by Jim Boyle
The Elk River Area School District and at least a handful of area legislators are poised for action as the 2014 Minnesota legislative session gets underway this week.
Legislative support for several measures was on display at a meeting hosted by the citizen-led Legislative Action Team that Feb. 18 at Elk River High School.
Legislators praised the school district for working closely with them last year as legislation granting location equity was approved. One of the district’s next targets is metro equity, which has the potential to benefit 11 school districts.
“The location equity piece is kind of like getting the big toe in the door,” Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said. “The metro equity is the next logical step. We can tell a pretty compelling story.”
Zerwas said lawmakers will know a lot more once the February forecast is out, for which many are predicting a sizeable surplus.
The legislation as it proposed would spread $830,000 between nearly a dozen school districts, with Elk River claiming $350,000 of it.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said of all of the district’s initiatives that she supports, the one she most hopes goes through is the metro equity.
“It will be our next best step forward,” she said, adding she also hopes there are no new “costly mandates.”
Kiffmeyer brought attention to the progress the Legislature made in paying the education funding shift back, closing the gap in equity funding through changes to the funding formula and passage of location equity.
“The previous Legislature held the line on spending, and we were able to use that for cash flow.” She also mentioned $50 that was applied to the funding formula to help through while the shift was on and that is now permanent.
“We’re back to the 90-10 split, and that’s really good,” Kiffmeyer said. “It’s not that the Legislature did so good other than holding the line on spending to (get the shift paid back quicker than ever before.)”
Kiffmeyer said she had conversations earlier in the day and again during the meeting and said she received encouraging words from the Sen. Charles Wiger, D-Maplewood, the chairman of the E-12 finance division.
“He said, ‘We got you on our radar,’” she said. “‘We’re thinking about things we can do that would be helpful.’”
The school district had Wiger and area legislators out to Elk River earlier this year to run through its strategic plan, budget concerns and update them on the impact of the last session.
Metro equity revenue is one of the five platform issues the district is seeking to be addressed. The state provides additional funding to school districts with offices in the seven-county metro area.
Superintendent Mark Bezek said the school district has been after this piece for quite a few years, noting that all of its services and contracts are all related more to the metro than they are related to rural areas.
“I hate to say it, but there are more cows than people in some of the districts that have been getting this funding for years,” Bezek said, noting the district has nearly 3,400 students living in Hennepin and Anoka counties of the metropolitan area.
The school district is also seeking a permanent transfer of up to 80 percent (about $4.1 million) of the Elk River Area School District’s debt redemption fund to be used to construct spaces for district programs. These funds accumulate over time as school districts are required by law to bond for 105 percent of what their budget is projected at.
Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he has authored such legislative efforts in the past, but they are not easy to push through. He said lawmakers in control of key committees are reluctant to give up control, and if they grant an exception for one district, then what’s to prevent an onslaught of district requests.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than having money in the bank that someone says you can’t use,” he said. “Most people realize you elected a school board … that can make wise decisions about how to spend their district’s money for their purposes.”
Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said, it being the second year of the biennium, she doesn’t expect any sweeping changes.
“We already did our budget,” she said.
She also noted that K-12 education funding takes up 43 percent of the general fund, and once you factor in higher education, it makes up 50 percent of the general fund. And a lot of the funding decisions come down to metro versus suburban and rural.
She supports fairer funding.
“The money follows the inner city,” she said. “I understand they have special needs, but when you consider some of the things you have pointed out.
“The district receives $853 less per student. That’s unacceptable. A kid is a kid.”
David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, said he supports all of the district’s initiatives. He just knows to get anything passed, it will take some creativity.
“We care intensely about the future of this district, but people who don’t live in or represent it or have an electoral issue, it’s much more difficult to get them to care. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult,” he said.
Zerwas and Kiffmeyer praised the partnership that has developed between legislators, District 728 administration and the Legislative Action Team. Zerwas also gave a pat on the back to the team that included Kiffmeyer and the Rogers contingent in doing the “impossible” during the last session by getting it passed to add a lane in each direction on Interstate 94.
“If any team down there can get it done, this team can,” Zerwas said.