Education funding for rural Minnesota needs to change, said parents and administrators of area school districts.
During an education forum held March 25 at Cambridge Intermediate School, Milaca School District Superintendent Jerry Hansen said school districts shouldn’t have to rely on passing bond referendums and operating levies for funding.
“When you try passing excess operating levies and bond referendums, they are difficult, if not impossible to pass,” Hansen said. “Our school district was finally able to pass one this fall, but the solution doesn’t rely in operating levies – it relies in St. Paul.”
The forum was sponsored by the Cambridge-Isanti Community Action and Response for Education (C-I CARE). Its mission is to actively advocate for legislation that supports quality and equity in education from K-12 in Minnesota public schools with a focus on issues specific to the Cambridge-Isanti School District. C-I CARE was established by parents to be an advocate for the public school district and the learners, families and communities it serves.
Of the 336 school districts in the state, area districts rank the lowest in per pupil funding.
“Per pupil funding is a problem for the entire East Central Minnesota,” Hansen said. He cited numbers that ranked Princeton at 299; North Branch, 302; Mora, 303; Milaca, 304; Cambridge, 319; and Rush City, 328.
Hansen said during the 2001 tax reform, the state said state legislators would be responsible for funding the general education formula.
“The state created a system and it failed,” Hansen said. “As a result, school districts are forced to ask local citizens to approve operating levies.”
Hansen said because operating levies are based on property values and because most communities in East Central Minnesota do not have large industrial and commercial businesses, the taxpayers in these communities pay more.
He said to generate $1,633 per student funding, on a $100,000 home, taxpayers in Milaca would pay $509, Cambridge-Isanti, $456, North Branch, $415, and Princeton, $480.
“This represents the fact that school districts in East Central Minnesota pay two to five times more than other districts because of our lower property values,” Hansen said. “It costs an average taxpayer $449 based on a $100,000 home in the rural school districts for a $1,633 operating levy.”
Hansen said it isn’t fair the school districts pay more because it doesn’t cost any less to live in East Central Minnesota.
“Education is the engine for economic success and prosperity,” Hansen said. “It is time to level the playing field for all students in East Central Minnesota.”
North Branch School Board Member Kirby Ekstrom said school districts in East Central Minnesota have been forced to cut budgets.
“The North School District has had $16 million in budget cuts since 2003-2004, and we are looking at another $1.5 million,” Ekstrom said. “With the continued cuts to our fund balance, we are not able to add any additional opportunities for our students. The basic education is there, but we aren’t able to provide opportunities for our students to expand their horizons.”
Ekstrom explained the past eight bond and levy referendums have failed for the North Branch School District.
“We have had a tough time selling the community on a bond and levy,” Ekstrom said. “This past time, the city of North Branch voters approved the bond and levy, but it failed in the surrounding communities, so overall it failed with 53 percent voting against and 47 for it. We are encouraged because we are getting more yes votes, but still not getting them passed.”
Ekstrom said the North Branch School District removed an old building, the Main Street school, because it wasn’t being used anymore, which results in an annual $400,000 savings. He said the district going to a four-day week has resulted in a $250,000 annual savings. The district implemented an energy savings plan that has resulted in $500,000 savings to date.
“With the funding not there that we need, it really creates a way of thinking outside the box,” Ekstrom said.
Erika Zdon, a parent in the Cambridge-Isanti School District, said she had several opportunities as a student in a metro area school district. She didn’t realize all students didn’t have these same school offerings.
“I had wonderful high school opportunities. … I didn’t realize what my children are missing out on,” Zdon said. “What I’m looking for is more language programs, and it would be nice to have more music programs. We don’t have any music programs for our students until they reach the sixth grade. If we don’t touch that student until sixth grade, it might be too late. Art teachers share the love of art and passion and education.”
Rep. Bob Barrett, who represents North Branch and Chisago Lakes school districts, talked about House file 755, a bill he authored that would equalize education funding.
“Two main reasons why funding differs for school districts in East Central Minnesota is because of categoricals and the property wealth of the district,” Barrett said. “House file 755 provides some measure of equality in funding. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s a first step toward a solution.”
Barrett said the bill would give the Cambridge-Isanti School District $2.5 million, Chisago Lakes $500,000 to $600,000 and North Branch $1.5 million.
“The bill would give funding to the places it’s needed the most—to the school districts on the bottom level of funding,” Barrett said. “We want this bill as part of the final education bill. The cost of my bill is $90 million that’s being added to a budget of $11 to $13 billion. The $90 million is really a small amount being added onto a large part of an appropriation.”
Rep. Tim Faust, who represents most of Kanabec and Pine counties, said education funding needs to be addressed.
“This isn’t an issue of fairness—it’s an issue of economic stability of the country,” Faust said. “We need to invest in our children because they are competing with a global job market.”
Rep. Joe Radinovich, who represents the Crosby-Ironton School District and serves on the K-12 education finance committee, said more programs are being discontinued every year due to lack of funding.
“We can’t afford to exist with the growing disparity between schools,” Radinovich said. “We need to see major significant changes in the education funding formula.”
Sen. Sean Nienow, who represents the Cambridge-Isanti School District, authored Senate file 929, a bill that addresses general education disparity aid eligibility designation for school districts or charter schools with below-average revenue.
“There is a tremendous need for more vocation and technical programs in the school districts,” Nienow said. “School districts in East Central Minnesota come out on the short end of the stick and that’s the simple reality.”
Cambridge-Isanti School District Superintendent Bruce Novak said the education formula needs to change.
“I’m hearing tonight how our districts are competing globally and locally,” Novak said. “We can’t get our students into a 21st century education if we are funding on a 19th century model. Our students are not Democrats or Republicans—they are our future. We need to change the funding formula and get off the 19th century model so we can get them the funding they needs so they can compete in the global market.”
Those gathered urged the legislators to get the education funding formula changed.
“I was elected to the Cambridge-Isanti School Board by this community to represent the best interests of the community,” Mark Becker said. “We elected you officials to represent us and to get something done. We understand the resistance of change and hope you will take that challenge on.”
All the legislators gathered at the forum encouraged the public to contact the legislators with their concerns about education funding.