Conference Committee Day 2. The E-12 conference committee held its second hearing today featuring public testimony on three items, two of which were Senate initiatives. After finishing review of the side-by-side comparison and the budget sheets that outline the differences between the two bills, attention turned to the facilities issue. As I've reported before, the Senate bill contains a provision from the School Facilities Finance Task Force that would provide school districts throughout the state with expanded access to deferred maintenance revenue. Currently, 25 school districts qualify for the Alternative Facilities program that allows them to either bond or levy on an on-going basis for facility repairs. This is a huge advantage for those districts and the Senate bill seeks to redress this inequity by providing the districts currently not eligible for the Alternative Facilities program with increased equalized levy authority and phasing in increases in that authority over the next three years. I was happy to testify in favor of this provision and I was very happy to be joined at the witness table by Forest Lake superintendent Linda Madsen and Forest Lake business manager Larry Martini. Forest Lake is on the cusp of qualifying for the Alternative Facilities program, but has been continually turned away in their efforts to be allowed to join the program. Passing the Senate bill would put Forest Lake and districts in similar situations with a necessary tool to plug a hole in their general fund that is currently dedicated to funding deferred maintenance projects. What is often forgotten in this whole discussion is that districts don't go out looking to spend money on needless things. Districts have on-going deferred maintenance needs and to fund those needs, they have to dip into their general funds--often to a considerable degree--to complete needed repairs. If they haven't got room in their general funds to take on these projects, the projects get delayed and school physical plant--and often times students--suffer as a result. Other groups testifying included MREA and MSBA.
The discussion then turned to the Senate's provision to eliminate the cap on the Alternative Compensation (QComp) program and allow those districts (over half the districts that contain slightly less than half the state's students) not participating in the program the opportunity to do so after having their plan approved by the Commissioner of Education. Over the years, the pool of available revenue for districts seeking to employ the program has grown slowly and often erratically. This has left a number of districts that are ready to put an Alternative Compensation plan in place waiting for enough money to be put into the program so that they can implement the plan. The revenue gap between districts participating in QComp and those that don't is up to $260 per pupil unit. With all districts now mandated to perform the duties related to the Teacher Development and Evaluation program, districts that are participating in QComp have a distinct advantage (and revenue stream) in addressing the costs related to that program. While it's not a perfect fit in many districts, districts without any on-going revenue for teacher development and evaluation--like districts that don't have access to revenue in the Alternative Facilities program--have to dip into their general funds to pay for the cost of teacher evaluation. A delegation from Stillwater school district testified about the importance of the Senate provision to their school district. Stillwater has developed a QComp plan that has been approved, but unless their is additional revenue put into the program, they will not be able to participate.
Revenue for facilities and teacher evaluation are currently the two sore thumbs in the education funding system and the Senate chose to close these funding gaps with their bill. It is disappointing that the Senate did not put more revenue into the general education basic formula, but with a target only slightly more than half of that of the Governor, the money didn't go very far. Hopefully, the target for the E-12 budget will improve once a global agreement is reached on the overall funding framework and a bill that balances money for all school districts while addressing some obvious inequities can be constructed.
The last issue that was dealt with today was the testing issue. Both bills address the testing issue and try to eliminate the testing burden on school districts and students. The problem is that the Federal Government whistles the tune on this issue, which constricts how much Minnesota can do as it moves to make the testing program less cumbersome and more useful to school districts. Commissioner Cassellius testified on the confines of the issue as it relates to their work and also shed light on the technical problems that shut down testing for several days last week.
The conference committee will be meeting again tomorrow and will take testimony on the early childhood scholarship program.