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Schools want to avoid relying on local levies

ST. PAUL - Local property tax levies have become a more common funding source for school revenue in the past few years.

But school officials and parents from across Minnesota now say the system isn't working and they're pushing for an overhaul of the state's education funding system.

They say voter-approved levies are an unreliable revenue source. For example, last November, 42 percent of the districts going out for referenda failed to get approval from voters. In 2006, 62 percent of the measures failed.

Education groups say failed ballot measures and state dollars they feel are rising too slowly have added insult to injury and have led to staff cuts, increased class sizes, teacher lay offs, program cuts and increased fees.

Amie Erickson is a parent with four children in the Frazee-Vergas school district. She grew emotional at a recent House education committee hearing as she described the drama of finally passing a district operating levy last fall after losing five levies in seven years.

"Referendums that used to pay for the extras are now buying my first graders crayons, paper, pencils," Erickson said. "Statewide, schools are crying out for help. How many more students have to suffer, how many communities need to lose their vitality? Where is Minnesota going to get an educated workforce in the near future if we don't invest in our education now?"

Erickson and others say referenda campaigns split communities and create animosity between neighbors. They say by not fully funding education, the state is shirking its constitutional requirement to provide an education for Minnesota's children.

Fergus Falls School Board member Darrel Tungseth said that last year his district had to cut $1.8 million, and it will cut $2.3 million this year and more in coming years. He said students are suffering and teachers are demoralized.

"When the state doesn't properly fund education, the burden shifts to the local property tax payers for the operating levies which are going on all over the state," Tungseth told legislators. "In our case we've had to increase fees for all day kindergarten and co-curricular activities to the point we're getting almost out of line."

The Fergus Falls district is in financial trouble, and is officially classified by state officials as being in debt.

Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, said he represents three school districts in debt, most of them in rural areas. He said he believes asking districts to rely on voter-approved referenda is unfair.

"Edina can do a 1 percent referendum and raise millions," said Heidgerken. "But, when you get out into my district, a referendum of 1 percent might get you half a teacher. So we've created haves and have nots. And that's never been addressed."

Willmar Public Schools Superintendent Kathy Leedom called the current financial strain on public schools a crisis.

"We're counting on you to lead," Leedom told a House committee. "To be the leaders for our children, for our school systems, and for our communities."

On the other hand, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and many of his Republican colleagues often point out that schools actually have received more money in most recent years, usually well above national inflation levels. Pawlenty calls for changes in how schools are funded, based more on how students perform rather than the seniority system that currently prevails.