Thursday, January 7, 2010

Area Board Members Speak To Area Legislators

This afternoon, a group of school board members from the area will be meeting with area legislators to discuss the financial trainwreck that is Minnesota public education. In a time of financial crisis, it is easy for we locally elected officials to get upset at public servants at the state level, as if somehow they created this national financial crisis. We tremendously appreciate the service of our legislators, and especially we appreciate that they are coming together to give us some of their time. Here are some of the things that I'd like to be saying to our St. Paul elected officials.

We school board members, most of us, believe that teachers deserve to be paid well. At last count, well over half of the school districts in Minnesota do not have a settlement yet, despite the fact that we are facing a penalty if we fail to settle. Those of us who are holding back wish that we could pay teachers more. I personally think that public education would benefit from having more money so that we could pay teachers more. I believe that teaching is hard work, just about the hardest work that there is. My five years of teaching proved that to me. We need to attract smart, dedicated, creative, well educated people into public education, and if we want to do that, we have to make pay and benefits competitive. Especially in science, mathematics, and technology, the financial rewards available in competing professions make it tremendously hard to attract well educated graduates into teaching. Increasing teacher pay would accomplish that objective.

When the economy improves, I think that the absolute first priority of the legislature should be to substantially increase its appropriations for education, and that some of that new funding should be dedicated to improved teacher pay. I'm not alone in that belief. I think that everyone on our board of education is of the same mind.

The issue that is dividing us here in St. Cloud, and in many other school districts, has nothing to do with valuing teachers. Our difference is whether it makes sense to increase teacher compensation by cutting the number of teachers that we have, or whether increases in compensation must come from increases in funding at the state level. We know that the State of Minnesota has frozen public school funding for regular students for two years and has cut funding for special education. Anybody who thinks that you can increase compensation by millions of dollars without cutting teachers is engaging in self-deception. Cutting young teachers and increasing class size to pay older teachers more is not my idea of valuing teachers. That is the road, ultimately, to destroying the profession of teaching, and to destroying public education, in my opinion. The future of public education requires that we stop the process of cutting. It requires that we confront the funding problem head-on at the legislature. We have to stop pretending that we can increase teacher compensation without increasing state funding accordingly. But we are going to need help from State government to do that, and that help must involve a balance between increased revenues and cost controls.

The future of public education also requires that as the State digs itself out of the current financial disaster, that the State recognize that over the last decade, the State has been shifting its funding priorities away from public education. Here are some basic facts about the current trainwreck in public education finance:

A. K-12 a falling percentage of the State Budget. The percentage of the State’s budget spent for K-12 Education, while significant, has decreased in recent years. Only a few years ago, K-12 Education represented 45% of the State budget. For the current biennium it is 40% of the budget, and is forecast to shrink further ....., even though enrollment is projected to increase. At the same time, there are other areas of the state budget growing at a faster rate than K-12. Minnesota Association of School Business Officials, (MASBO) 2009

B. Funding Formula Falling behind Inflation. The revenue that school districts receive through the general education formula has decreased by $1,087 per pupil unit between 1991 and 2008, when adjusted for inflation. (MASBO)

C. Operating Referendums Increasing to Cover the Shortfalls. According to MDE, the average referendum revenue per pupil has increased from $231 to $919 (not adjusted for inflation) over the same period in attempts to offset real revenue losses. To deal with the public school finance trainwreck, school districts are increasingly forced to rely on local referenda.

D. In the last four years, however the funding formula increased at a total of 3% or 3/4% per year, leaving school districts in a perilous condition. The formula was frozen completely for this biennium. That’s not enough to cover the step increases for teachers in most districts, let alone the other cost increases typically paid by Districts. (Teacher compensation increase =steps + lanes + health insurance increases + TRA +FICA+longevity+Salary schedule improvement.)

E. Special Education Deficit Increasing Again. The State leaves local school districts with hundreds of millions of dollars in special education shortfalls, and the magnitude of the shortfall is rising again. School District special education deficits are reaching unprecedented levels, and the cost is being born by regular students through increased class size and program cuts. Throughout Minnesota, the amount of money that is being transferred out of regular education and into special education is increasing at an alarming rate. In our school district, we have frozen the amount of total dollars we spend on special education, but still our special education is rising.

At the same time, the State's Health Care budget increasing at 8.5% per year. The State Budget Commission's report warns that “...state payments for direct health care services are the fastest growing segment of the state’s budget and consume a greater share of available resources each year.” It goes on to say:

In FY 2007, about one out of every five state general fund dollars were spent on public health care programs—including Medical Assistance (the state’s Medicaid program), General Assistance Medical Care, and chemical dependency treatment entitlement grants. If current growth rates in state health care spending continue unchecked over the next 25 years, two out of every three state general fund dollars will go toward healthcare.

The Constitution says that “is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools.” It continues: “ The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.” School board members want to do their part in making revenues and expenditures balance. In St. Cloud, we are doing that by refusing to cut teaching positions to pay salary increases for the teachers who remain. We are not motivated by a belief that teachers are overpaid. We just feel very strongly that as fiscal trustees of public education, we cannot keep making cuts in order to fund compensation increases, when the legislature is not providing funding increases.

But the legislature needs to do its job too. Instead of penalizing districts who keep their budgets in balance, its time for the legislature to reward fiscal prudence And then, as the state pulls out of the economic ditch, the legislature and governor need to recognize that local school districts are going to need increased funding so, yes, we can pay our education professionals more. The solution the trainwreck that is public education is a combination of cost controls and sufficient revenues to provide regular and affordable compensation increases to our teachers.

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