Dayton tells school officials he wants to lift financial burdens

After providing school districts with  a lot more money this year, Gov. Mark Dayton is now telling school leaders that he wants to ease the financial burden caused by laws telling districts what to do without the necessary funding to carry out the orders.

Dayton said the 2011 Legislature, which was controlled by Republicans, imposed a terrible unfunded mandate on school districts when it created a new system for evaluating the classroom performance of teachers. Under the law he signed, the system must be up and running next fall. Districts will have to pick up the costs, which could total as high as $200 million. Dayton told superintendents that he wants the DFL-controlled Legislature to revisit that issue next session.

Gov. Mark Dayton spoke to a conference of school superintendents in Brooklyn Park (MPR News photo)

"It's not my intention to impose that additional cost on you," he said. "I did not urge raising the per pupil formula in order to siphon that money off for testing, although we all agree assessment is important. We're going to do it. It's the law. We're going to do it the best way we can. But the Legislature has to face up to their responsibility."

Dayton also questioned the reliability of the assessments, because about a third will be based on student test scores.

In an interview state Sen. Sean Nienow,  R-Cambridge, said he believes teacher performance must be linked to how well their students are doing. As for the cost of such assessments, Nienow wondered why school districts would have to start from scratch.

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)

"If a school district wasn't doing it before, they weren't doing what they needed to do to guarantee that we had a quality teacher educating children," he said. "So to that end, I guess you could say it might be an additional cost to schools. But it shouldn't be an additional cost, because they should have been doing something along this line in the first place."

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Dayton asked the superintendents to help address the teacher-evaluation funding issue, as well as two of his long-range education goals. He said he wants to lower Minnesota dropout rates, and ensure that all students are reading at or above the proper grade level.

"I'm glad we have all-day kindergarten now state funded. I'm glad we have increasing availability of early childhood scholarships. But we still know the kids are going to come come to school 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade and beyond from other states, from even other countries. So we need best practices ways in which we can take those children and over the course of a school year give them the skills that they need to be successful," he said.

Dayton didn't dwell on this year's education bill. But the superintendents who will benefit from the $485 million in new spending were clearly pleased. They welcomed the governor with a prolonged standing ovation. North Branch Superintendent Deb Henton was among those who thanked the Dayton for providing a needed funding increase.

"My kids have had years and years of budget cuts," she said. "When I go back to my district today I'm going to ask for a list of all the budget cuts that we've made over the past 13 years, and start dreaming about what we can add back, and you have helped make that possible. Thank you so much."

Henton later explained that North Branch will benefit from a new law that allows school districts without an operating referendum to levy up to $300 per student without putting the measure to voters. She said if the school board approves that levy authority, North Branch could end its four-day school week and return to a five-day schedule.