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Shifts 101: What new proposals would mean for Minnesota’s schools

Back in the kinder, gentler era otherwise known as February, Gov. Mark Dayton released a proposed education budget that didn’t include much new money, but did offer something school administrators prize almost as much: A definite end to the practice of balancing the budget by delaying aid payments.

Finally, they crowed, someone understands that a shift, followed by another shift, followed by a handful more, actually adds up to a big ol’ cut.

Yesterday’s news that GOP lawmakers had proposed — and Dayton was seriously contemplating — increasing the amount of funding the state will delay paying to schools next year to 40 percent of what they are owed was greeted with incredulity.

“I guess if you put a gun to our heads and said, ‘Would you rather have a further shift or a cut,’ well, then, we’ll probably say the shift,” said Scott Croonquist, of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, in a voice that suggested he was actually thinking something more profane. “But that’s like saying ‘Do you want to have one arm cut off or two arms cut off?’ “

‘What we have is a structural problem’
“It’s kicking the can down the road,” agreed Jim Grathwol, Minneapolis Public Schools’ lobbyist. “The toolbox has to have other tools in it, not just shifting aid payments. What we have is a structural problem.”

Their colleagues had some stark examples what 60/40 — or, for that matter, Dayton’s counterproposal of 63/37 — looks like from the schoolchild’s vantage, but first let’s take a refresher in Shifts 101. Learning Curve’s own boilerplate:

The state reimburses schools for the cost of educating pupils according to a formula that, drastically oversimplified, boils down to the number of hours kids log in seats. Not all kids, of course, stay quietly seated. Some move from one district to another, drop out, etc.

So the amount the state owes each district can be a moving target. Back in the day, Minnesota dealt with this by paying school districts for 90 percent of what they were owed in a given year in the year in question.

It was generally agree that holding back the other 10 percent pending final tallies was sensible and fair. The state was good for the money and districts could dip into and replenish their reserve funds.

Never really reimbursed
Somewhere along the line, cash-strapped politicians thought to hold back a little more — 15 percent at first, and then 20. As the amount grew, and compounded from year to year, it stopped seeming so sensible and fair. Much in the way that a consumer will never pay off a credit card by making minimum payments, the state never really reimbursed districts.

For the current year, the state is holding back 30 percent. As a result, a number of fiscally responsible districts are being forced to divert money from niceties like instruction to pay interest on what is the government equivalent of a payday loan.

Dayton had said in February that he saw no way to make the back payments right now, but was committed to lowering the size of the delay back to 10 percent by the end of the biennium.

You can see, then, where the announcement that not only has payday been postponed again, but the check may be for less than two-thirds of what’s supposedly owed, feels like an amputation to Croonquist and to his organization’s administrator members.

A threat to painstaking progress
To Keith Lester, superintendent of schools in Brooklyn Center, it looks like a threat to painstaking progress made toward closing the achievement gap. Between the cutting and the shifting, he had to find $2 million to keep the doors open next fall — no small potatoes anywhere, but quite a lot to a small district that’s in statutory operating debt.

Keith Lester, superintendent of schools in Brooklyn Center
Keith Lester, superintendent of schools in Brooklyn Center

Most of the cuts he made are at the high-school level and translate into larger class sizes and the elimination of some electives. Also gone is the lone district librarian, whom he hired last year after several years of not having one, using a grant. The grant money has been, um, shifted.

Much more painful: He had to cut all 11 of the teachers who coached the district’s struggling elementary pupils in math and reading. Their intensive work had been paying off with rising test scores.

“When you have students with the needs ours have, losing 11 people is pretty significant,” Lester said yesterday. “Those scores were showing strong growth.”

Just in case you’re new to the party, another bit of boilerplate: Kids who read by third grade generally flourish, graduate on time and go on to pay taxes. Kids who don’t, don’t. 

Grant and levy requests
A pending grant request would allow Lester to hire four of the teachers back. Of course, most of the lights are off over at the state Department of Education, so he won’t be hearing whether his was the winning application anytime soon.

Next fall, the district will ask Brooklyn Center voters to approve a levy that would add an average of $80 to each homeowner’s tax bill. That might not sound like much, but Brooklyn Center is an impoverished city, with, Lester pointed out, “a lot of empty houses.” If it doesn’t pass, he will have to find another $650,000 to cut next year.

One has to wonder: Does asking residents of a blue-collar community to tax themselves so as to avoid asking Minnesota’s 7,000-plus millionaires for anything more constitute a cut, a shift or a delay that’s truly too costly.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/07/2011 - 09:55 am.

    Years and years ago, education was considered an investment – a GREAT investment, paying manifold dividends for decades not only to individual students, but to the state and the country as a whole.

    But over the years, we have found so many ways to cut our support of education, it’s no wonder the performance of our students lags so far behind their contemporaries around the world.

    It’s time we admit that here in Minnesota, we simply don’t value education very highly.

    If we did, we would not stand for what’s happening right now: the current bargaining in the state conflict is not whether to cut further, but the extent and degree of further cuts.

  2. Submitted by Brian Sweeney on 07/07/2011 - 10:03 am.

    The holdbacks hurts districts. But holdback for charters is much, much more devastating.

    Here is the link to the Nonprofit Assistance Funds, CSP, MACS study that states the unfair impact on holdbacks to charters vs. traditional district schools.

    The main point is this:

    Given that traditional school districts have taxing authority and a state guarantee of any loan, districts can typically receive loans with a 1% or less interest rate.

    Charter schools, who do not have these financing mechanism in place, have faced obstacles to accessing credit and must pay between 6% to as high as 23% in loan fees (includes interest, fees and legal expenses). Very bad state fiscal policy.

    Charter holdbacks need to stay at 30% (at most, still a huge challenge for most charter schools). If the discussion is to move holdback to 37%, exempt charters to keep them at 30%.

    Otherwise some of the state’s most successful schools who are closing the achievement gap may need to close down.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 07/07/2011 - 10:19 am.

    I am amazed no one has sued the state. The Minnesota Constitution Article 8, Section 1, clearly states that one of the responsibilities of the state is to provide for a system of public schools. Delaying funding for whatever reason should not be allowed. It’s our duty and the duty of the legislature to do that. If they don’t want to, quit and let us vote in some people who actually think government has a place rather than the current collection who somehow think that no government is better than any government.

  4. Submitted by will lynott on 07/07/2011 - 10:23 am.

    Why do the wingnuts hate education? What could be more important than educating our kids?

    Ooops, I think I know that answer to that–and it ain’t pretty.

  5. Submitted by steve banicki on 07/07/2011 - 12:17 pm.

    It seems that some members of congress are resisting the notion that the nations spending on education is not an investment. I can understand the argument that times are tough right now and we need to get our finances in order, however to say that the nation receives no return from providing funds to better educate our youth is ludicrous.

    Just how do they think this country has become as great and powerful as it is? Do they believe this could have happened without a good education system? If you just look at the cold dollar and cents issues, you will figure out that our economy would not have grown the way it has if it was not for the educational level of our citizens. Higher education levels helps grow the economy. A growing economy means the nations budget grows without an increase in taxation.

    Our education system is run poorly and we need to find ways of improving it. There is no doubt about this. Just as there is no doubt that investing in education pays dividends for the individual and the nation. Education should be very low on the chopping block.

  6. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 07/07/2011 - 07:00 pm.

    The phrase “Minnesota’s 7,000-plus millionaires” reflects a misunderstanding regarding the word “millionaire”. This word conventionally means those with at least one million dollars of net worth. There are far more than 7,000 of those in the state. What we have only 7,000-plus of, and what would be targeted by one of the Governor’s suggested tax increases, are those with annual income that high.

  7. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 07/07/2011 - 07:20 pm.

    Members of Congress don’t resist the idea that education is an investment…They simply send their kids to private schools. Easy.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/07/2011 - 09:42 pm.

    Re: #3 – in the Minnesota Constitution I found online, it’s Article 13, Section 1, not Article 8, Section 1, but the language is absolutely clear-cut. This is one of those situations where, if I won dozens of millions of dollars in a PowerBall jackpot (unlikely, since I don’t play), I’d spend a few millions of it to hire the best lawyers in the country and take the legislature (and Governors, past and past) to court over their abject failure to do what the Constitution so clearly requires.

    “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

    I’m not a long-time resident of Minnesota, but I don’t see a lot of wiggle room in that constitutional provision. Not only is taxing authority suggested – or another revenue source if “no new taxes” is your mantra – but key words for me are “duty,” “uniform,” “thorough” and “efficient.” Nothing in that constitutional article suggests it’s OK for one district to spend $3,000 more per pupil than another district. If Wayzata or Edina or some other affluent district can, and does, spend ‘X’ dollars per pupil, then Brooklyn Center or Red Lake or any other district that’s not as affluent should also have ‘X’ dollars to spend per pupil. By implication, the state makes up the difference.

    To do otherwise is to make a cruel joke of the oft-used phrase, “equal opportunity,” and it clearly violates the constitutional requirement of uniformity.

    Nowhere in the state constitution do I see provision for “deferral” or “holdback.” It’s your DUTY to fund public schools, boys and girls of the legislature. It’s not something that’s optional, to be done if you feel like it, or finances permit, or if the schools fit your particular ideological slant, whether that slant is to the left or right.

    Keith Lester, Jim Grathwol, Scott Croonquist should stop emulating Casper Milquetoast. Hire some good lawyers and take the state to court for failing to perform its clear constitutional duty – and make the state pay up for the previous “deferral” or “holdback” while you’re at it. The term “duty” implies that some in the legislature may not especially enjoy raising taxes, fees, or otherwise having to find the money to fund public schools, but enjoyment isn’t the issue. The state constitution requires them to do this, whether they like it or not.

  9. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 07/07/2011 - 11:06 pm.

    Max is right, of course. Forgive me if you will; I was, as my mother would say, het up by the time I hit that paragraph.

  10. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 07/08/2011 - 06:29 am.

    Beth- I forgive you. Forgiveness ought not be granted on the basis of being deserved, but as it happens, you do deserve it. That I found a nit to pick doesn’t lessen my appreciation for the good work you do.

  11. Submitted by Steven Arnold on 07/08/2011 - 07:54 pm.

    The GOP first pulled the stunt of borrowing from funds allocated for K-12 so that Tim Pawlenty could claim (falsely) that he had balanced the state budget.

    Now, instead of paying back this loan, both the GOP and Gov. Dayton are proposing to borrow even more.

    What happened to GOP calls for the State of Minnesota to live within its means?

    BTW, increasing the income tax rate on millionaires is COMPLETELY within the means of the State of Minnesota.

    How is it okay to “tax” our K-12 schools an additional 30 percent but not okay to tax millionaires an additional 2 percent?

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