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Location: St. Paul, Minnesota, United States

Sunday, December 05, 2004

School Budget Woes

[From a community observer]
"Keep in the mind, the budget is set by the legislature - the school board
is simply stuck with the frustrating job of dividing up what they get."

[Andy]
No, it is not true that the Legislature sets budgets for school districts. I really don't know where anyone would get the impression that the state creates a pool from which all districts must divine their share.

The only budget number supplied by the state is a per-pupil rate for school aid. Yes, the state figure raises or lower the local district obligation to make up the difference, but this, like local government aids, leaves the hard decision to the local unit to make up for. Districts can never afford to drop their taxes, because new burdens and inflation alone keep bumping up the necessary per-pupil expenditures, especially in city districts.

The state school aid formula is one source of money and districts receive their share based on per-student enrollment figures (that the state should take responsibility for all the money, paid for by a progressive tax system is another discussion). But the other major source of funding for schools comes from each district's direct property taxation power - with ceilings imposed by the Legislature. Additional revenues are raised by referenda - ballot questions where the voters decide whether to give their particular district the power to collect an additional property tax - and the only barrier to how much is the wisdom of the voters, not the state.

The tax levy authority is different from referenda authority in that the base tax rate school districts may charge property taxpayers is imposed without taxpayer approval, but those rates have, indeed, been maxed out for the last 45-50 years, so far as I can tell. Referenda, again, are always available if the political climate accommodates their success.

If sufficient state funding from a progressive source (like income taxes) came down based on real needs and fewer political agendas, we would never far fewer, if any, referenda, which too often give taxpayers the mechanism to deprive our children of their inherent right to an adequate education and thus preparation for future participation in and contribution to society rather than an uneducated burden on our social service and corrections systems.

The labyrinthine funding of public schools - especially the idiotic system of basing the financing of our children's education in major part on fluctuating property values – and not the intrinsic stability of a progressive tax - has left the children - not the system - without the resources necessary to better assure success in adulthood and citizenship.

Those are the main sources of school funding - and it's pretty much a mess, since far too many people who believe - wrongly - that they either no longer have a direct stake in the school system or they never did. Chief among these people are seniors, parents whose children have grown out of the "Keep in the mind, the budget is set by the legislature - the school board
is simply stuck with the frustrating job of dividing up what they get."system, and people who send their children to private schools. And, of course, businesses, especially whose owners and executives live outside the district.

I've always been amazed at the gall of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, the majority of whose all-too-powerful membership live outside the district boundaries, pay only for the schools in their home districts, and thus have no personal stake in the operation - or the products - of the St. Paul Schools. But still this outfit manages to exercise undue influence on the St. Paul district's ability to raise the revenues necessary to assure that the "products" – the district's children – emerge from the system prepared to serve as knowledgeable, well-balanced and productive citizens, parents, workers and leaders. And still the Chamber is forever stepping in to give its blessing or condemnation to any St. Paul Schools referendum as if the additional tax dollars might break the bank of the corporations who receive the services of all St. Paul public entities.

This is criminal.

Just as it has been seen as unfair that urban districts with higher populations of households without children should have to grovel for more money through periodic referendums than wealthier suburbs with kids can, the whole idea that equal access to adequate funding based on need and not property values, on need and not religious tenets, and on need and not curriculum should be our first reform priority.

Despite needing to ask voters for support for an expiring referendum, the School Board can always put a referendum on the ballot. I believe any District is limited in the number of referenda presented to voters only by political realities and their chances of passage. I doubt that limitations exist on the dollars raised or the number of ballot questions submitted. This is certainly borne out by the significantly higher funding levels and numbers of referenda submitted and passed by family-rich suburbs for curriculum enhancement and sports programming.

Again, these referenda ought not be necessary for providing the basics, and that's essentially what has happened to inner city districts versus suburban communities. St. Paul and Minneapolis are forever trying to pick up the slack in basic operations (especially with more students in our population requiring much more attention for income, nutrition, language, learning disabilities and the consequent behavioral issues attendant to all of those.

If sufficient state funding from a progressive source (like income taxes) came down based on real needs and fewer political agendas, we would never far fewer, if any, referenda, which too often give taxpayers the mechanism to deprive our children of their inherent right to an adequate education and thus preparation for future participation in and contribution to society rather than an uneducated burden on our social service and corrections systems.

The Right's pennywise, pound-foolish attempt at privatizing education right now is the most UNconservative approach to education any society could adopt, and, in every case, yields little more than larger numbers of uneducated adults drawing down on community resources instead of helping build them up through productive work, taxpaying, and leadership. This way is not the most liberal way - it's the best conservation and application of new and existing resources a society can enact. Any other alternative should be viewed as a radical attempt at controlling the learning content of all students to conform to a narrow agenda of religious fundamentalists and enriching private, unaccountable corporations at the expense of all of us who pay taxes.

And I haven't even yet touched on the incredibly negative effects of a bad public school system on a city's property values. On that issue, all taxpayers should be concerned that the system, whether they have children in it or not, be a stable, well-operated and effective teacher of all students.

This is so complicated for most people to understand, it's no wonder they often just say "No" at the polls. Most folks now involved weren't around when the so-called "Minnesota Miracle" was passed in the first term of Wendy Anderson and his majority DFL Legislature (1970). It was a major shift in education funding source from property taxes to income taxes, where it belonged, and all of the measurements for public school success jumped massively. Of course, major erosion of that system and a crawl back to the property tax base pushed hard by wealthy people, especially highly paid corporate executives, has occurred in the 25 years since and our achievement levels have reflected that regression, especially in cities like ours.

Again. It's criminal, the disparity of funding and allocation practices the powerful elite have been able to foist on the populace ever since. And with that disparity comes blaming the victim: the districts which find it impossible to conduct their mission properly with pressure from those who want the system to go private, and with deprivation of resources, can claim failure of the public schools to meet their mandate.

It is one true conspiracy.
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