If Minnesota school superintendents could give the state's educational funding system a grade, it likely would be one big collective "F."
Superintendents in the state were nearly unanimous in judging the state's educational funding system a failure, according to a survey released Wednesday of superintendents conducted by Minnesota 2020, a non-partisan St. Paul-based think tank.
Minnesota 2020 surveyed school superintendents in December and January, following levy referendums in nearly a third of the state's school districts in November. More than half of the state's 321 superintendents, or 177 superintendents, responded to the survey.
The key findings of the survey were:
Nearly 100 percent of school superintendents, or 96.6 percent, said they believe Minnesota's education funding system is a failure.
The funding system is hurting education. Sixty percent of superintendents said state underfunding is causing the quality of education to get worse and 88 percent said that if the funding system isn't fixed, the quality of education will continue to decline.
Districts that lost levy elections in 2007 face dire financial problems. These districts will fire an average of seven teachers and more than 15 percent of their operating budget comes from voter-approved levies. More than 70 percent expect to go to voters again this November and 86 percent must hold another levy election within three years.
Of the districts without an operating levy, 25 percent will ask voters for money in 2008. More than 60 percent said they don't have a levy because their community won't support a property tax increase.
Sixty-five percent of the superintendents who responded said they believe the state should provide all education funding and not force districts to rely on property tax levies.
"This is the most major education survey that has been done in the past 10 years that I'm aware of," Matt Entenza, Minnesota 2020 founder and board chair, said by phone Wednesday. "I think that what we hear from school superintendents is that it is a dire situation."
John Fitzgerald, who authored the survey and its findings, said by phone Wednesday that participants were anonymous to allow school superintendents to speak freely without worrying about community or school board reaction. Most of the respondents, or 74 percent, were superintendents from rural Minnesota. Ten percent were from outstate regional centers while only 14 percent of respondents were at suburban school districts. Eighty-three percent of rural school superintendents reported that their districts have operating levies. Of those, 69.4 percent said they did not seek an operating levy in 2007.
Fifteen of the superintendents said they held an operating levy election in 2007, which failed to pass. Of those districts that passed an operating levy in 2007, more than 9 percent of the districts' operating budgets came from property tax levies before the election. After the election that number jumped to 11.8 percent.
The Minnesota 2020 report found that part of the funding problem in rural districts came from declining enrollment. Of the rural districts that didn't seek an operating levy in 2007, only 11 percent said their district's enrollment is growing. More than 19 percent said their enrollment is remaining the same and 70 percent said their enrollment is declining.
If there isn't any relief from the Legislature, the nearly 20 percent of rural districts that didn't have an operating levy in 2007 will go to voters this year, a number that jumps to 63 percent within three years. More than 75 percent said their district is on solid financial ground this year but only 56.2 percent said their district would be financially stable next year.
"I think these numbers are huge," said Fitzgerald. "Schools absolutely cannot function on what the state pays them."
Brainerd Superintendent Jerry Walseth said the survey results didn't surprise him but may reinforce the message to the community that there is a problem with the way the state funds schools.
"Very, very clearly this moving things back onto the request for local levies just doesn't work," said Walseth.
Here were some responses by superintendents who completed the survey:
"We have a governor and a Legislature that honestly believes it is possible to have world class schools with a 1972 funding program. Unless we change our method of funding education ... education in Minnesota is in serious trouble no matter how adept at financial management schools become."
"The current system is a civil rights nightmare."
"School superintendents have become referendum campaign managers with their tenure in the district determined by the outcome of operating levy referendums. What a way to manage public education!"
"Referendums are a horrible way to fund schools. They divide communities. 'Vote no' people need to trash the school to get their point across. The state needs to step up and raise enough revenue to properly fund schools."
"Even though we passed the levy, there are considerable hard feelings within the community. Local taxes are going up due to rising valuations. Parents of school-age children versus the elderly. Haves and would like to have mores. Homeschool, private, charter schools versus public school. This is a terrible way to fund necessities for schools."
"When did public education become public enemy No. 1?"
To view the report in its entirety, visit www.mn2020.org.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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