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Funding for schools becoming a campaign issue
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Last school year, teachers at Sheridan Elementary School in St. Paul began asking parents for basic classroom supplies. It's one result of the funding problems facing the St. Paul district, and many others around the state. (MPR file photo)
Education funding is heating up as a campaign issue across Minnesota. Nearly one-fifth of the state's school districts will ask local voters this fall to provide additional tax support. And educators are pressuring state lawmakers, many of whom are up for re-election, to increase funding for public schools in the 2005 legislative session. Suburban business leaders and education officials met Wednesday at a Bloomington hotel to try to add some clarity to a complicated debate.

Bloomington, Minn. — State education officials say 67 of Minnesota's 343 school districts are seeking voter-approved tax increases this year. The Eden Prairie district has an operating referendum on the ballot that would bring in an additional $5 million over 10 years. But the levy would only provide a partial solution to bigger financial problems.

Superintendent Melissa Krull says the district is facing its largest ever deficit -- $6.5 million for the 2005-2006 school year. She says state law limits how much extra revenue Eden Prairie can raise.

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Image Two superintendents

"We are a district that is capped. Many other districts are capped as well. We've been at that cap for eight years. So what that means in Eden Prairie and other suburban districts like us, is we're limited," Krull explained. "Even though our tax base has, at the very least, doubled over the last 10 years, due to the cap limitation we cannot ask our voters for additional financial support even if they would choose to vote for it."

Talk of levy caps and funding formulas can quickly confuse even the staunchest supporters of public schools. The Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce brought Krull and other experts together to explain school financing to local business leaders.

The state's basic allocation of $4,600 per student has remained flat for two years. The result has been a lot of fiscal headaches for school leaders, who've seen operating expenses continue to rise.

St. Paul doesn't have a referendum on the ballot this year. Voters in the capital city approved a $72 million levy in 2002. Still, district officials have cut millions of dollars from their budgets. Superintendent Pat Harvey says funding remains the biggest challenge.

"What we're going to have to figure out is, when is the breaking point?" Harvey says. "When do we begin to lose teachers because they can no longer afford to work in our city? When do we begin to not only lose staff but to lose students, whose families say they can get a better education in another state?"

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Image Education chief

Economic pressures have forced Harvey and other school leaders to do more with less. But Minnetonka City Manger John Gunyou, a former state finance commissioner, says the blame rests with state leaders, not the economy. He accuses lawmakers of valuing tax cuts over kids.

"There's something wrong when school districts have to rely on private fundraising -- not for clubs, but for basic education," Gunyou says. "That should be a wakeup call that our districts are now turning to private fundraising for a fundamental right to an education."

Lawmakers held school funding levels flat in 2003, while cutting other state spending to solve a state budget deficit. The state's budget picture isn't getting much brighter, but Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says schools could get a little help next year. Seagren says her boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, wants to provide an inflationary increase for schools.

"We must fund education this year. We cannot let it go another two years," Seagren says. "We will be doing that, and we'll be trying to do some constructive things that will have some accountability with them as we fund."

That added accountability could come through an overhaul of the current funding system. The Governor's Task Force on School Finance Reform is recommending a system that gives district more spending flexibility -- as long as they show results. Alexandria Superintendent Ric Dressen chaired that task force. He says changes are needed soon.

"My fear is the only way this is going to get corrected is much the way equalization was, through litigation," says Dressen. "And I'm not excited about a lawsuit determining how we're going to fund schools."

Meanwhile, Dressen is busy trying to convince Alexandria voters to increase their financial support to the schools. His district has a four-part referendum that could raise up to $27 million over 10 years.

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