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Less prosperous school districts pin hopes on Legislature

Not only does the current hodge-podge of levies mean poor districts have less overall revenue to tap, it means property owners get less for their dollar.

Fifteen-year-old Siglind Dial, second from right, and her family in a photo taken after her testimony before the Minnesota House of Representatives’ Education Finance Committee.
Courtesy of Emily Bisek

Recently, 15-year-old Siglind Dial explained the school funding crisis to the Minnesota House of Representatives’ Education Finance Committee. A ninth-grader at Cambridge-Isanti High School, she’s dead-set on going to a good college and she has a pretty sound idea what it will take to get there.

The major thing standing in her way, she told the lawmakers, is Minnesota’s uneven, inequitable system for funding schools. Because of it, on her square on the map it’s pretty hard for even the smartest, most motivated students to tick all of the boxes on a selective college’s wish list.

“When it was my turn to go up and testify, I was freaking out,” she said later. “I told them who I was and I told them the [funding] cuts made me concerned I wouldn’t be ready for college.”

A return to the kind of statewide, general-education levy that was at the heart of the Minnesota Miracle would fix this, Dial told the committee.

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Until four years ago, Dial’s family lived in New Brighton, where schools were still well funded enough that she played the violin in orchestra and looked forward to foreign-language instruction. But then her parents, a custodian-turned-union organizer and a teacher, moved to less prosperous North Branch.

Moved to 4-day week

Shortly after the family arrived, North Branch Schools were forced to balance their budget by moving to a four-day school week. One huge reason: A 2003 change in the way schools are funded made districts more dependent on local property-tax revenue, creating disparities between haves and have-nots.

Its lower property values would have given North Branch schools a lower tax base to start with. But the district is one of the few that has been unable to persuade residents to tax themselves to make up some of the shortfall in state funding.

With her parents’ blessing, last year Dial open-enrolled herself in a neighboring district that had a schools levy, albeit a modest one. There’s no orchestra, but she’s hoping continued funding shortfalls won’t do away with one of the programs that attracted her, the ability to do college-credit coursework through Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO).

She’s not the only one. Declining enrollment was a major factor in North Branch’s decision last month to operate on a four-day calendar for another three years.

“Places like Minnetonka have, like, Chinese immersion for first grade,” Dial said. “We have Spanish and German only, and only every other term.”   

If PSEO gets cut in Cambridge, Dial’s not sure what she will do. “It’s really helpful for low-income families with smart kids,” she said.

Adding insult to injury, her mother, Robin Dial, was laid off from her job and now works as a substitute teacher.

At the Capitol, Dial’s most receptive listener was freshman Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, whose district is home to school systems that are desperate for the relief a general education levy would provide.

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Uniform state levy proposal

At the behest of Gov. Mark Dayton, a proponent of structural fixes, educators and policymakers last fall delivered a series of recommendations for reforming school finance. At their heart was a return to a system built around a uniform state education levy.

In addition to smoothing inequities, paying for education via a property tax would have the advantage of creating a predictable stream of school funding. Without one, the money has to come out of the general fund, which rises and falls with the economy.

In his proposed budget, Dayton did not ask for a return to a gen ed levy, as it’s known in policy circles. A decade of cuts in every sector has left Minnesotans shrieking for property-tax relief, a call he heard loud and clear.

Two bills to restore some equity

Enter Radinovich, who is prepared to argue that for many levy equalization would actually be property-tax relief. He is the chief author of two bills that would restore some equity to the system. House File 1600 would return the entire system to its pre-2003 status; HF 1406 would direct state aid to districts with levies of $300 or less per pupil.

Both bills have Senate companions. Astonishingly, the second, un-sexily dubbed “Education Advancement Revenue Created,” appears to have legs. It has been heard, and in the parlance of the Legislature, laid over for possible inclusion in the Education Finance Omnibus Bill, currently under construction.   

If there’s a topic more complicated than education finance, it’s tax policy, but like Dial, geography has dealt Radinovich a crash course in both. Not only does the current hodge-podge of levies mean poor districts have less overall revenue to tap, it means property owners get less for their dollar.

His favorite example: A district in, say, a west metro suburb that passes the maximum excess operating referendum of $1,600 per pupil need only assess residents $150 per $100,000 of their home’s value. In his district, heavy on vacation homes and light on industrial and business property, homeowners must be taxed at $515 per $100,000 to generate the same revenue.

Perhaps a palatable compromise

Radinovich’s more promising bill might be a palatable compromise for lawmakers looking both to restore equity and to deliver on promises of property-tax relief. It would not create a statewide general education levy, but would generate dollars to be directed to districts that currently levy less than $300 per student.

Brad Lundell, executive director of Schools for Equity in Education, a group that has been working to draw attention to the levy disparities, believes the Senate’s proposed education spending target includes enough property-tax relief to fund its companion bill, SF 177.

The Senate version also would allow the 15 percent of Minnesota districts with levies of less than $300 per pupil to extend them with the approval of school board members only, not voters. All told, the partial shift would affect 54,000 students, or 7 percent of Minnesota pupils.     

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Dial would be one of them. “I miss North Branch,” she said. “The teachers there work really, really hard for what they have.”

But she has a future to focus on, she added: “I’ve been focused on college since I was little. Who wouldn’t want to be successful?”