In recent days, we’ve seen Minnesota Republicans ramp up rhetoric against school boards who have put levy referendums on the ballot this November. It’s expected that there will be over 130 such ballot questions this November, from all corners of the state. This would be the largest number of school levy referendums in a single year in state history.
Unhappy with what such a spate of referendums would imply about state levels of funding for education, several of them have started to spout off. For instance, Rep. Pat Garofalo, the chair of the House Education Finance Committee said “Unfortunately, we have some school boards that are using people’s generosity to engage in the fleecing of taxpayers, and that’s just not acceptable.” He’s threatening — along with other members of the House Republican caucus — to publicly attack particular referendums they think are out-of-bounds. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Drazkowski recently urged voters in his district to oppose referendum votes in the Lewiston-Altura and St. Charles districts.
Garofalo and Drazkowski both cite changes in the recently-passed budget as making such referendums unnecessary — specifically a $50 increase in the per-pupil formula in each of the next two years and one-time increases in compensatory funds. While I’m not here to pass judgment on any of the merits of a specific district’s referendum, what is clear is that such attacks by Republican politicians on locally-elected school boards are hypocritical on many levels.
First off, locally-elected school boards don’t have the variety of accounting tricks and gimmicks at their disposal the same way Republican politicians like Garofalo and Drazkowski do. They don’t have the ability to shift when they pay expenses at their whim like the politicians in St. Paul have done each of the last two sessions. And despite the happy talk from Garofalo and Drazkowski, the implementation of the additional school shift will do far more damage to school district finances than can be recouped through the changes to the funding formulas. Here in Carver County, the Eastern Carver County School District will see a net loss in funding of $3.6 million over the next two years because of the Republican budget. Total state borrowing from public schools now totals over $2 billion.
Second, Legislative Republicans who chafe under federal mandates are now passing that same treatment down to local officials. Garofalo trumpets the need for local control of schools, but now threatens to stick his nose into the business of school districts outside of his home in Farmington. Since when does he know better than the folks in, say, Thief River Falls about their local needs? Drazkowski, meanwhile, has supported legislation that would stop implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Minnesota and a constitutional amendment that would allow state nullification of federal statutes. Drazkowski and Carver County’s own Ernie Leidiger backed a bill that would have mandated a pay freeze on teachers. Funny — Garofalo, Drazkowski, and Leidiger all bleat about their support for “local control” of schools on their websites.
Finally, the notion offered by Garofalo that most of these districts are looking for additional funds is just flat-out not factual. If you look at the list complied by the Minnesota School Boards Association, most of the levy questions are actually renewals of existing levies, which would maintain existing tax levels, not increase them.
[NOTE: I have not taken a position on the District 112 technology referendum as of yet and will not until I see additional information on specifically how the levy dollars are intended to be used.]