Legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for school districts might be driven by good intentions but it has resulted in bad policy.
As part of the education package approved in the 2013 session, the state Legislature gave school districts the ability to levy up to $300 per student without voter approval. Districts already had the ability to seek additional funds through an excess operating levy, but voters had to okay the tax increase.
Sen. Tom Bakk, who introduced the new Student Achievement Levy, said the current system created inequities in education because districts with larger tax bases and substantial property wealth were more successful in passing operating levies.
That may be true, but the Cook DFLer ignores the fact that operating levies were rare before the state began tinkering with funding for schools. There were always differences in educational amenities offered at districts across the state, but the gaps were less wide when the Minnesota Miracle was still intact.
More importantly, no longer requiring districts to obtain public support for a levy removes a critical check from the system. Sen. Bakk has previously indicated that his measure was crafted with school districts like ISD 2142 in mind. Yet voters have been reluctant to support operating levies for ISD 2142 because they didn’t feel the district was spending tax dollars wisely. That, in turn, forced the board to take a closer look at how it invested those dollars and search for ways to operate more efficiently.
That effort had gained momentum recently, following revelations that the district was facing a new round of budget deficits, despite a restructuring plan that was supposed to net significant savings, but failed to do so. The board had begun to discuss a possible administrative restructuring in hopes of reducing the district’s extraordinarily high overhead at its main office in Virginia.
Instead, board discussion has now turned to taking advantage of the new legislation to implement a new operating levy. And that would be on top of a healthy funding increase the school district is already slated to receive as a result of the education funding boost approved by the Legislature this spring. New hiring of non-educational staff is also already in the works. Unfortunately, for some school districts, a license to print money isn’t going to promote more efficiency in operations.
At Monday’s study session, Business Manager Kim Johnson raised the prospect of using the new levy authority to provide funding for Learning Readiness and other early education programs. That’s a worthy cause, but the problem is the board can’t guarantee that’s where the additional dollars will wind up. That’s because any money generated by a levy would flow to the general fund, the same fund used to pay salaries and benefits for employees, utility costs, and a host of other operating expenses. Competition for the extra dollars, especially from employee groups, would likely result.
Johnson also said the impact on taxpayers would be minimal because the district expects to receive up to an additional $7 million that could be used to reduce taxpayers’ payment of a 20-year bond to construct new schools and remodel older schools. But taxpayers, already chafing under higher school district taxes, are looking for relief, not new taxes to replace ones that might be reduced.
Meanwhile, the district will be getting additional funds for education thanks to adjustments in the state general aid formula, increased aid for special education, and additional dollars through taconite relief. In 2014 alone, ISD 2142 expects to receive nearly $400,000 more than it did in 2013 as a result of these changes and that dollar amount will be at least three times larger in 2015.
Moreover, the state also approved Early Childhood scholarships to help families afford Early Childhood programming for their children. Those scholarships, based on financial need, should be available to a number of ISD 2142 parents.
ISD 2142 still has the option of seeking voters’ approval for an excess operating levy. If the district has a convincing case that it needs additional funds, it should bring that case to the voters to decide.
But the problem for ISD 2142 is that it lacks the trust of many of the residents it serves. It should work on regaining that trust by following through on promises it makes to the public, communicating openly with residents, and showing a real commitment to financial accountability and efficiency.
Even though state law permits it, increasing school taxes without public support would be just another blow to the district’s reputation. And that’s something that ISD 2142 simply cannot afford.