State candidates debate education

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 25, 2002

Sen. Grace Schwab, DFL challenger Dan Sparks and Terry Kelley of the Independence Party showed that rural interests cross party lines during a debate Thursday, agreeing on issues like school funding and the minimum wage, although their approach to tackling the problems differed.

The three candidates for the District 27 senate seat all said education is high on their list of priorities, and all agreed that the state should iron out disparities in funding between the metro area and rural schools like those in Freeborn County. They spoke during a League of Women Voters forum at Riverland Community College in Albert Lea Thursday.

Schwab brought hard numbers, saying one student in Minneapolis is worth $10,685 per year to the school district, while the state pays only $6,905 for a student in Albert Lea.

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&uot;That’s not fair,&uot; Schwab said. &uot;We’re not helping school boards or administrators.&uot; She advocated phasing out local programs that have accumulated in the state’s K-12 funding laws, which she referred to as &uot;pork,&uot; to help free up money to equalize school funding.

Sparks agreed that funding should be fair, but went a step further than Schwab, saying adding more money to the per-pupil rate was not enough to help smaller schools who face fixed expenses despite lower enrollments. &uot;We need to make sure the

per-pupil rate comes closer, but we also have to get some more money to local schools,&uot; he said.

Kelley also said each student in the state should be funded the same way, and said education was one of the state’s most important functions. &uot;I think government should do a few things and do them well, and I think one of the things the state does is educate our kids.&uot;

Asked about whether the minimum wage needed to be raised, Kelley gave the strongest answer, saying proposals to raise the minimum wage are usually Democratic payback to labor unions, and the issue doesn’t have much impact on reality because few people earn the minimum, anyway.

&uot;How many people work for minimum wage?&uot; he said. &uot;Not many, and if they do, they don’t for long.&uot;

Sparks said raising the prevailing wage by creating more high-paying jobs and stressing education was more important that raising the minimum wage. Schwab said the minimum wage has not been much of an issue because so few people are affected.

Making their case to voters, the candidates had different messages.

Sparks stressed his varied background, which includes farm work, a job in the Mower County Highway Engineer’s office, time as a line worker at Hormel, and his current job as a loan officer. He said better education funding and health-care reform are his top priorities. &uot;My main promise tonight is to always put people before politics,&uot; he said.

Schwab pointed to her Senate record from her first two years, which has included securing extra aid for the Albert Lea school district to compensate for the Farmland fire, extended unemployment benefits for Farmland workers and flood aid for Austin. &uot;At times, I have found myself at odds with the Republican caucus,&uot; she said.

Kelley planted himself directly in what he called &uot;the sensible center,&uot; recounting how he defected to the Independence Party because fellow Democrats didn’t deem him &uot;liberal enough.&uot;

Also debating Thursday were House candidates Dan Dorman and Allan Halvorsen, who discussed the minimum wage and school funding as well as the state’s money from the tobacco-industry lawsuit.

Dorman said the metro area does get an unfair share of school funding, and that legislative attempts to change that have been unsuccessful. &uot;The best news I can tell you is that we haven’t made it worse,&uot; Dorman said. &uot;And there were a lot of ideas floated by other folks that would have made it worse.&uot;

He also said residents have a good chance to take school funding into their own hands by supporting local operating levies, like ones on the ballot this year in Albert Lea and Glenville-Emmons. &uot;The best deal we’ve got is to get something for ourselves,&uot; he said. &uot;We need to invest in our own communities.&uot;

Halvorsen said the state made too many tax cuts in the last two years, and that money could have gone to support schools. &uot;It is very important that we do what it takes to make sure our kids get an adequate education,&uot; he said.

While Halvorsen said he supported raising the minimum wage, calling it inadequate for anybody to live on, Dorman said the state’s tax-policy changes have done as good a job of helping struggling families, pointing to the Minnesota Working Family Tax Credit. &uot;If your goal is to help families, we do that in Minnesota because we help working families essentially receive a negetive income tax,&uot; he said.

Both candidates said the state’s tobacco-settlement money should be spent for health care programs.