Saturday, December 05, 2009

MSBA Delegate Assembly. The 2009 MSBA Delegate Assembly concluded earlier today and it was once again an interesting exercise. Two proposed resolutions, both offered by SEE member districts, were of particular interest to me as the proceedings took place. The first, submitted by the Cambridge-Isanti School Board, sought to re-establish the general education levy, which was eliminated during the 2001 legislative session as part of then-Governor Jesse Ventura's "Big Plan."

Anyone who knows me knows my feelings on the elimination of the general education levy. It stands, in my estimation, as one of the dumbest single moves in the history of education funding in Minnesota. As a bit of historical backdrop, there are a number of culprits who contributed to this decision. Of course, it was former Governor Ventura and his august set of advisors who proposed the move in the first place. Add to this, the House of Representatives at that point in time made the decision to make the general education buydown part of its tax bill.

It's important to remember that the state was reaping the benefits of an economy that was enjoying peak performance in the late 1990s and had, in a stark departure from Minnesota's current fiscal position, considerable budget surpluses. This created a sense of security, false as it turned out, that the state was in a position to assume the close to $800 million in general edcuation levy with state resources. In fairness to the Ventura administration, it is important to remind ourselves that as part of the original recommendation to replace the general education levy with state revenue, it was suggested that the base for the sales tax be broadened to include clothing and services. This would have brought more state revenue into the equation and provided a cushion to ensure that the general education revenue amount could increase into the future.

However, the Legislature got a bad case of tax cut fever and the resulting decisions put state funding on shaky ground going into the future. Rumor had it that the state was already projecting a shortfall as the economy headed into recession and that was before the cataclysmic economic downturn that occured in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in September of 2001.

The one thing that makes me bark a bit in retrospect is that Governor Ventura supposedly surrounded himself with hard-headed fiscal realists who were more than up to, at least in their rhetoric, the challenge of staring down legislators more interested in "politics over policy." Instead, the Ventura administration folded rather than stare down the Legislature, particularly the House of Representatives, when they refused to include the sales tax base-broadening as part of the final package.

The results of the decision to eliminate the general education levy proceeded to have disastrous effects. First, there was no state revenue available to provide increases to the general education program when the state economy took a turn for the worse. Further, the fairest levy that was applied across all property in the state at the same rate was replaced with greater reliance on the voter-approved referendum levy, which is both inequitable in burden and not applied across all school districts. Even though over 90% of the state's school districts currently have voter-approved referenda, the resulting per pupil revenue and tax burdens vary widely district-to-district.

But that's all in the past and I don't want to let my blood pressure get any higher, so I'll return to the MSBA Delegate Assembly. The resolution to bring back the general education levy failed on a vote of 56-62. Not bad considering the resolution wasn't aggressively "worked." While I'm a bit disappointed that the resolution didn't pass, any attention this subject receives is a bonus. Word on the street is that the Senate Education Committee might attempt to expand its consolidated levy proposal into something that more closely resembles, in both size and type, the general education levy.

The other resolution of interest was offered by the New London-Spicer School Board, calling for an increase in the equalization level for all current levies. This resolution passed by an overwhelming vote of 110-7. Of course, if resolutions passed by the MSBA Delegate Assembly automatically become law, we wouldn't have to worry about any cuts to any school districts, as spending for education would reach the mega-mondo-zillion level. What is heartening, however, is that the concept of equalization is something now etched deeply into the minds of school districts throughout the state. Now, if we can just get the Legislature to go along a bit more on this widely-shared belief we'll have a more adequate and equitable funding system.

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