by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
School closings kept students at home, but Elk River School District officials were on the road early Tuesday morning (March 4).
School District Superintendent Mark Bezek and School Board Chairwoman Jane Bunting shuffled between House and Senate education committees at the State Capitol testifying in support of legislation designed to get the school district more funding.
“I need you to act outside of the box,” Bezek told the House Education Finance Committee.
The bills, carried in the House by Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, look to free up dollars the school district already has and pull in others the district believes it deserves. One bill would allow the school district to transfer up to 80 percent of a debt- reduction fund for other uses. According to a House fiscal note, the school district had about $4 million in the debt-reduction fund at the close of 2012. The legislation will result in increased property taxes, the note states.
But Bezek portrayed the school district as struggling to deal with “explosive growth” and facing millions of dollars in budget cuts over the next several years.
“(And) we’re about two, three years from a full explosion again,” he said of a resurgence in home building.
Three years ago a similar fund-transfer bill, Bezek told the committee, seemed poised to pass but “went up in smoke” late session. The superintendent detailed a number of school district initiatives needing extra dollars the transfer could provide.
District officials also want a law that would get metro-equity revenue funding for district students, about 29 percent of total enrollment or some 3,700 students, living within the seven-county metro area. It would add a 1.25 funding multiplier to these students.
Although the bill was not amended in House committee, Bezek indicated ultimately school officials want the equity funding applied to the entire district.
That the trigger for the equity funding is whether a school districts’ headquarters are located in or outside of the seven-county metro area drew snickers as one lawmaker suggested Elk River simply move it headquarters to a more favorable location.
Besides citing local traffic snarls as proof metro school district status, the school district pays its vendors the same rates the vendors charge school districts technically within the metro, Bunting argued.
“We say, ‘That’s us,’” she said of being a metro school district. The current legislation, which provides equity funding only to those district students living within the metro, would bring in an additional $400,000 – a big deal to Elk River, Bezek explained. “That’s six, seven teachers,” he said.
While House Education Finance Committee Chairman Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, expressed reluctance to commit to initiatives while the larger committee bill was still being put together, he didn’t dismiss either bills out of hand. The Legislature approves school district fund transfers fairly often, he explained.
But Marquart indicated that if the committee approved metro-level equity for Elk River, it would also have to do so for other school districts straddling the metro borders.
“It seems to be an issue of fairness,” he said. He directed committee staff to get cost estimates.
But Marquart also noted that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed doing away with the equity funding in his proposed budget.
Kiffmeyer, who also presented her bills to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday morning, was guardedly upbeat.
“It’s like it’s got some positive energy on both (House and Senate) sides,” she said.
Zerwas credited the school district officials for being “forward looking and innovative.”