Christopher Magan, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published February 01 2014
Minnesota schools building task force says $300M more neededST. PAUL – It will take $300 million more a year in state aid to give all of Minnesota’s school districts the resources they need to maintain their school buildings.
That’s the recommendation a task force created last year to study how to fund school facilities will send to state lawmakers in February. The new money would be phased in over several years, come primarily from state coffers and should have minimal impact on local property taxes.
The proposal comes after the DFL-led Legislature pumped $485 million of new money into the latest education budget for things like full-day kindergarten and expanded preschool scholarships. Lawmakers also gave school boards more control over local property tax levies.
School advocates say the task force’s recommended changes would correct the state’s flawed system for funding school facilities that gives some districts advantages over others.
“We realize the system we have right now is broken,” said Robert Indihar, Moose Lake schools superintendent and co-chair of the task force. “Our goal is to simplify the system and make it adequate, equitable and sustainable.”
Only 25 districts are part of the state’s alternative facilities funding program that allows them to raise local taxes for infrastructure without voter approval. Other districts are forced to win voter approval for building and maintenance projects.
Under the task force’s recommendation, all districts would have access to local funds to address maintenance needs included in 10-year plans approved by the Minnesota Department of Education. State dollars would equalize the cost of those projects to help communities with a smaller tax base.
Other existing funding sources for school facilities would be consolidated and districts would have more flexibility on how they spend that money.
Tom Melcher, state education department school finance director, said the task force worked carefully to make the system more equitable and not hurt districts that already have more access to facilities funds.
“I would say there are no losers in this proposal,” Melcher said.
State Rep. Duane Quam, the only Republican lawmaker on the panel, said the recommendation includes a lot of good ideas, but he urged his colleagues to debate it carefully. The Byron lawmaker said he worries local taxpayers risk losing direct control over how their school districts spend money.
“The overlying concern is the possible impact the recommendation could have on the relationship between school districts and the community,” Quam said. “Schools are different than other government entities. That partnership between the district and the community is important to students.”
Last year, recommendations from another education funding task force led the Legislature to give local school boards more control over the future existing taxes approved by local residents. The change took more than $200 million worth of property taxes out of voters’ direct control, giving school board members the ability to continue the taxes without the approval of voters.
Quam worries something similar could happen again. Under the task force recommendation, school districts that have been unable to win voter approval of capital tax requests could raise more funds on their own.
But Melcher said that while some residents may see their property tax bills fluctuate, the cost of the plan largely would be offset by new state tax dollars.
If the new recommendations are implemented, about $1.6 billion will be collected each year for school facilities.
Indihar believes the $300 million in new money would allow districts to tackle maintenance needs more efficiently, extending the life of many of the state’s school buildings.
“I think this will go a long way to helping a lot of districts in the state,” Indihar said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.