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Minnesota House settles on education bill

It took hours -- way into the wee hours Thursday morning -- but Minnesota House members finally settled on a two-year $13.9 billion education spending bill.

It took hours -- way into the wee hours Thursday morning -- but Minnesota House members finally settled on a two-year $13.9 billion education spending bill.

The 119-13 final vote wasn't indicative of the nine hours of debate spent on the measure, but the result is a $940 million increase in the state's two-year budget for early education through high school spending.

All schools would see a 3 percent annual increase in per-student funding for each year of the biennium, plus taxpayers will see $125 million in property tax relief.

Because of differing funding programs, some districts, including those in the Bemidji area, will see higher increases.

"In the last few years we've seen our local school districts make painful budget cuts," Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said. Thursday in a statement. "This bill finally provides our schools with the resources they need to educate our kids without increasing property taxes."

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Moe said the bill provides a 3 percent increase in each year of the biennium, both 2008 and 2009, $95 million for voluntary all-day Kindergarten, and $106 million to reduce the gap in unmet special education costs that have eaten into school's general funds.

It provides $100 million in new funding for special education, and creates a task force to study special education requirements.

It provides $152 million for a combination of technology upgrades, innovation and reform proposals, gifted and talented programs and funding for school libraries. It also provides property tax relief using a combination of referendum and debt service equalization aid and funding for operating capital, he said.

Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, noted the total funding is a 9.4 percent increase over this biennium, and that the 3 percent annual formula increases is 1.4 percent more than that proposed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Because of differing programs, funding increases for some local districts, Moe and Sailer said, include 8.7 percent or $3.4 million for Bemidji, 8.9 percent or $490,000 for Blackduck, 8.5 percent or $1.1 million for Park Rapids, 9 percent or $750,000 for Bagley, 7.9 percent or $1.2 million for Red Lake, 7.6 percent or $245,000 for Kelliher, 7.7 percent or $342,000 for Clearbrook-Gonvick, and increases of 9.4 percent for Walker-Akeley-Hackensack and 9.3 percent for Cass Lake-Bena.

In order to align with the Senate education bill, Sailer said the House bill also contains components of the early childhood bill, including funding for ECFE, Head Start, School Readiness and other provisions.

The bill spends more than Pawlenty's education proposal and the measure senators passed. The House and Senate bills rely on tax increases Pawlenty opposes.

"I've spoken with the superintendent in Bemidji about their excellent all-day kindergarten program," said Sailer. "This bill ensures that all-day Kindergarten will be available to every family who chooses it and that more of school districts other funds will be freed up for other programs. Coupled with funding for Head Start and School Readiness, we're investing in our youngest learners to make sure they all have a strong foundation for academic success. It gives us a big payoff over time, and helps our schools compete with other high-performing districts."

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Sailer also praised the $125 million for property tax relief within the bill, resulting from the combination of referendum and debt service equalization aid and funding for operating capital.

"Property taxes were never meant to be a primary source of funding our schools," said Sailer. "This bill makes good on our state's commitment to adequately fund public education."

An effort was made on the House floor again this year to eliminate the post-Labor Day school start date, said Moe, who with Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, helped lead the successful effort to defeat the amendment.

"Labor Day weekend is one of our biggest tourism weekends and we can't lose it," Moe said. "School should not start before Labor Day in Minnesota, period."

Republicans acknowledged school districts would get more money, but said the legislation lacks reform.

Rep. Steve Sviggum tried to convince lawmakers to change some state payments, arguing House DFLers wrote a bill that worsens funding disparities.

"The real winners in this bill ... will be Minneapolis and St. Paul," said Sviggum, R-Kenyon, accusing rural Democrats of not fighting harder for their districts.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, agreed, saying urban schools are getting more money than rural ones, and suggested every school in the state receive the same per-student payment.

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But aid is targeted to where it is needed most, said Moe, adding that the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts have the highest number of immigrant students and in students with English as a second language.

"This is a great bill for greater Minnesota," Moe said, citing state aid hikes and local property tax cuts his district could see.

"This bill sets a high standard to meet the needs of schools in northern Minnesota and across the state," added Sailer. "It provides enough basic funding to give every child in Minnesota access to an excellent education, helps narrow the achievement gap in Minnesota, encourages local innovation and reform and reduces the property tax burden. It's one of the best bills I've seen since I came to the Capitol."

Bill chief author House K-12 Finance Division Chairwoman Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, called the bill "the most balanced, comprehensive and far-reaching education bill to emerge from the House in well over a decade. Citizens across Minnesota made it very clear last fall that education should be our top priority, and passage (Thursday) shows the House is serious about providing resources that will produce world-class students and nation leading schools."

The bill also includes several reform proposals pushed by Pawlenty, she said, including maintaining the voluntary teacher-pay-for-performance provision Pawlenty calls Q Comp. Senators voted to eliminate the program.

"We have a lot of high school redesign in this bill," Greiling added about another Pawlenty wish.

State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this report.

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