Lobbies education commissioner, elected officials
A group of St. Michael-Albertville officials and community members took this message Wednesday, April 3, to the State Capitol: “Fund schools fairly for all students, no matter the zipcode.”
The message was literally spelled out in black and white, inscribed on posters the group took and shared with capitol leaders.
“I think it went very well,” STMA Supt. Jim Behle said. “Anytime you can meet with legislators and advocate for specific legislation, it was time well spent.”
Leading the STMA and Big Lake delegation was Deb Griffiths of the Schools for Equity in Education. SEE is an association of 62 Minnesota school districts that represent nearly 250,000 students, including STMA and Big Lake. SEE advocates for equity and adequacy in K-12 education funding and policy.
The STMA delegation included school board members Gayle Weber and Jeanne Holland, Middle School West Principal Andy Merfeld, St. Michael City Councilors Nadine Schoen and Chris Schumm, Albertville City Administrator Adam Nafstad, and former school board member and city councilor Tom Hagerty.
“It was particularly good to have a larger group and parents involved,” Behle said. “It’s important that legislators hear more than just from school officials.”
The STMA group handed out copies of its legislative platform. The priorities are adequate and equitable funding, fairness to taxpayers by equalizing property tax effort, reduction in the unfunded gap for special education, all-day kindergarten, and safe and secure learning environment.
One official who received the hand-out was none other than the state’s top educator, Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Casseillius. Casseillius asked where she could get one of the group’s “Fund Schools Fairly” buttons and was promptly handed one by Supt. Behle.
Other officials included Rep. Marion O’Neill (R-Buffalo), Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake), Sen. David Brown (R-Becker), and Rep. David FitzSimmons (R-Albertville).
Griffiths told Brown, “The (funding) formula is broken. We don’t have time to be patient. We ask for you to keep putting the pressure on. The time is now.”
Griffiths was also armed with statistics, such as: “Without significant commercial and industrial development to broaden the tax base, taxpayers in low property wealth districts like St. Michael-Albertville and Big Lake pay more than three times as much as their peers in high property wealth districts for identical levy revenue from their schools.
“For example, the state allows school districts to have school levies up to $1,633 per pupil. The annual cost to a taxpayer per $100,000 of property value in a high property wealth school district for this levy amount is $151. The cost escalates to $476 for residents and small business owners in Big Lake and $497 in St. Michael-Albertville.”
Griffiths said that because of the disparities in the cost of a levy dollar, districts like STMA and Big Lake have much fewer school levy dollars to support the needs of their students.
The school advocates urged the legislators to provide inflationary increases to basic school funding and reduce the unfunded cost of providing special education services.
Behle said STMA would be reaching out to other school districts to build networks with other lobbyists. He said the funding system has been in place for more than 10 years and “isn’t going to improve overnight.” But he said the ramifications are serious, and that without additional funding to keep up with rising costs, cuts are likely.
“Our (lobbying) success is going to determine the educational opportunities for our kids in the future,” he said. “Even to sustain what we have right now will require a change in the funding law.”