81 levy referenda — that’s all?

/ 30 August 2010 / Parents United

Opinion, Star Tribune, August 30, 2010 –

Patsy Green is chair of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts and is a member of the Robbinsdale Area Schools Board of Education.

Sure, voters should ask questions about school funding, but they should direct their queries higher.

The Aug. 25 editorial (“Voters need to test school aid requests“) missed the target — factually and politically.

The editorial stated that on average, “about 50 Minnesota districts ask taxpayers for more funding each year.” In fact, the number of school districts conducting operating referendums has gone from a high of 197 in 2001 to a low of 53 in 2008. If anything, it is surprising that only 81 districts will be holding referendums this fall, given the state’s dismal performance in adequately funding our schools.

Rest assured, many more school boards seriously considered putting operating referendum questions on the ballot this fall, but they decided against it because of economic conditions. Those districts with questions on the ballot are either trying to hang on to existing funding by renewing current referendums, or they felt they had no choice given the cuts they face in the coming years.

Voters should absolutely ask questions of their school board members and administrators. School officials welcome this dialogue, because, quite frankly, an informed voter is more likely to vote in favor of the funding request. Minnesotans have long understood that strong schools are the key to healthy, vibrant communities.

But perhaps the toughest questions should be saved for the people who want to be governor or serve in the Legislature.

  • Why did Minnesota’s per-pupil spending fall from 8 percent above the national average in 1997 to 1.3 percent below the national average in 2007?
  • Why does Minnesota fail to fund its special-education formula, causing our school districts to spend more than $500 million in funding meant for regular instruction on special-education programs?
  • With a critical need to close the achievement gap, why have our state policymakers not restored the funding cuts to summer-school and after-school programming that were made in 2003?
  • Why do more than 90 percent of the school districts in Minnesota have to rely on voter-approved operating referendums to provide basic programs for their students?

I encourage people to ask questions of their local education officials who are forced to find other ways to fund school transportation, teacher salaries, extracurricular activities and education programs. They will quickly realize that asking a local community for more education funding comes only after every other option is exhausted.

But when it comes to tests this election season, please don’t stop at the local level. Voters need to demand answers from the people who want to make decisions for us in the governor’s office and the Legislature. For too long, Minnesota policymakers have let down Minnesota children and families by not living up to their responsibility to fully fund our public schools. Any answers that ignore this reality suggest that a candidate needs to do some more homework.

Patsy Green is chair of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts and is a member of the Robbinsdale Area Schools Board of Education.