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On school funding, education advocates ask: What will Bakk do?

With three wildly divergent education proposals on the table at the Capitol, the question of the moment seem to revolve around the Senate Majority Leader’s plans.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

With a scant three weeks left in the 2015 legislative session and three wildly divergent education proposals on the table, the operative question at the Minnesota state Capitol would seem to be: What’s Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s plan?

This week, the state Senate approved education omnibus legislation that, as a standalone package, makes no sense. Indeed, it looks a lot more like a cudgel to swing in conference committee than a roadmap to any particular vision.

By contrast, the education policy and finance measures put forth by the House of Representatives and Gov. Mark Dayton reflect their creators’ politics. There’s more reform than money in the package crafted by the GOP-led House (which includes $157 million in additional funding), while Dayton’s proposed budget would direct nearly $700 million to schools. 

The Senate proposal would increase education spending by some $350 million and includes only modest policy revisions. It does not, in short, make anyone happy — including a handful of DFL lawmakers who argued forcefully against it.

Few policy prescriptions

Throughout the session, policy prescriptions have taken a back seat to the funding debates. The House proposal would gut a number of priorities from recent years, including integration and achievement gap aid and the Department of Education’s very successful Regional Centers of Excellence.

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Both chambers propose to bolster efforts to streamline out-of-state teacher licensure and school readiness. The House would direct an additional $30 million to an early childhood education scholarship system.

All but lost in the shuffle is the item that threatened to be the most controversial agenda item at the start of the session: A move to factor teacher effectiveness into layoff decisions.

Budget increases, classroom cuts

School district leaders and other education advocates, meanwhile, are planning a day of protest Monday in the hope of pointing out that headlines touting a $1.9 billion state budget surplus notwithstanding, all of the proposals will translate into cuts in the classroom.

Case in point: A few days ago South Washington County Schools pink-slipped 48 teachers and two other employees in an effort to pare $4.6 million from its budget. In the fall it will ask voters to extend a levy to stave off another $3.7 million in cuts. 

“We’re done with the low-hanging fruit,” says Superintendent Keith Jacobus. “We’re up high in the trees now.”

Superintendent Keith Jacobus
South Washington County Schools
Superintendent Keith Jacobus

And that’s assuming the session ends with a 1 percent increase in the general fund contemplated by both the governor’s proposal and the Senate bill. The House has proposed a 0.6 percent increase “on the formula.” 

Like many, Jacobus went into the session with hopes that lawmakers would pump up the general fund, the pot of per-pupil money schools have discretion to spend according to their needs, by 2 percent or even 3 percent. 

Because funding increases are not keeping up with current inflation, much less the shortfalls of the last 12 years, districts throughout Minnesota are facing a funding cliff many say has the potential to be as bad as the height of the recession.

Adding to the year’s strange political dynamics, at the start of the session, Senate Republicans proposed a general fund increase of 3 percent. House DFLers last week proposed a 2 percent hike.

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Whither the surplus?

So where has the surplus gone? A healthy chunk of it will go to pay for increases in education funding enacted in the last budget cycle. Meanwhile, Dayton would spend $348 million on universal school-based preschool for 4-year-olds, his marquee agenda item for the session.

The proposal has sparked controversy on several fronts. While they are highly supportive of more spending on kindergarten readiness in principle, many district leaders would prefer to shore up the general fund.

Adding 3 percent to the formula in 2016 and again in 2017 would cost $530 million, according to the advocacy group Parents United. That would catch districts up to 2012 costs and likely stave off cuts. 

Without a more realistic increase to the per-pupil formula, universal pre-K will be one more program they will struggle to maintain amid shortfalls, they say. The cost will balloon to some $900 million in the next budget cycle.

The governor’s reply: The surplus has created an historic opportunity to do something bold.

House Republicans, meanwhile, propose a $2 billion tax cut, which would use up the surplus balance plus some. If enacted, critics say the cuts will mushroom to $3.1 billion by 2018.

Preparing for cuts

In South Washington County, the smaller bump proposed by the House would increase the $8 million shortfall by $1 million, which would translate to the layoff of 20 more teachers, according to Jacobus.

He and other district leaders have been talking to area residents for months about exactly which programs may be targeted for cuts and what the plan is for coping with the trend.

To make up for the fact that state spending has not kept up with inflation for more than a decade, the district has been spending down its reserve fund to minimize cuts. Since 2004, the state’s funding formula for his district has fallen $400-$500 per pupil behind inflation.

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District policy has been to maintain a reserve of 5 percent to 9 percent. The board recently voted to spend it down to 2.5 percent over the next year.

Adding insult to injury, because the area’s bedroom communities aren’t home to much commercial property, homeowners bear a disproportionate share of any levy increase. So South Washington schools are careful to ask them to tax themselves at a far lower rate than state law allows.

The irony, of course, is that coming out of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration, DFL policymakers were highly critical of education budgets that increasingly pushed the true cost of funding schools onto local property tax payers.

So just what, given all of this, is Bakk’s hole card? Education advocates can only speculate. They hope, they say, it’s a good one.