Over the past two years, Minnesota has made exceptional progress in the way it funds the public education system. Since the early 2000’s Minnesota public schools have operated with varying levels of equalization, allowing some school districts to prosper, while others suffered from a lack of property tax base. For years school districts across the state have struggled to maintain their aging school facilities. There were other issues as well, like a small number of districts who were dealt massive damages to school property and buildings due to natural disasters. Because of the funding mechanism in place, often these schools were given just a fraction of the money required to make necessary repairs. Last year, the State Senate set up a working group, which I was part of, to study school facility funding problems and ways to fix them. This year we set about implementing some of those suggestions.
As Chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, we took tours of projects requesting bonding money last fall and early this winter. Two of these projects were public schools that had experienced severe flood damage. Rushford-Peterson Schools in Southeast Minnesota, and Moose Lake Community Schools in the Northeast both were requesting millions in funding to build new schools. While the bonding committee was sympathetic to the needs of these schools, the Senate decided we could help these districts in a different way. We introduced a new way of funding building repair for public schools called Natural Disaster Debt Service Equalization. Under this program, a school district impacted by a severe natural disaster may qualify for extra state aid to help rebuild or repair their school facilities. This means communities will still help be a part of the rebuilding solution, but without the heavy burden they have faced in the past. This solution takes care of the present problems, and will help address natural disaster loss in the future as well.
One of the most expensive items public schools must pay for is upkeep on its buildings. The burden of upkeep is so great — particularly in rural and small communities that often the work is put off for years. Last summer, the Senate learned that the 21 largest school districts in the state have a program that allows them to pay for upkeep on its buildings. Research showed that these 21 districts were spending much more on repair than smaller communities who did not have this resource. Our working group recommended changing the law to allow all school districts across the state the same means to fix its buildings. I hope to introduce a bill next session to allow for this. It would bring equality to all Minnesota schools, and would be a big help to districts with extremely aging buildings.
Some of the problems facing our hundreds of public school districts across the state still remain. The school facility funding working group made recommendations that will cost hundreds of millions if implemented at the same time. But I am heartened to see the progress we have made over the last biennium. Not only have we made investment in K-12 education a priority, we also made early childhood education equally important, invested in all-day Kindergarten – and this year we made changes that will allow school districts to maintain – and when necessary – build new buildings when natural disaster strikes. The state of Minnesota has always valued public education, and I’m proud to see the work of the 2014 Legislature make its mark on our state’s continued progress.