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Parents frustrated with reshuffling of hearings on school-levy bill

Parents wanting to attend a hearing on school-levy voting saw it rescheduled twice and then taken off the agenda.

Hearings on the school-levy bill have repeatedly failed to materialize.

During the last legislative session, some of the least popular, most controversial education-related measures literally were decided in the middle of the night. After the cameras went off, and after the hard-working scribes from Session Weekly and Politics in Minnesota — and even MinnPost’s own James Nord — went home.

For example, the widely endorsed proposal to expand an early-childhood education quality ratings system, backed by members of both parties, the state’s business lobby and educators, died in the wee hours in March. The following morning, there was plenty of educated conjecture what had happened, but no official fingerprints. And no one brave enough to claim ownership of the move.

It would seem that the state House of Representatives’ GOP leaders learned a thing or two under cover of darkness. How else to explain the game of hide-and-seek they played last week with a number of ordinary parents who wanted to testify about the negative effect a bill could have on their kids’ classrooms?

According to the citizen lobbyists at Parents United, a number of parents signed up to testify before the House Education Finance Committee concerning a bill that would mandate scheduling school referenda for even-year elections.

Because even years are when general elections are held, voter turnout is higher. School levies are thought to be less likely to succeed in these elections because, unlike odd-years when voters will turn out specifically to vote for a referendum, even-year voters are likely to be focused on the higher profile races.

Rep. Pat GarofaloRep. Pat Garofalo

The committee, chaired by Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, twice rescheduled the hearing, finally taking it off the agenda altogether, without explanation. As of last night, it had not been heard.

This meant concerned parents who wanted to weigh in had to arrange to take off work and for child care three times. Which of course dramatically lessened the chances any would finally be able to air their views. Which were likely to be highly critical, given the classroom-level ramifications of the shift and schools’ resulting heightened dependence on levies.

A little back story

A little bit of back story that will help explain why this measure might best be heard out of earshot of parents and other folks who are interested in the adequacy of school funding:

Last summer, after the state-shutdown-ending compromise that balanced the budget by withholding 40 percent of school funding, GOP lawmakers took the exceptionally rare step of campaigning against the record number of school levy requests emaciated districts were asking voters to approve.

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Voter should be wary, the lawmakers warned at community meetings throughout the state. Schools had just been handed a “windfall” increase in funding, and had no business asking rank-and-file Minnesotans to tax themselves further.

It didn’t work. The referenda were approved by record votes, despite a general trend of softening support for public education here in Lake Wobegon.

Indeed, the lawmakers’ move may have backfired, according to pollsters who followed the ballot questions, quite possibly because it was such a tremendous over-reach.

Hot on the heels of the wave of referenda approvals, House GOP leaders suggested that legislation was needed to move levy votes to even years. This was the measure that went on and off the Education Finance Committee agenda several times after a large number of parents contacted committee staff to request time to testify, according to Parents United.

Hearings — endangered species?

The group’s excellent website takes note of several other votes on controversial education measures that were taken with such haste that discussion was out of the question. One was taken 15 minutes after the agenda was posted; another, before many members were even seated. Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, objected to the last of these and was given a few minutes to ask questions after the “hearing” concluded.

But back, finally and briefly, to the referendum scheduling bill. Parents and others hoping to testify might want to spend a little time browsing Garofalo’s section of the House website, where he explained in a press release last fall that the proposed legislation is all about openness:

“This bill is about transparency, open democracy and greater public participation in school levies. Districts know the facts — their levies are more likely to be approved in odd-year elections because of lower turnout and lower voter engagement. There are more than $900 million worth of tax revenue increases over the next five years on the ballot next week, and that deserves the voting public’s maximum attention. …

“Holding elections in General Election years is the most open, transparent way for schools to make their case to voters.”

And the most open, transparent way for voters to make their case to lawmakers?