School leaders share legislative priorities

Some surprising, as well as some continuing themes came through when I asked school leaders around the state for a brief summary of their legislative priorities. Common themes were respecting local control, equalizing funding, reducing holdbacks and for charter public schools, and creating opportunities for low-cost borrowing that districts currently don’t have.

One of the most unexpected conversations took place with Dr. Mark Bezek, Elk River superintendent. He explained via an exchange of emails that the district’s top priorities are:
“1. Equity revenue for our Hennepin and Anoka County students. Seven county metro students are funded at a higher level. If my office were located in Hennepin or Anoka counties we would be included. (Up to $400K)
“2. Excess Debt Service Fund transfer. I have over $3 million I can’t touch, this is voter approved dollars for capital projects.
“3. $2 million innovative technology grant for a junior and senior high technology-based learning program. This could save taxpayers $20 million in possible construction costs.”
I checked with a Minnesota Senate Education Committee administrator who confirmed Bezek’s point about the district receiving less because as of 1999, the district’s office was not located in the seven-county metropolitan area.

Princeton superintendent Rick Lahn told me, “My top priority for the upcoming legislative session is to provide an adequate, reliable and stable source of funding for pre–12 education. We cannot continue to underfund our public school system through taxation shifts and flat increases and expect better results. We must invest in our children if we want them to succeed in the 21st century economy.”

Pat Lindeman, director of the Kaleidoscope charter in Otsego wrote, “I would like to see education funding increase and the immediate removal of state holdbacks for schools. Schools should be financially supported in their efforts to provide excellent education.

Vanessta Spark, director of Spectrum Charter in Elk River agreed with Lindeman:
“It would be beneficial if all tax monies, including state and local tax dollars followed the student. Also, as a result of the holdback, money is spent on interest and I would rather spend it on the student.”

Bruce Novak of Cambridge was one of several superintendents who, like Lindeman and Sparks, expressed frustration with the amount going to holdbacks.

Linda Madsen, Forest Lake superintendent, explained, “With the multitude of research touting the benefits of all-day everyday kindergarten, and the governor’s initiative to have children reading well by third grade, funding resources for all-day programs are vital to the success of students. Currently, kindergarten students are not funded as full time. School districts with tight budgets are forced to charge tuition to balance out funding if they wish to offer All-day everyday programs. Legislative action is needed to fund kindergarten students as full-time students so that all Minnesota children can take advantage of this opportunity.”

Personally, my deepest hope is that the Legislature will reduce dependence on local property taxes. Nations around the world with the highest average achievement don’t make funding dependent on which community a youngster lives in. — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: Nathan is formerly an award winning public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester. Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu)

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