By Vernae Hasbargen, MREA Lobbyist
The Legislature finished its work a week ago and hit the road to sell the public on what they had done. Republicans pointed to tax increases while Democrats to investments those taxes created, but so far it is not clear which message is resonating with the public.
While $2 billion in new taxes can sound like a lot, one-third of the new revenue covers the state’s deficit for the next two years and another one-third pays for new education investments in early childhood through college. The last third pays for property tax relief and investments in health and human services, jobs initiatives and more.
Fiscal analyst Jeff Van Wychen points out that state spending overall dropped 18 percent during the last decade and this year’s new investment replaces only one-third of that loss.
School Boards Face Levy Decisions
At the request of school boards and parent committees, school districts raised significant amounts of property taxes during that decade to avoid the devastating impact state cuts were having on students. This year’s tax bill gives boards the ability to establish the first $300/pupil of operating referendum authority. This new board authority is aimed at closing the equity gap by giving districts with less than $300/pupil a small local tax base to work with.
There are 54 districts covering 7 percent of the student body who have tried and failed to get into the referendum game. Students in these districts would benefit the most from this new board authority, but students across the state might benefit as local boards are able to shore up some of the voter approved authority that was given over the last decade.
For boards with existing referendum authority, the decision should be a no-brainer because the enhanced equalization for the first $300/pupil will reduce the local property tax burden and create a stable base of revenue not subject to popular vote. Still, this authority presents a new and unique power for Minnesota school board officials and approaching this decision in a thoughtful manner will serve their communities well.
Facing the Public
Every district must now hold an annual public meeting to discuss their strategic plan for closing the achievement gap. Not like the Truth in Taxation meetings of old where boards faced property taxpayers wanting lower taxes, the new meetings are sure to draw concerned parents who want more student achievement.
The whole question of whether to move ahead with the 2011 teacher evaluation law became a political hot potato when Education Minnesota and the Minnesota School Boards Association estimated the cost at roughly $300 per pupil. When the Governor targeted $22, its moniker quickly became “unfunded mandate.”
Both EM and MSBA wanted the law delayed for another year, putting full implementation out for two years, but in the end the Legislature kept the law’s current timeline. Next school year, the state is moving ahead with 10 district evaluation pilot programs.
Representative Kathy Brynaert and other legislators were convinced the cost estimate didn’t factor in what districts were already doing. She pointed out that while she served as a Mankato school board member, the district implemented evaluations over 10 years ago with current funding, “While funding is critical, I would be very disappointed if it paralyzed us from moving forward,” she told the Conference Committee. In the end, she prevailed.
The State Board of Teaching is not always visible, but it oversees teacher licensure and the two-year-old law requiring that Minnesota’s teachers pass a basic skills test (MTLE).
Commissioner Cassilius believes the test is severely damaging our future teaching force because so many candidates are unable to pass the math portion. As a result, the legislature established a task force to re-examine this high-stakes test and move to a professional skills portfolio instead.
In the meantime, each candidate failing to pass the test will be given two additional one-year waivers until the task force recommendations can be implemented.
The legislature’s game is over and now the ball is in our court.