A group of state legislative candidates representing the St. Michael and Albertville areas discussed several local issues at a forum this week.
Held at Middle School West in St. Michael, the group of candidates answered questions from members of the St. Michael-Albertville School District, St. Michael City Council and Albertville City Council.
Topics ranged from school funding to transportation on the Interstate 94 corridor.
Candidates who attended included Bruce Anderson, seeking Senate 29; David FitzSimmons, seeking House 30B; Marion O'Neill, seeking House 29B; Mary Kiffmeyer, seeking Senate 30; Brian Doran, seeking Senate 29; Paul Perovich, seeking Senate 30; Sharon Shimek, seeking House 30B; and Joe McDonald, seeking House 29A.
Deb Griffiths of Schools for Equity in Education, also known as SEE, discussed the inequity in funding that is putting STMA schools "at a disadvantage." SEE is an organization that lobbies the legislature for equity in school funding.
She pointed out that the STMA school district gets a far lower per-pupil funding from the state than other school districts.
"The part that's frustrating is the legislature has always had a cap on how much revenue we can get from our local referendum," she said to the group. "(The funding we get) is not based on the needs of kids, but merely the zip code in which we live."
STMA school board member Drew Scherber asked the candidates what they would do about the funding inequity.
Kiffmeyer said the issue is complicated by a formula that if adjusted, could hurt one school district in favor of another.
"What I see in the future is that we have to dismantle so many of those formulas," Kiffmeyer said. "We did make progress on it, and I would go back and see to it that we continue to make progress."
Perovich said the effort will take courage.
"The truth is, in the last four years, no one's really had the courage to step up and say that something needs to change," Perovich said. "Something has to happen in the next four years to make sure our school district survives."
Looking toward trends future is important when considering this issue, Shimek said, explaining that taxes going to the school are negatively impacted by more people moving to more urban areas.
Support for the Interstate 94 corridor was expressed by the candidates after St. Michael Mayor Jerry Zachman asked them about the expansion project — a project that would add lanes on the interstate.
Anderson said at least two lanes are needed going both directions to Monticello, if not to St. Cloud.
"I think infrastructure is key to moving our products," Anderson said of the health of businesses in transporting their products.
O'Neill said that Minnesota is ranked 45 out of 50 for "economic opportunity," and she attributes that to the high tax burden for businesses.
"We are in trouble, and it may not be today, but tomorrow and the next tomorrow, and the next tomorrow, we'll be in bigger trouble," she said. "What do you think is going to happen to our school districts when businesses leave?"
She added that legislators need to "take a serious look" at the indexes rating Minnesota as 45, including business and personal property taxes, income taxes, and sales taxes.
Funding for special education at schools brought another debate.
Investing in head start programs should be a priority, Perovich said. He added that he thinks the public is not aware of how special education funding works — that many people believe an increase in special education funding would take away funding from talented and gifted programs.
"This is the problem with the perception of special education," he said. "Communities aren't behind it, and they really don't understand it."
Kiffmeyer said federal mandates make special education funding unique, and that local control of the dollars would help.
Shimek said sources of revenue for schools have to be looked at and programs should be evaluated regularly to see if they are effective.
Doran said several state bonds could be refinanced and would "save us millions on interest payments."It's another way of working revenue, it doesn't always have to be taxes," Doran said.
Moderator Douglas Birk said the current formula for school funding benefits about 100 districts in the state out of more than 330 districts. He added that with the redistricting of representatives, there are now more representatives representing districts that are "detrimentally affected" by the current state funding formula.
"Partisanship aside, geographically speaking, there's possibility for some movement on the issue," Birk said.
McDonald said to the group that they should focus on the positives that the legislature accomplishes each session.
"Few people in Minnesota will say that we spend too much on education," he said. "The question is how we best spend it, and is it reaching our students so they can live in Minnesota and prosper?"