Fund schools fairly for all students and taxpayers
by Jim Behle
St. Michael-Albertville School District
Imagine ordering a pizza. The person in front of you orders a large pizza for $10, but when you order the same large pizza, it costs you $20 or $30! That is how the Minnesota property tax formula works for schools. Taxpayers in low property wealth school districts pay two or three times more than taxpayers in high property wealth districts to support the same level of levy funding for their schools. If St. Michael-Albertville School District and the Hopkins School District both requested operating levy referendums for the same $1,633 per pupil, it would cost $497 per year for the owner of a $100,000 home in STMA compared to just $153 per year for the owner of a $100,000 home in Hopkins. The unfair tax system does not just affect STMA. In this example, Elk River residents pay $411, Buffalo $409 and Monticello $387.
In 1993, the state established equalization aid to make the taxpayer cost for a school levy dollar the same across the state. However, the equalization factors for school levies have not been upgraded in 20 years. This has caused growing funding disparities between school districts with high levels of property wealth and those with low property wealth. To learn more about this problem, you can go to the STMA web page at www.stma.k12.mn.us and view “The Pizza Video.” It is a short, fun, yet very informative video that defines the problem.
Recently, Doug Birk, STMA School Board President, spoke to district and city officials and legislators from Wright County about the current state of school funding in Minnesota. “Every day, my son and daughter wake up in St. Michael and attend great schools”, he said. “Today, they get an excellent education and enjoy lots of educational opportunities. What they don’t know is STMA students receive thousands of dollars less per year than other students in the state, even ones a few miles down the road.” He went on to say that the funding gap becomes wider and wider each year.
Birk said, “no matter how our school districts conduct their business, there is simply no magical combination of spending cuts or levy measures that can overcome the rising class sizes and genuine loss of educational opportunity that is inevitable if this gap continues for another ten years.”
STMA receives $6,721 revenue per pupil, $2,000 below the state average of $8,804 and well below other school districts such as Minneapolis at $12,568 or Hopkins at $9,804. STMA ranks 329 out of 338 school districts in revenue per pupil. The bottom line is that educational opportunities for students in school districts with more revenue per pupil are greater than those in STMA.
STMA is facing the perfect storm! The property taxpayers carry a heavier burden in funding their schools and STMA students are faced in the coming years with an educational opportunity gap because their zip code determines that $2,000 less than the state average is spent on them. The effect of school funding and property taxes is not limited to schools but also impacts cities and the economic health of the region. Higher property taxes will cause business and families to look to other communities like Hopkins to operate and live and fewer educational opportunities will not attract families to live in the community.
The impact of this flawed system on STMA is not next year or the year after. However, it is urgent that our stakeholders understand the problems now because the legislators and governor will be taking up property tax relief and school funding this year. Once action is taken, we will live with the new school property tax and funding laws for ten or more years.
The STMA School Board is working closely with our legislators and will be endorsing specific legislation in partnership with other schools. The governor’s proposed budget does not address these issues despite substantially increasing funding for schools. In fact, the governor’s proposed budget makes the disparity of district revenue per pupil even greater. Funding for STMA increases $100 less per pupil than funding for Hopkins. Let lawmakers know that increased school tax equalization and more equal funding per student must be priorities in any changes.
STMA student achievement is in the top 20% of Minnesota schools, yet funding is in the bottom 3%. STMA students will see larger class sizes, fewer classes and activities to choose from, outdated technology, less help for struggling and gifted learners, and fewer Advanced Placement and rigorous classes if this problem is not addressed. As Board President Birk stated, without a change there will be no combination of budget cuts or levy measures that will overcome the adverse effects of the current system.
All Minnesota students deserve a high quality education and all Minnesota taxpayers deserve to be treated fairly.