Education bill has triple the funding

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 28, 2001

From staff reports


Thursday, June 28, 2001

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ST. PAUL – The education bill, expected to be heard by both houses of the legislature today, gives $381 million in new funds – more than three times as much money as Gov. Jesse Ventura put on the table in January. Most of the money, about $300 million, goes into the basic per-pupil formula that gives districts wide latitude.

District 241 Finance Director Mark said the new money amounts to about a 2.6 percent increase the first year, and over 3 percent the second. Though it certainly is better than Ventura’s original budget, it basically keeps public school up with inflation.

&uot;Considering the rising insurance and energy costs, I think these types of increases could put the district in some trouble in two or three years,&uot; Stotts said. &uot;I’m disappointed there wasn’t any measure to help districts with fuel and utilities.&uot;

The $8.7 billion bill would put restrictions on district budgets, encourage a new way of paying teachers, add more oversight of charter schools and make a few changes to student testing.

But the legislation takes a carrot-and-stick approach.

”We are not going to throw good money after bad,” said Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, a House negotiator. ”We are going to fund education appropriately and in such a way that the taxpayers of Minnesota can be assured that their dollars are well-accounted for in the end.”

A key feature is a plan requiring districts to have ”structurally balanced” budgets. In other words, they would be prohibited from settling teacher contracts and do other spending they can’t afford in the long run.

Stotts said he understands where the structurally balanced budget provision comes from, but fears the measure will penalize Albert Lea.

&uot;Some districts have given huge raises to their faculty – raises they can’t pay for. In our district, we’ve been living within our means. The administration and our teachers have generally done what is best for the long-term health of the district,&uot; Stotts said.

Stotts said the new measure could shift the focus of labor negotiations to an examination of the budget.

&uot;I think it will make negotiations more difficult for both sides. We’ve got a great relationship in our district, but I could see some major problems in other districts,&uot; Stotts said.

Another highlight is an $8 million pilot project that will reward some districts for devising new systems for paying teachers. The goal is to move away from the current model of basing salary on seniority and degrees attained and put more emphasis on performance.

The bill authorizes Standard and Poors or a similar firm to develop a Web-accessible system to evaluate education district-by-district.

On the achievement front, a new round of tests would be given in seventh grade to check student progress. Only students in eighth grade and above would be allowed to take separate reading and math exams required for graduation, closing a window of opportunity now afforded to children in fifth-grade or higher.

Soon, parents would have more access to exam forms and results.

At the Legislature, the promise of education bills is often measured in money.

Besides the basic formula boost, which amounts to about $100 per student annually, the other big item is a $42 million shift of some costs of voter-approved excess levies to the state.

The shift benefits poorer districts most, especially those unable to get a levy through, and will mean an extra $415 per student for some.

Vernae Hasbargen, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, was pleased with the attention to less-wealthy districts.

”If there was a positive scenario for any region of the state in this bill, it would be for rural schools,” she said. ”The money from this bill is for schools that were at the bottom.”