When the Legislature passed a $485 million increase in school spending over the next two years, DFL lawmakers described the 2013 education bill as one of the best ever. They also predicted the new money would turn the school-financing tide of the past decade.
But school districts across Minnesota are still planning to ask local taxpayers this fall for more money.
Democrats say the proposed operating levy votes show that districts are still in a catch-up mode after too many lean years. State Rep. Paul Marquart, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said he's not surprised that some districts still need more.
"You know, we went 10 years where we were underfunding our schools, and even though this year's education finance bill was pretty significant, you don't make up in one year for 10 years of disinvestment," said Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.
Republicans say school districts wouldn't need so much money if the Legislature would stop micromanaging them.
It's still not clear how many school districts will ask voters to increase an operating levy this fall, even though lawmakers set a June 30 deadline for school boards to make their intention known in a resolution. The so-called referendum freeze does not apply to levy renewal attempts, districts that don't have an operating levy in place or those trying to work out of statutory debt.
Instead, Marquart described the provision as a "soft freeze" intended to send a message to school leaders.
"One of the main things we want to do is lesson the reliance of property taxes in funding education, because we know that causes great disparities between the wealthy districts and the poor districts," he said. "So, the next couple of years you're getting new money; think twice before you go to a referendum because we want to keep property taxes down."
But the early deadline didn't give school boards a lot of time to think.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said some of his members adopted resolutions to keep the referendum option alive until they make firm commitments. He said referendum votes might be coming in up to half of his organization's 40 districts, including Eden Prairie, Osseo, Roseville, South Washington County and Stillwater.
As for the state funding increase, Croonquist said it wasn't really as big as some people think.
"In the final analysis, the Legislature provided about an inflationary increase for education over the next two years. So, clearly the need to conduct operating referenda hasn't gone away," Croonquist said. "Operating referendums continue to provide a significant source funds for our school districts. Some districts receive more than 20 percent of their operating revenue from a local voter-approved referendum."
The lead Republican on the House Education Finance Committee, state Rep. Kelby Woodard of Belle Plaine, thinks that the problem for school districts is not the amount of state funding, but that it comes with too many strings attached.
Woodard pointed to the $134 million earmarked for all-day kindergarten. He said districts need more flexibility in their spending decisions.
"Whether it's maintenance on buildings, whether it's you want to hire some aides in your science program or in your math program, you spend it the way you know that your community needs it," Woodard said. "As opposed to the Minnesota Legislature saying 'here's where you need to spend this money,' and it's the same all across the state. That's how you help that operating levy issue."
Lawmakers provided a new option for school districts that have not been able to pass operating referenda. School boards in those districts now have the authority to levy up to $300 per student, without putting the measure to voters.
School districts with high operating costs also have the ability to convert a portion of their voter-approved levy to the board-approved classification.
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