewide average or slightly over $1,000,000 in referendum market value per resident pupil unit. The price tag is hefty and I am not kidding myself in believing this has any chance of passing this session, but it is extremely important that this subject is discussed. The new Minnesota Miracle developed by Representative Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) contains some improvement in the referendum equalization factor, but not to the extent necessary given the fact that it has been increased since 1993.

Further, given the fact that property taxes will likely increase, and increase dramatically, given the state budget crisis, it is important to recognize that when greater emphasis is placed on the property tax, areas with relatively low levels of property wealth are hit harder by this burden. While I am not optimistic about the short term prospects for greater equalization of the referendum or other education levies, initiating the discussion and keeping the quest for greater tax fairness alive is extremely important. I'll let you know how things turn out.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Now Where Did I Leave Off? Sorry that's been a couple of weeks since I last blogged, but things are starting to hit the fan at the Legislature and I thought I better start reporting. Last time I made an entry, Representative Norton's pre-Labor Day start bill passed the House K-12 Education Policy Committee and was re-referred to the House Finance Committee. Today, the results weren't as favorable to the education community, as HF 195 was dealt a close defeat by a hand-vote with 11 votes in favor and 13 votes against.

The arguments have been the same for the past twenty-some years, when pre-Labor Day start days were prohibited without special legislation. The resort industry and the State Fair don't want a pre-Labor Day start and school districts want the flexibility to start that early, especially in situations like the next two years, when Labor Day falls on the 6th and 7th of September. Losing a whole week in September pushes the school year well into June for most districts and that can cause problems on the other end of summer.

What the prospects for the bill are at this point is anyone's guess. It could be amended into the omnibus K-12 policy or finance bills in the House or Senate, but if it gets in, there will certainly be attempts to pull it back out again. What this probably does, however, is put a kabosh on districts that we trying to plan one calendar with a pre-Labor Day start. Districts can still plan two calendars and wait for the end of the legislative session to see what happens with this bill, but I wouldn't bet the farm (or the school bus) on a pre-Labor Day start.