School leaders describe sometimes surprising legislative priorities

Some surprising, as well as some continuing themes emerged through contacting 34 Minnesota district and charter school leaders from suburban and rural communities. They were asked what was their single most important recommendation to/request from the 2012 state legislature. Five major themes emerged.

1. Despite years of adjustments, some strange things can still be found in Minnesota’s funding formula. Elk River superintendent Mark Bezek pointed out that although substantial numbers of students in that district live in Anoka or Hennepin counties, the district loses several hundred thousand dollars a year because as of 1999, it’s administrative office was not located in the seven county metropolitan area. A Minnesota Senate education committee administrator confirmed this.

2. There is widespread, but not complete agreement between district and charter on some issues. One of those was greater targeted support for greater targeted early childhood education. From Jane Morken, interim elementary principal in Caledonia to Linda Madsen, Forest Lake Superintendent to Sabrina Williams, executive director of EXCELL Academy charter in Brooklyn Park, leaders agreed on the value of state support for all day, every day kindergarten and other early childhood programs.

Another area of agreement is the substantial “hold-back” policy that the last few legislatures have adopted. At one point, the Legislature provided 90% of funding during the year and retained10% to balance out shifts in student population from one district to another. That “hold-back” has now increased to 40%.

Leaders from Bruce Novak in Cambridge-Isanti wrote, “It is very difficult for school districts to operate on 60% of the revenues during the current fiscal year without borrowing money to meet the everyday operational expenses.” Vanessta Spark of Spectrum Charter in Elk River wrote, “, as a result of the hold back, money is spent on interest and I would rather spend it on the student.” Lisa Hendricks, director of Partnership Academy in Richfield wrote, “Charter schools deserve to have the same access traditional public schools have when it comes to borrowing money for the holdback. Our school will have to spend nearly $30,000 in fees to cover the holdback. In addition to the amount of time and energy that has been put in to finding a lending institution that could have been much better spent on improving the academic program at our school.

Several leaders urged that the legislature provide greater flexibility for innovation. Keith Lester, Brooklyn Center Superintendent explained, “Some flexibility with calendar and the ability to collaborate with other districts more easily would be very helpful.” Dan Overman, Mounds View Superintendent suggested that the legislature “Provide incentives and remove barriers to innovation and collaboration. “ Tom Kierney, director of New Heights Charter in Stillwater recommended greater flexibility in key staffing areas, as did Curt Tryggestad of Little Falls. He urged the legislature to “Support adequate teacher licensure flexibility for hard to fill content areas. This is especially important to outstate and small rural school districts.” Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen told me “My top priority is to have the legislature provide school districts a pathway to innovation. Some mechanism that allows and encourages us to fundamentally change the way learning and teaching happens, without spending the majority of our energies figuring out how to unmire ourselves from the present system.”

3. A number of leaders in “property poor school districts” urged legislators to reduce disparities in funding between their students, and those that have been able to pass operating levies. Vern Koepp of Rush City wrote” In the educational arena, the MN Legislature needs to restore equity to educational funding. The inequality of the current funding formula has created an educational system in which some schools struggle to provide basic educational opportunities for students while other schools provide many “extras.” At a minimum, the state should provide adequate funds for schools to meet the MN Academic Standards established by the legislature.

Superintendent Deb Henton of North Branch explained, “It is imperative for North Branch Area Public Schools that the legislature address the inequities in the current funding formula. An entire generation of students is losing out on educational opportunities and the formula has created winners and losers in public education. As a state we need to make sure all students receive the same opportunity to grow and succeed.

4. There is continuing encouragement for legislators to make the school funding formula fairer, clearer, less complex and more predictable. Ric Lahn, Princeton Superintendent wrote, ” My top priority for the upcoming legislative session is to provide an adequate, reliable and stable source of funding for pre-12 education. We cannot continue to underfund our public school system through taxation shifts and flat increases and expect better results.” Les Fujitake, Bloomington Superintendent and Edina Superintendent Ric Dressen both recommended that the legislature study the report of the 2011 Education Finance Working Group of which they were members. Their report is titled Funding Education for the Future.

5. Some leaders urged the legislature to keep designated funding to promote integration among students from different backgrounds. For Superintendent Jane Berenz of ISD 196 (Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan) “The top priority for District 196 in the 2012 session is to retain future funding for integration and equity efforts that the district began several years ago under the requirement of the state Integration Rule. The work being done in District 196 that is supported by integration funding has made measurable improvements in school diversity, climate and the achievement of students in these schools.

Others urged the legislature to designate funds for technology updates. As Braham Superintendent Gregory Winter explained, “If the legislature does not step in, we are going to have an even greater increase between the haves and have not districts on technology. Case in point, New York Mills Public School was able to pass a technology levy and begin a district wide implementation of the use of iPad technology. How are districts that do not have the current funds or the ability to pass technology levels keep up with those schools that can pass the levies or have the money?

Personally, my strongest hopes is that the legislature will reduce dependence on local property taxes, promote greater flexibility at the local school level to help districts more effectively meet students’ needs, and continue to expand opportunities for young people. Nations around the world with the highest average achievement don’t make funding dependent on which community a youngster lives in.