With a projected $5.7 billion state budget deficit that lawmakers will have to contend with in 13 months, area lawmakers told Brainerd School Board members Tuesday that they should prepare for the worst for educational funding in the next biennium.
The Brainerd School Board Legislative Committee met Tuesday with five area lawmakers - Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd; Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker; Rep. Al Doty, DFL-Royalton; Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley; and Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji. The committee previously met with lawmakers before the most recent legislative session.
Brainerd Schools Superintendent Steve Razidlo told lawmakers that there is a growing disparity between the haves and the have nots. Wealthier Twin Cities area districts can pass excess levy referendums that rural Minnesota districts can't. He noted in a spreadsheet that Brainerd has a $199.24 per pupil operating levy that will expire in two years while school districts like Minnetonka, Hopkins, Wayzata and other Twin Cities area schools have operating levies that range from $1,051.22 to $1,862.48 per pupil. While Razidlo said the district is fortunate to have its operating levy, he asked that lawmakers work with school districts to create a more equitable funding system in the state.
Razidlo also brought up the shift in state aid payments, where districts will be reimbursed for 70 percent of its costs next year and 30 percent the following year. This will cost the Brainerd district up to about $9 million. The district may need to borrow about $7 million-$10 million to make sure it has adequate cash flow to pay its bills, which also may cost an additional $150,000 in interest for short-term borrowing.
"We are simply outnumbered, with metro legislators vs. rural," Howes explained. "You have a problem, you definitely do and the mood of the citizens in this area, right or wrong, (is that they) are opposed to increasing operating levies. The same goes in Walker (school district). ... We did the very best we could. The shift is going to hurt you, yes. We did the best we could. We can't make any excuses."
Doty agreed that it can be difficult for rural legislators down at the state Capitol.
"When we're down there, we're spending a lot of our time - it's a three-way, it's the Twin Cities, the suburbs and us," said Doty. "And us, we aren't always on the same page either."
Ward said that when he has spoken to area superintendents, they all said they preferred a shift in aid payments rather than a cut, because those were the two options.
"Was anybody happy? I don't think anybody was happy but that's what compromise is," said Ward. "On the last day we passed a bill that everybody is going to live with but I don't think anybody was happy about it. To me, it was an accomplishment to finish on time for the fourth year in a row with a balanced budget."
"I think we came out of this session the correct way, without raising taxes," said Koering. He noted that if the state had raised taxes it still wouldn't have resolved the deficit the state is facing in the next biennium.
Koering said the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.
"We're expected to pass the same tests for our kids with a lower level of funding and that's not fair," said Olson. "I'm expecting further cuts. I'm not supporting that but realistically you have to accept that fact. If you say you're going to hold harmless education and cut it and then call it a shift, I don't consider that a responsible shift. I didn't vote for it. I didn't support it."
Razidlo asked lawmakers what they would suggest the district can do to help lawmakers ensure equity in education funding.
Olson told Razidlo to get all the stakeholders organized and get "on the same page." She recommended talking to the gubernatorial candidates on both sides of the aisle about rural education funding equity to find out what their plan is and what they would do differently.
Doty added that the district should find others in the community, not just school groups, to leverage their pull.
"I can't promise you we won't cut education," said Howes. "Things could change but things could also get worse. I say buckle up, brace yourself and be ready for either direction because it's not going to be pretty."
"We all wish we had that crystal ball ...," said Ward. "In my honest opinion, a lot is going to depend on who gets elected in this state, from the executive branch to the House and the Senate. Make sure you connect and have dialogue with the candidates who are running for office. "
Board member Kent Montgomery asked lawmakers about whether there was any movement in the Legislature about changing the settlement penalty from a penalty to an incentive. The district lost $200,000 in state funding because it did not reach a settlement with its teachers' union, Education Minnesota Brainerd, by Jan. 15. The district continues to be in mediation with EMB.
Ward said there was a lot of talk about it but it didn't go anywhere.
Board member Ruth Nelson said the settlement penalty should be shared by districts and its teachers' unions.
"I agree with that," Koering said.
Olson said lawsuits should be used only as a last resort but the possibility is out there that school districts like Brainerd could sue the state for funding inequity.
"We have three separate branches in government for a reason," said Olson. "The courts are there for when branches of government are not functioning the way they should be, to bring things back into balance. Our (state) constitution requires funding equity around the state. It's in our constitution. ... This is not a Republican-Democrat issue. Maybe as a lawyer I have a lot of respect for the courts. They are not the first place people want to run to but they are a very important foundation in our country. We are the ones getting the short end of the stick."
Koering called the idea of school districts suing the state "ridiculous."
"Where is the money going to come from," asked Koering. "When families are at their kitchen table and they have $400 a week coming in but expenses are $500, they can't go to their boss and ask for more money for their bills. They have to cut back."
Ward noted that the Minnesota Miracle back in the 1970s began education reform as a result of a lawsuit.
"We're in this situation because of a revenue problem," said Ward. "We cut over $3 billion this year. We are not afraid to cut."
Razidlo said the district has made numerous cuts in recent years and there isn't much left to cut.
"We're down 20-25 teachers where we should be, that's a significant effect on children," said Razidlo. "We don't have a lot of fat left to cut. We are really going to affect quality in the next round of cuts. ... I ask you and encourage you to promote the issue of equity. Don't help those who can help themselves at the expense of everyone else."
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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