By Vernae Hasbargen
If there was one key reason for the E-12 funding changes passed in the last session, it was one person – Tom Melcher, Director of School Finance in the Minnesota Department of Education. Actually make that 27 key people who were part of a working group headed by Melcher and charged with making E-12 funding more adequate and equitable for districts and taxpayers.
In the end, all members in the working group but one supported their recommendations and this alone gave their work momentum in the legislature where battles between regional factions have become business as usual for the E-12 committee.
The Working Group called for:
- Board-approved referendum authority
- A location equity levy for metro districts and regional centers
- Simplified pupil weights
- A restored General Education Levy
- Increased equalization of operating levies
Because lawmakers were greatly assisted by this original working group, a facilities task force was created to pick-up where Melcher’s left off. The only carry-over member is Earl Athman, a Business Manager in Pierz.
When Commissioner Brenda Casselius welcomed the 15 members charged with redesigning facilities funding, she described their work as “unfinished business” and critical to this state because facilities have become “the new cross-subsidy.” The term cross-subsidy originally described how inadequate levels of special education funding required districts to use their general fund to subsidize those unfunded mandates.
With increased safety needs, deteriorating buildings, as well as adapting spaces for younger learners, districts are more and more pressed to subsidize these costs as well.
Melcher’s original group made three recommendations for facilities funding:
- More equalization for new schools and large renovation projects (debt service)
- More equity for districts not in the Alternative Facilities Program
- More state funding for deferred maintenance
So far the task force has looked at all three and the complicated process of applying for state approval of building projects through review and comment. Over 200 projects were submitted last year and the MDE has only staff person to handle them.
Districts are increasingly frustrated with this bottleneck because many have only one year to prepare their facilities for the all day K and preschool programs expanded last session.