By Vernae Hasbargen, MREA Lobbyist
Education groups have lobbied for more revenue with mixed success by focusing on the funding gap between students. This year they have changed their tune and framed their argument with the taxpayer in mind.
Fairness Depends on Equalizing Factors
When Sen. Hoffman presented his bill to increase levy equalization, his most convincing argument was comparing a $900 referendum levy in his home district of Anoka-Hennepin to Bloomington. An Anoka-Hennepin taxpayer with a $100,000 home would pay $204 while across town a homeowner would pay $110. That’s not the same “bang-for-the-buck,” he pointed out.
The problem comes from an equalizing formula that hasn’t been changed since 1994 after a lawsuit challenged the state to make sure the funding system was fair. Lawmakers at the time sent the new equalizing factor at what was the highest property wealth per pupil in the state – Edina’s $476,000.
Imagine a diagonal line on a graph from top to bottom with the poorest districts on the left and Edina on the far right. Each district receives state aid based on their property wealth with Edina getting $0.
The problem as Tom Melcher’s task force pointed out, is that without the factor indexed for inflation, the amount of state aid to equalize referendum levy tax burdens has dropped from 22% to 11%. For debt service the amount is only 2%.
Hoffman’s bill resets the equalizing factor at the state’s median property wealth – $868,513 per pupil for debt service, equity, transition and referendum levies. That’s not as good as it used to be, but a lot better than it is currently.
Result – “An Opportunity Gap”
When Superintendent Paul Durand of Rockford testified on the importance of equalizing in the House, he charged that not changing the factor had created serious “opportunity gaps” for students across the state.
Most members of the K-12 committee seemed to agree, reflecting a new legislature that is more heavily from the Northern suburbs where the property values and incomes are lower.
Representative Joe McDonald of Delano gave a graphic example of the opportunity gap when he described how Edina choir students have 1:1 voice coaches, while in the Watertown-Mayer district, students wouldn’t have choir at all if they didn’t pass their referendum. That’s a serious gap.