St. Michael-Albertville School Board Chairman Douglas Birk told a crowd of Wright County school officials and legislative representatives that he’s “mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.”
It’s an old movie line, he said, but it fits the situation facing St. Michael-Albertville Schools and other area school district.
He and other district officials from around Wright County held a joint legislative meeting earlier this month with state legislators representing the area to discuss equity in school funding. Minnesota House Representative David FitzSimmons, who represents the St. Michael area, participated in the discussion, and says the issue is one of his priorities this legislative session.
St. Michael City Council members also attended, and representatives from other cities emphasized that the health of schools is vital to the economic health of the city.
At the meeting, officials discussed the current state funding formula for K-12 education that hasn’t been revised in about 10 years.
“The issue is how the (state) pot of money gets divided,” Birk said. “Today, similar students in public schools throughout Minnesota receive vastly different sums of spending simply based on where their parents live."
It’s not about raising taxes, Birk emphasized, but about distributing the state money using a system that provides an even playing field.
“Every day, my son and daughter wake up in St. Michael and attend great schools,” he told the crowd. “Today, they get an excellent education and enjoy lots of educational opportunities. The good news is, they don’t know what I know.”
What they don't know is STMA students receive thousands of dollars less per year than other students in the state, even ones a few miles down the road, he said.
“They don’t know that every year, the funding gap becomes wider and wider,” Birk said. “And they don’t know the truth: no matter how our school districts conducts their business, there is simply no magical combination of spending cuts or levy measures that can overcome the rising class sizes and genuine loss in educational opportunity that is inevitable if this gap continues for another ten years.”
Schools for Equity in Education (SEE) created the above video on the issue.
Birk emphasized that the funding issue won’t affect STMA next year, or the year after, but will have a long-term detriment on the district if the formula is not revised. The district is in a special financial situation coincidentally because of new buildings financed by bonds.
“We need to become even more invested in this fight,” Birk said. “This is one lost cause actually worth fighting for.”
Where STMA Stands
STMA is currently 10th from the bottom in per-pupil funding from the state out of more than 300 school districts in Minnesota, according to Superintendent Jim Behle. The districts that receive less are in Hermantown, Royalton, Kasson-Mantorville, Bryon, Esko, Esko, Medford, Fanconcia, Prinsburg, and McLeod West.
The current formula provides state funding on a per-pupil basis according to geographic factors that include how much commercial development is in the district’s city. Wright County schools generally have less commercial development, making them “low property wealth districts” as compared to metro area schools and surrounding suburbs — so the chunk of taxes to the school that businesses would pay are carried over to the portion coming from household property taxes.
“School districts have no control over the amount of property wealth their city has,” Birk said.
The problem with that system, Birk explained, is that there comes a point when increasing the levy puts an unrealistic burden to taxpayers, who are paying a much larger portion for the same amount of money each pupil gets from the state.
For example, for the current $1,663 of per-pupil funding, a St. Michael-Albertville taxpayer, with a $100,000 assessed home value, pays a portion of $497 each year, and the state pays the rest. For the same per-pupil funding, a Hopkins resident pays $153, with the state contributing the rest.
Other Wright County districts are also in the same ballpark as STMA: an Elk River resident pays $411, Buffalo pays $409, and Monticello pays $387.
“If we’re trying to get a $1,600 levy, there’s a threshold where our taxpayers can’t afford it,” he said. “It becomes very difficult for taxpayers in this region to pass levys because their tax impact is so significant.”
He added that creating a fair playing field does not mean every school district in the state should get the same exact funding, but if the system is going to rely on levys, the system needs to be changed — or else the long-term affect on STMA will be significant.
Years ago, levys were only passed for school districts as add-ons — for money other than the district’s operating budget. Now, with the reliance of levys, the issue becomes crucial, he said.
“Now, you have to have levy dollars in order to survive,” he said, adding that the state also used to pay equalization dollars to districts with low commercial property, but no longer does that.
Birk explained the other factor is the special state funding provided to school districts that fall under certain categories, like low-income or large area of land covered by one school district. He agrees that some of the factors make sense — Minneapolis qualifies for more special education funding because of its needs, but “there’s no reason Wayzata and Edina should get more per pupil than STMA.”
“We would like to see the state distribute funds to schools based on student need and less on categorical factors unrelated to student need,” Birk said.
In 2001, Minnesota implemented property tax reform —some of which were not necessarily aimed at public education, but started to create differences in per pupil revenues based on property tax values.
Birk said the levy will stay the same for the next ten years, but “there’s some point down the line where we’re going to face challenges.”
“It takes a long time to solve these things,” he said. “It is complicated. And that’s one of the reasons it’s never been fixed. No one knows how to fix it. They just shake their head and do a little tweak. The overall system is flawed. We need to come up with a new formula.”
He believes it will take legislative work that goes beyond party lines.
“There’s a way to fix it — it will take political courage and nonpartisanship that is unprecedented in this day and age,” Birk said. “This current system is a product of legislators who represent districts who benefit more from the formula than other school districts. We haven’t had those power players in St. Michael-Albertville.”
But for the first time, redistricting has created a picture where there are just about as many state representatives representing school districts negatively impacted by the funding system as there are those who would prefer no change.
Birk said people in STMA should not worry or think that the impact is right around the corner — but action is needed early because of the complexity of the issue.
“We’re fine for the next few years,” Birk said. “But if we don’t find a way to get a fairer stake, then all that has to be made up locally and that’s not right.”
'Affects All of us'
School funding doesn’t just affect schools — but has an impact on businesses, real estate values, economic health of the city and region.
Phil Kern, city administrator for the City of Delano said at the meeting that in talking with school officials, he realized quickly that the issue affects more than just schools.
“It became very apparent, very quickly, that this is not just a school district issue, it’s a city issue, county issue, community issue,” Kern said.
Birk added, “It affects every aspect of the hundreds of services and thousands of personal and economic relationships our public schools make every day in each of our communities.”
FitzSimmons, who represents St. Michael, Albertville, Otsego, Hanover and a portion of Dayton, said he supports equalization in funding. He said getting people involved from cities that have better funding from school districts is key.
“Sometimes, more than volume, is precision,” he explained. “It’s great to have encouragement and support from the district, but on the other hand, what’s more effective is finding that friend from Edina and getting them involved — finding out how to get friends and family engaged that may be in a more benefiting district.”
Legislators told the crowd that this session, the more phonecalls, emails and letters from constituents about this issue, the more progress can be made on it.
Continuing to explain the complicated issue to more people and getting the word out is also beneficial — especially educating students in the K-12 system about what is happening.
“We need to get out of this bubble,” said Minnesota House Representative Marion O’Neil. “We need to use a tactic we haven’t thought of before — be open and honest with our children. When they get wind of this, they’ll get it on Facebook and Twitter and let people across the state know that they won’t take it.”