When it comes to your schools, parents can make a difference

By Mary Helen Swanson
ECM Post Review, North Branch

The small group of educators and parents gathered at the Isanti Middle School last Tuesday, March 27, was encouraged to do several things: keep an open mind, listen to the facts and become a fierce advocate for their children’s education.

Knowing that area school districts are funded at a much lower level than others in the state, regional superintendents called the meeting to get people fired up and on the band wagon to lobby for their children and public schools at the Minnesota Legislature.

On hand were Bruce Novak, superintendent of Cambridge-Isanti schools, Jerry Hansen, superintendent of Milaca schools, Deb Henton, superintendent of North Branch schools and Deb Griffiths, director of communications and community outreach with SEE (Schools for Equity in Education).

Opening the meeting, Novak told the people that funding in East Central region is sorely lacking, particularly in the districts he and the other superintendent’s represent.

The Minnesota Constitution is very clear about education funding, said Supt. Hansen. He believes the Legislature is not doing its job.

New revenue

Hansen went on to explain funding shifts and a recent increase in school funding. Historically, the state paid 90 percent and withheld 10 percent, he said,

In 2009-10, the state paid 73 percent and withheld 27 percent. This year they withheld 40 percent, he said.

This impacts school districts’ cash flow and borrowing costs. Hansen noted that Milaca had to borrow $4 million this year paying $50,000 in fees and interest. That’s money that’s not going to the kids, he said.

In much of East Central Minnesota, school districts receive $1 to $308 fewer dollars than the state average in the most recent boost to school district funding.

Cambridge-Isanti is receiving $237 and North Branch $241 less per pupil than the state average. Milaca is receiving $280 less, but they have more students to work with, Hansen noted.

Of the 336 school districts in the state, C-I (326th), North Branch (308th) and Rush City (319th) all fall in the bottom 25 percent of funding.

Tax reform

Hansen went on to explain the history of the property tax and the 2001 property tax reform.

In 2001 the Legislature determined that the state would take on the greater responsibility for education funding, but eventually the revenue stream failed.

This made it necessary for school districts to ask for operating levies, levies that used to be called “excess” because they usually funded the extra things the school district wanted.

Griffiths began to energize the group saying every child deserves a great education no matter where he or she lives.

She said parents have an obligation to become informed about the issues in their schools. And she said, the legislators want to hear from the voters.

Be friendly and polite with the legislators, she urged as she explained that face-to-face makes the biggest impact with them.

Regarding email, she said legislators say if they get 10 emails on a subject – that’s noise. Phone calls are best for more urgent issues, she went on.

Supt. Novak said it’s the voice of the parents that the legislators should be hearing, “you are the government,” he said.

He noted that school board members work very hard on behalf of the students and they could use a call of support, but he insisted it is the parents who need to go forward.

In his own district of Cambridge-Isanti there is a need to keep informing the public of the school issues, he said, and he intends to get a parents’ group started.

But Supt. Hansen with an important message. He said he can go to the legislature 100 times and it’s like going once. But he said if 10 parents go to St. Paul once it’s counts like 100 times.

For more information check out SEE at www.schoolsforequity.org; the Minnesota Legislature at www.leg.state.mn.us; Minnesota Department of Education at www.education.state.mn.us; or Parents United at www.parentsunited.org.