Editorial: State needs to step up and fund basics

Published 9:31 am Monday, September 19, 2011

In November, voters in just more than a third of Minnesota’s 340 school districts will have school levies on their ballots. They’ll be asked either to extend a previously approved tax or to raise property taxes to help local schools.

Traditionally, districts have used referendums to seek funds for buildings, special projects or other educational “extras.” That’s no longer the case.

A majority of the levies on ballots this fall would fund basics such as materials, books, technology and even teachers — in other words, essential educational assets whose costs used to be covered by the state.

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The growing dependence of schools on voter-approved dollars for basics demonstrates an ongoing problem in Minnesota.

According to a Minnesota Association of School Boards survey, so far 133 of the state’s school districts plan to present voters with referendums this fall.

Of that total, 121 are for operating levies, and about 75 percent are for renewals. Districts have until Sept. 16 to make final decisions on levy elections.

When inflation is taken into account, school funding from the state has declined by double digits over the past eight years, and schools increasingly turn to voters to make up the difference, according to the state’s Education Finance Working Group, an advisory group established by the Department of Education.

At the same time, the poor economy has made such votes more difficult to win. Six years ago, taxpayers supported 80 percent of school ballot questions; last year, 23 percent were approved.

It’s wrong that education is the only area of state government that’s directly vulnerable to anti-tax sentiment. A property owner’s tax bill also includes, for example, the portions decided by elected officials in cities and counties.

With the future of our state’s work force at stake, Minnesota schools shouldn’t have to regularly put basic educational needs to a popular vote because of shortsighted state funding cuts or shifts.

It’s even more galling that some GOP lawmakers — including Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the chairman of the House Education Finance Committee — have pledged to campaign against referendums, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

By law, school leaders can ask for additional taxes in three- to 10-year increments. When those terms are about to expire, voters must either approve them again, or the districts lose the revenue.

To address that problem, at a minimum the Legislature should allow districts to convert some portion of those short-term levies into permanent ones. That would reduce the need to return to voters for operating support. …

To put schools on more stable financial ground, state policymakers need to develop a more reliable funding formula for schools — one more protected from the ups and downs of the state’s economy.

— Star Tribune of Minneapolis. Sept. 12

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