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Education Minnesota president says school funding reform is needed

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher is calling for lawmakers to provide a short-term fix for school funding and then begin tackling long-term school funding reform.

"We are asking the Legislature and the governor to come up with an inflationary increase for the next school year because last year they didn't finish the job," he said in an interview Wednesday in Bemidji.

Dooher is touring the state to advocate for a change in school funding. Education Minnesota is a union of 70,000 educators across the state.

The state's basic formula allowance for K-12 public education is set to increase by 1 percent for the next school year. As a result, the Bemidji School District is facing a shortfall of about $692,000, Dooher said. Statewide, school districts are facing a combined shortfall of at least $123.8 million, according to Education Minnesota.

"The first piece is that we need funding for next year to create just sort of a Band-Aid to stop the bleeding," he said.

He said Education Minnesota is also asking the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to agree to change the funding formula so it is equitable, sustainable, predictable and sufficient.

"What's happening is we're seeing more and more reliance on excess levies to operate schools, and that's never what they were designed to do," Dooher said. "They were designed to bring extras in."

Education Minnesota has found that the per-pupil amount school districts have raised through referendums has increased continuously from $126 per pupil in 1986 to $901 per pupil in 2009.

"We also know that excess levies are difficult to pass and it's not a way that's predicable for our funding," Dooher said. "It shouldn't matter what your zip code is on whether you're going to have a quality public school and that you're going to have opportunities."Dooher said Minnesota Education also wants to see changes in special education funding. He said there is a correlation between the shortfalls school districts experience and what they don't get in special education funding.

"If the state and federal government would step up and do their job funding special education, we would eliminate so many shortfalls throughout the state," he said. "We have to be able to sufficiently fund those needs for those kids."

Minnesota Miracle

Education Minnesota is working to build a new Minnesota Miracle, Dooher said.

Former Gov. Wendell Anderson passed the original Minnesota Miracle in the 1970s. Dooher said Anderson received bi-partisan support to fundamentally change the way the state funded schools and take it away from property taxes.

"Since that time, we've had an erosion of that formula he created," Dooher said. "But when we had that (formula), we had sufficient funding."

He said he contacted Anderson to ask how to create a new Minnesota Miracle.

"It's going to take the public, it's going to take parents, it's going to take educators and, most importantly, it's going to take policymakers, including the governor, to get on board with this," Dooher said.

"We want to make sure that every Minnesota student gets the quality that they deserve," he added. "We believe that it's the adults that have to solve this problem for the kids."

Shortfalls and levies

In a quick search, Minnesota Education found that 69 school districts throughout the state are facing a combined $123.8 million in shortfalls in state revenue for the next school year, Dooher said.

"What that shows you is that the funding is not sufficient," he said. "It's not that we're spending too much. ... This isn't somebody not managing their budget. This is pervasive throughout the state."

He said it is fundamentally flawed that school districts are reliant on local property taxes.

"It's really the state's responsibility to come up with a tax policy that is going to be sufficient and sustainable for schools," Dooher said.

He said it's becoming more and more challenging to pass levies. He noted that property tax payers can say no to school levies in referendums, but there is no vote by property tax payers when cities and counties propose levies.

Dooher said cities and counties are being squeezed because the governor and policymakers in St. Paul haven't provided them the resources they need. He said cities and counties then put the burden on their property tax payers.

"And then you have the schools that have the ability to ask," Dooher said. "And they do. And many times, the community supports education, but they say, 'This is where I'm going to say no.'"

He added that the Legislature needs to change its priorities.

"We are building a Twins stadium ... on taxpayer money for a billionaire owner for millionaire players, and schools have to beg to get the money they need to buy books and have up-to-date materials," Dooher said. "They didn't have to ask the taxpayers if they were going to raise this revenue. They just went ahead and did it."

He added, "We need to change the priorities and get focused on what they should be, which is kids in Minnesota and making Minnesota stronger tomorrow than it is today."