It’s all about fairness

Legislators discuss school finance at Forest Lake event

 

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

Four of the eight invited guests came to the CUPS legislative forum held Monday, Jan. 21, at Vannelli’s by the Lake.

Citizens United for Public School 831 (CUPS), a volunteer committee focused on equity in public school funding, invited to the forum all eight state legislators whose districts include Forest Lake area schools.

Here’s who showed up: District 53A Representative Linda Runbeck serves all or parts of Lino Lakes, Circle Pines, Lexington, Hugo and Blaine. District 52A Representative Bob Dettmer covers all or parts of Centerville, Columbus, Forest Lake, Hugo, Lino Lakes, Linwood and Scandia. District 38 Senator Roger Chamberlain has portions of Anoka, Washington and Ramsey counties. The territory for District 39 Senator Karin Housley includes parts of Washington and Chisago counties. All four are Republicans.

Two school finance experts were also present: Tim Strom, a legislative analyst in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and Jody Wither, a GOP researcher.

The two dozen people in attendance on this cold night included seven CUPS members, three Forest Lake school board members and the superintendent, and parents and teachers from Forest Lake and Centennial school districts.

Senator Michelle Benson, Senator Sean Nienow, Representative Tom Hackbarth and Representative Bob Barrett were invited but did not attend.

A main goal of CUPS is to advocate for equitable and fair funding at the state legislature.

“Funding our state schools is broken,” CUPS presenter John Beckstrom said. “We’re not keeping up with increasing costs. There is disparity in how money is distributed. Forest Lake is one of the districts not getting its fair share of levy money: We pay twice as much for our levy dollars.”

The first inequity CUPS would like to get rid of is the relative cost to homeowners of a school district levy.

In Forest Lake, it takes $364 of every $100,000 of house value to raise a maximum school district levy of $1,633 per student.

To raise the same $1,633 per student in a district with more commercial development, such as Hopkins, for every $100,000 of house value the cost is just $153.

Since 1993, when equalization was created, the formula has not changed. The formula no longer affects money raised by levy in the Forest Lake school district.

Two of the legislators not only agreed that this must change, they have tried to change it. Chamberlain said last year he and Runbeck introduced a bill to phase in equalization factors. “This year I would consider supporting that again,” he said.

Chamberlain said his main focus is to strengthen choice and relieve mandates, so schools can spend the money where they see fit. “My desire is to give more control and authority to local educators and parents,” he said.

Runbeck said she asked for a hearing several times on the bill last year but found no interest. The bill died in committee.

“You’re talking to four of the wrong people,” Runbeck said. “We’re not in the majority and able to do very little.”

She said districts would prefer changes to the per-pupil formula over property tax relief. She also pointed out that enrollment declines are part of the District 831 funding woes. “Funding follows enrollment,” she said. “You’re getting fewer dollars because your enrollment is dropping.”

Dettmer, a former Forest Lake teacher who is beginning his fourth term in the legislature, said the difficulty is getting legislators to work together. “It’s difficult to get everybody to agree,” he said, and added that the current hot topic is gun control.

Housley, newly elected to the Senate, serves on the education finance committee. “After the first-day overview of how education is funded,” she said, “I thought I might be in over my head.” Housley said she intends to be “one of the five people in the state who understands all this.”

Runbeck and Chamberlain said change will depend on outer-ring suburban school districts like Forest Lake working together. “Strength is in the SEE districts,” she said, referring to the group Schools for Equity in Education. “That’s where the pressure will come from.”

Chamberlain said the difference between per-pupil spending in the inner cities ($14,000 in Minneapolis) versus the suburbs ($9,000) means suburban districts need to fight. “It’s gotta be fairer,” he said. “Your advocacy is important because it’s Minneapolis and St. Paul against the rest of us.”

Forest Lake School Board member Kathy Bystrom  said the disparity “angers me as a citizen and as a taxpayer. Do our kids in North Branch and Forest Lake matter as much as the kids in Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Edina?”

Bystrom also brought up the $2,000 difference between the current per-pupil amount and the amount it would be if inflation since 2003 were factored in.

CUPS chair Steve Schwister focused on the unfairness.  “It doesn’t matter if you’re educating a millionaire’s kid or the kid of a dishwasher,” he said; all kids should have the same advantages.

The current situation is also unfair to property tax payers who vote generous levies but do not get as much for their money, Schwister said.

Dettmer suggested that the conference room that evening should have been packed with taxpayers, and said he hopes people come down to the state capital to talk to legislators.  “We’re here to help,” Schwister said. “Send us to the offices.”

After the meeting, CUP scheduled a visit to the state capitol to meet with House and Senate education finance committees on Wednesday, Jan. 22.

Another topic was the need for voter-approved levies to pay for basic needs.

Andy Stoyke, a first-grade teacher at Wyoming Elementary, said the fact that so many districts have levies represents “a constitutional failure. Clearly something is wrong,” he said, when 10 percent of the school’s operating budget must be raised by a voter-approved levy.

But in the list of changes that should be made, Stoyke agreed that legislators should start by changing the equalization formula. “Bite that off and go from there,” he advised.

Runbeck disagreed with statements that local levies are a mistake. “The state of Minnesota funds schools at 75 percent, the third highest in the nation,” she said. “I believe in the local levy. That’s how citizen taxpayers hold elected officials accountable.”

The property tax is the most stable form of taxation, she said, and Minnesota property taxes are 38th in the nation—about in the middle. “It is a fundamental way to pay for local services,” she concluded.

When asked why only school districts, not cities and counties, have to go to the voters to approve tax levies, she responded, “Have citizens vote on all issues.”

An audience member objected. “We’re asking you to do your job. To put school districts in the position of going to voters for a levy, and legislators running away from their duty to fund education adequately, is the cowards’ way out.”

District 831 Superintendent Linda Madsen said Forest Lake does not expect to have everything richer districts have, “but the disparity has gotten too large.”

State rules let certain other districts levy for facilities improvements with school board approval, she said, based on the square footage and age of buildings. “We’re close, but we don’t qualify,” Madsen  said.

With the district needing to make repairs, she said, that rule needs to be fixed so it’s fair for everyone.

Unevenly distributed compensatory revenue, very large class sizes, and schools unable to stay open five days a week were also discussed.

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