MARSHALL - At least two state Republican representatives are going somewhere their colleagues haven't gone before by speaking out and campaigning against schools that are dipping into an historically-generous well by pursuing voter-approved tax increases in November after K-12 schools received a $50-per-pupil funding increase this summer.
State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who is the chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, isn't happy about the fact that about one-third of school districts in Minnesota are going after levies this fall for additional operating revenue and criticized schools for going after a "second bite of the apple." State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, has reportedly sent a newsletter to constituents asking them to contact school officials about proposed levy referendums and "urge them to drop their request."
District 21A Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said it's not his place to tell any school official what to do or how to handle their money issues.
"Representative Garofalo can do what he wants to, but I think our area superintendents and school boards and administration know what's best for their schools," Dahms said. "Of all the schools I visited in the 21st District I can't say that I know of any of them that aren't doing a good job in running their finances. For me to say anything about their finances, that's not my position."
A Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) 2011 Referendum Survey showed that 133 school districts in Minnesota are considering asking voters for levy, bond or capital facility requests in November. Of the 133, 121 are going for an operating levy vote. By comparison, only 65 school districts had an operating levy referendum on the ballot in 2003. In 2007, 101 districts asked for an operating levy. A dozen districts are specifically going out for a bond or capital projects levy, and several are going out for both a levy and bond.
State law says that school officials can ask for additional taxes in three- to 10-year increments. When those terms are set to expire, voters must either approve them again or the districts lose the revenue.
The Marshall School District is among those putting a referendum on the ballot this fall. Marshall will have two referendum questions on the ballot: The first to extend the existing referendum of $675 per pupil, the other to approve an additional $150 per pupil amount. Question one has to pass for the other option to be considered.
Redwood Area and Dawson Boyd are also pursuing an operating referendum this year. Dawson-Boyd is seeking an increase from $752 per pupil to $990; Redwood Area is seeking to renew its $500 per pupil levy, the MSBA said.
The first deadline for most districts to notify counties of an intent to ask for a referendum was Aug. 26. If there are no city or county elections in a given district, the notification deadline is today.
District 21A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said he hasn't spoken with Garofalo about his issues with the schools asking taxpayers for more money but, like Garofalo, noted that schools will be receiving an extra $50 per pupil from the state.
"We did have an increase in the budget and a large part is going to be able to cover any issues to deal with the shift in funding - two years ago there was a $1.6 billion shift and the Legislature didn't appoint any money to districts for those payments," Swedzinski said. "What we did in the Legislature was a much smaller shift with the governor; we at least gave them money in addition to what they get to make their payments."
But it's not as if schools have painted themselves into the corner they're in. As part of the budget balancing act this year, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed to delay $700 million in payments to K-12 schools - a tough decision neither side was happy with. So while the $50-per-pupil boost sounds good, District 20A Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said schools will end up seeing a net loss. Citing the Minnesota Department of Education, he said the shift in aid to schools amounts to $4,168 per pupil.
"This is a direct result of some of the financial tricks and stealing from the schools," Falk said. "We've doubled down on the shift. I feel bad for the schools. We used to have schools go to the property taxpayers for the bells and whistles, and additional services and programs, now we've got basically 95 percent of them doing it for operations. It's very clear the state is not fulfilling its obligations to pay to help educate our students.
"I don't like shifting," Dahms said. "But I'm not convinced these referendums are being caused because of this last school shift."
Falk said funding shifts that work against schools have reached historic levels and what Garofalo is doing undermines locally-elected school boards.
"If we want to do away with having those officials make these decisions and have a control structure out of St. Paul that's a discussion to have, but I don't agree with what he says. We have locally-elected officials and they have the responsibility and hopefully the tools to do their job. If that means going to the property taxpayers for a levy, that's their responsibility and their decision to make," he said.