Monday, September 12, 2011

Legislative Heat Over Levy Proposals. Paraphrasing the old saw "As goes Maine, so goes the nation," I guess when it comes to legislative opposition to this falls excess levy questions, it looks like it's "As goes Drazkowski, so goes Garofalo." Approximately two weeks ago, an e-mail was circulated by Representative Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) to his e-mail update subscribers outlining his assertion that school boards should withdraw their requests for voter-approved referendum levy increases this fall (the e-mail was vague on whether or not school boards should give the same consideration to straight referendum levy renewals where no increase was requested and I believe the Representative was not opposing those efforts). Central to Representative Drazkowski's case is his contention that school districts got enough revenue during the 2011 legislative session and that additional revenue generated through voter-approved levies is not needed.

Today, House Education Funding Chair Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) echoed Drazkowski's sentimments in a story on Minnesota Public Radio. Garofalo was clear that he thought straight renewals in which no additional revenue was being sought should be approved, but like Drazkowski, he firmly believes that sufficient revenue was provided to school districts over the coming biennium, which negates the need for further locally-approved increases.

How are they mistaken? Let me count the ways. First off, while education did receive increases this past session (and the additional revenue was greatly appreciated), the lion's share of that revenue came through the automatic increase in the special education funding base revenue categories (basic and excess). A $50 per pupil unit per year increase in the basic formula was also included in the bill, but the rationale behind that move was to help school districts with the increased borrowing costs they will likely incur as a result of the increase in the aid payment shift. There was also additional revenue in the second year of the biennium delivered through the newly-established literacy aid and small schools revenue programs, as well as some one-time money to a variety of districts. So there is new money--considerable new money--but most of this money came through an increase in the special education formulas, which still won't be enough to totally defray additional special education costs in most school districts.

Second--and this has been an almost decade-long position of SEE--is that the level of funding accorded to school districts has no direct correlation to the true cost of education. A number of studies have been done over the past two decades trying to at least estimate the cost of educating a child in Minnesota and those studies all show at one level or another that Minnesota's education funding system is underfunded. Related to this problem is the fact that education funding from 2003 until the past session has been on a roller coaster. Two bienniums during the past decade saw healthy increases in either the basic or special education formula, but other than those exceptions, funding was fairly flat. There is no question that the basic formula has not kept up with inflation since the early 1990s and districts have been trying to play catch up, with voter-approved referenda being the only route to close the gap between the level of funding needed and the level actually needed.

Third, each district in the state has a different set of circumstances under which they attempt to pass a referendum levy. A number of districts are experiencing declining enrollment or, due to the housing crisis, not growing at the rate at which the estimated in the mid-1990s. In many cases, the decline in pupil numbers more than outweighs any increase in the basic formula, with districts coming up short in terms of revenue. Even in districts enjoying growth, there are often additional costs related to that growth in terms of increased transportation costs and capital needs and formula increases might not be enough to address those cost pressures.

Finally, it seems that some sing the praises of local control, but then decry it when local units of government attempt to employ it. I spoke with St. Cloud Times reporter Dave Aeikens this afternoon and expounded on this angle as he interviewed me for a story. School districts do not relish going before the voters for additional revenue, especially during these difficult economic times. The thought that goes into these ballot questions is considerable both in terms of how much revenue is sought and how the proposal is framed.

While I disagree with Representatives Drazkowski and Garofalo, they are certainly entitled to their opinion. School districts often seek the support of their local legislators when the try to pass referenda, so it would be hypocritical to tell legislators that they can't voice their concerns about or flat-out oppose these questions. I'm disappointed that these legislators aren't pointing out that most of the state-delivered increase is simply an updating of base level formula expenditures and instead make it look like every district in the state are in tall cotton. Needless to say, they've kicked off the discussion that will be taking place over the next seven weeks.

Here are some stories related to this topic:

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