‘Schools need more than fund raisers’

Deb Griffiths poured time and energy into volunteer fund raising efforts for her childrens’ schools — efforts such as bingo nights and sales of gift-wrapping paper. She discovered that no matter how hard she worked, she couldn’t prevent school budget cuts.

So she decided to look at the bigger picture for school funding, joined Schools for Equity in Education (SEE) and began lobbying at the Minnesota State Capitol.

Griffiths shared what she found out about school funding with the Delano School Board at its Monday, Oct. 22, meeting. As she spoke, the Nov. 6 General Election was approaching rapidly. Delano Public Schools had two operating levy referendum questions on the ballot. One question asked voters to approve a 10-year operating levy that was due to expire in June 2013. The levy amounted to $426 per pupil. If this question did not get voter approval, Delano Schools would have no operating levy money after June 2013.

Griffiths discovered that 76 percent of revenue for public schools comes from the state. She called state money the “meat and potatoes” of school funding.

However, over the past 22 years, the state’s school funding formula has not kept up with inflation, Griffiths said. The state pays public school districts $5,224 per pupil. If the formula were adjusted for inflation, school districts would be getting more than $7,400 per pupil. School districts have had to make up a difference of over $2,000 per pupil through operating levy referenda — asking property owners to chip in X number of dollars per pupil.

In other words, public school districts now are using operating levy money to pay for the basics of education, she said.

The problem is that some school districts have lots of businesses, manufacturers and shopping malls, Griffiths said. These are the property rich districts in which the business/manufacturing community is helping homeowners with the property tax burden for public schools. Property poor districts, such as Delano, do not have as many commercial and business entities to help with property taxes. Homeowners are shouldering the bulk of the property tax burden from operating levies.

Several years ago, the state legislature set a cap of $1,633 per pupil for a school district operating levy, Griffiths said. The Delano Schools operating levy that is set to expire in June, 2013 is $426 per pupil.

SEE represents some 60 Minnesota public school districts serving approximately 250,000 children — one-third of Minnesota students in grades Kindergarten through 12. These districts tend to generate less categorical state aid and/or other funding from the state. So they tend to get the minimum in state funding. They also tend to be lower property wealth districts, Griffiths said.

That means that homeowners pay two to three times more in property taxes per $100,000 of property value in these lower property wealth districts than in property rich districts to raise the same dollar amount per pupil via operating levies, she said. For example, in the Hopkins School District homeowners are paying $153 per pupil per $100,000 of property value to raise the same amount of money per pupil as the Delano homeowner who pays $358 per pupil per $100,000 of property value.

Griffiths said that SEE is asking the state legislature to make some changes.

First, SEE wants the state to keep up with inflation as it decides the amounts of state funding that will go to public schools.

Second, SEE wants the state to change the school funding formula that is years out of date. The goal is to have equal educational opportunities for students wherever they live. Equal educational opportunities for property poor districts would mean smaller class sizes, greater assistance for students needing help, strong music and arts programs, classroom technology that is up to date and advanced placement and rigorous classes.

“It’s time to end an unfair system of taxation,” Griffiths said.

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