The bulk of Thursday’s Senate E-12 Policy Committee hearing focused on a bill that would make substantial changes to school bond referendums.

SF 2605, authored by Senator Karin Housley, stems from an issue that occurred in the Stillwater School District. Voters approved a $98 million bond referendum in 2016 that was supposed to be used for upgrades to numerous schools. After the bond was approved, the school board then decided to close three of the schools.

Many citizens were upset by this decision and requested changes be made to how bond authorized dollars could be used. They claimed that it is needed so that other citizens across the state won’t fall victim to what they call a “bait and switch” by the Stillwater School Board.

The language would put more strength in the review process by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and would also require a school board to go back to the voters if they want to use and bond referendum money differently than was proposed to the voters.

Testifiers raised questions about the language in the bill, saying it could have serious unintended consequences and curtail flexibility. It was also warned that should this pass, bond houses would most likely not want to purchase school bonds in the future.

Sen. John Hoffman asked if this was a systemic problem or a unique situation. He also questioned if this disallows for local control. Testifiers said it wasn’t just limited to Stillwater and that a school board would still be able to present options for spending in their report to MDE.

Sen. Susan Kent, who represents part of the Stillwater School District, said she also had concerns with the bill. While she was sympathetic to the issue, she has serious concerns about the precedent they could be setting.

The senators engaged in a serious discussion about the consequences this bill could create. They attempted to amend the bill and made some minor changes.

Sen. Housley agreed to work on the language of the bill and asked that it be passed out of the Education Policy committee and be sent to the Senate State Government Policy and Finance and Elections committee. She offered to work with the stakeholders and amend the bill in that committee.

The Education Policy Committee felt that the bill needed more work in the committee and laid the bill on the table. It is not clear if the bill will get another hearing.

There were concerns from both sides of the aisle and the committee stressed that if the bill was going to move forward they wanted to make sure there were no unintended consequences that could seriously affect a school bond referendum.

The committee also heard the following bills:

  • Extended Skilled Worker Training Funding:  Students from Fairmont Public Schools testified on a program to develop skilled worker training outside the student day. The testimony supported a bill to extend time funding for certain pupils enrolled in career and technical education. Sen. Gary Dahms authored the bill SF 3125Learn more.
  • Careers in the military: Sen. Mike Goggin presented SF 2795 focused on allowing teachers to give students information about careers in the military. Sen. Goggin commented that we don’t want to short change students on the opportunities a military career could offer. The bill was laid over.
  • Willow River Long-Term Facilities Maintenance: Sen. Tony Lourey offered SF 2583 to makes changes to the Willow River Long Term Facilities Maintenance. Sen. Lourey testified that the school had a $6.1 million project that came in $800,000 under budget. He is requesting that the school be allowed to use the remaining funds for other deferred maintenance needs. They need special legislation to be able to use the funds in that manner. The bill was passed without dissent and sent to the Senate Education Finance committee.
  • Transporting Homeless Students: Sen. Roger Chamberlain presented SF 3085 to require school districts to transport homeless students with IEPs for the duration of the school year. Testifiers gave examples of students losing up to 10 days of class while the transportation arrangements are made when a student has to change schools. It creates an undue hardship on homeless students who are already facing extraordinary challenges. The bill passed easily and was sent to the Senate Education Finance committee.
  • Partnership Grant: Sen. Eric Pratt introduced SF 3012 to change the partnership grant program. Testifiers spoke to the program’s positive effects  program, including increased kindergarten readiness and graduation rates. Folks from Rochester spoke about the increased opportunities in the arts and environmental learning as well as summer education activities.Sondra Samuels from the North Side Achievement Zone testified that NAZ scholars are outperforming other students in the areas of math and reading and have strong results through all grades K-8. She said the key to the NAZ program is it is a collaborative movement that has support from the whole community. The bill got strong support from all the committee members and was passed to the Senate Education Finance committee.