Education – Issues of concern.

Earlier this month I attended the Alliance for Student Achievement Education Summit at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I ran into several other folks from Northfield among them School Board members Kari Nelson, Diane Cirksena, and Wendy Smith; as well as Superintendent Richardson and MASA Executive Charlie Kyte, sometimes called the voice of Minnesota education.

Much of the discussion had to do with funding for public education and what we should expect to pay for educating Minnesota’s young people. If not provide baccalaureate education, we must at least provide them with a clep test prep so they are able to mold their own future. There was not a clear answer for this – the study is still in progress, but the message was we are not investing enough at any level in our education system to create the kind of work force and opportunity we need and would like to have.   Two past Governors and three candidates for governor spoke to the attendees.  Governor Wendell Anderson, began by saying he would “like to bring greetings to the group from Governor Pawlenty, but the Governor didn’t send any.”  He then stepped back and said, “I love saying that.”  Both Governor Anderson and Governor Quie, who spoke after him talked about the importance of investing in public education.  They differed on how and where to get that money but they were united in the opinion that not enough was being spent.

Later, candidates Hatch, Hutchinson, and Pentel talked about their visions for public education and what they would do as Governor.  I mention this as a segue into comments responding to a request from Griff Wigley about his post announcing his interview with school Board Chair Kari Nelson.  I have had the opportunity to work with Kari on a few school committees and have been impressed with her concern, understanding of issues and fair mindedness.

In his post, I thought Griff was rather hard on the district and teachers, offering a reaction to compensation increases and the Q-Comp vote. Some issues Griff raises I think he has wrong or misrepresents.  I apologize for this long post and hope you will bear with me as you read through it.

For example when he talks about a 10% compensation increase for teachers, this is misleading.  There is a difference between what an individual teacher gets and what the total cost of a salary schedule is to the district.  A 4.8% annual increase to the salary schedule means individual teachers will see a 1 or 2 % increase depending on where they are on that schedule.  Some teachers will receive an annual increment increase built in to the schedule and that almost 10% spending increase he talks about must include benefit increases; and health insurance has been increasing sometimes at a double digit pace.  This means that the district and employees see increased costs as they share in paying for that coverage.  Gone are the days when the district can afford to provide full coverage.

Inflation was reported to be at 3%, the district knows it must bargain fairly with teachers and budgets for expected labor increases.  So when Griff says he wonders why the district would give a 10% (which is not an accurate figure for what a teacher gets) “when it couldn’t afford to” he is further misleading the reader.  The district did not agree to an increase it had not budgeted for.   So it could afford to offer what amounted to a very meager salary increase for individual teachers.  But Griff further stirs the pot when he implies that teachers should have voted to take State money in Q-Comp rather than go to the local taxpayers for more money.  This simply is false reasoning on many levels.  In the first place the money individual teachers would have gotten from Q- Comp was small and in accepting it they would have had to accept numerous responsibilities above and beyond their current work load.   There would have been non-financial rewards for doing so but also costs in time, energy and money.  Teachers in the Northfield District are very hard working and dedicated and many I’ve talked to believe in honing their skills and getting better at what they do to improve student achievement.  Teachers were also concerned about whether or not the district could truly afford to implement the plan with no money of its own to add to the project. But I do wish Griff would talk to teachers about why those who did, voted against taking more money when offered.

It bothers me when others want to blame teachers and me personally for the financial difficulty at the schools.  Claims they make with out basis and without understanding of the figures or process to back it up.  Griff did not do that but what he says may give credence to that point of view which is not supportable.

Griff claims that teachers passed on:  $750,000 (and potentially another $750K the following year). $1.5 million is no small change. Richardson made the point that this money has no relationship to the operating levy referendum and that’s true to an extent. My point is that future teacher contract compensation settlements WILL BE PAID FOR by operating levy money.

The reality is there was no $1.5 million.  $733,390 was the figure.  The Board you may remember decided not to take the Governor up on his offer to allow the board to raise 1/3 of additional revenue by raising local property taxes.   The money that currently comes to the district to give teacher increases is part state money and part operating levy.  Teachers negotiate with district staff who have been part of a budgeting process and know what the district can afford.

Let me quote something I wrote when this came up last December:

The only year available to Northfield to apply for Q comp funding is the 2006-’07 school year. It must be implemented in 2006 – ’07 in order to access the funding.  There is no money available to do the planning.  Teachers who have been involved so far have volunteered their time or have gotten release time paid for by union funds.  If the legislature was serious about making this reform work I do wish they would have thought about the time and effort it would involve to make it work.  The only funds available to Northfield through Q Comp at this point is the $733,390 we have been talking about.  We don’t know what the legislature will do in 2006 or 2007 that might impact Q Comp funding.

Griff complains that there have been staff increases in this time of budget hardships. There may have been some increases in mandated Spec. Ed. services and some add backs as the financial picture improved, but I understand in the first round of cuts every dept. took a 5% decrease.  The ALC took a 30% cut and a complete restructuring.  Essentially it was demolished and a new program put in its place, with the hope it could make money for the district.  Please get data first and then make your claims.  I don’t think it’s responsible to make these kinds of claims with out better documentation.

Griff claims that the district’s pointing the finger at the legislature is unfair.  First, claiming that all districts struggled with the same limited allocation from the state and yet not all of them had the same financial hole.  This is true but it ignores the reality of the many differences from district to district, which includes the time table in which cuts were made, local tax base, local expectations, and when levies were passed.  In 2002 Anoka Hennepin was in deep financial difficulty for example.

Then Griff argues that the state was deep in debt and infers the reason was 9/11.  Certainly 9/11 had something to do with it; but history did not start on September 11, 2001.  There were events prior to Sept. 11th that contributed in large part to the State’s budget difficulties.  I made attempts to talk about these in both the 2002 and the 2004 elections but people weren’t terribly interested.  Both sides were content to blame 9/11.   You may remember in the 90s there were tax cuts given to the top income brackets in Minnesota and in the late 90s we had a surplus in the State of Minnesota.  It was suggested by some that we should hang on to it for a rainy day, but others insisted, “give it back.”

It has been reported that well over half of the budget deficit in 2002 was caused by the decision made during the Ventura administration to shift education funding away from local property taxes to the state general fund.  However, Democrats and Republicans could not agree on how to pay for it.  A decision was made to spend down the surplus rather than find a revenue stream.  The result was a large portion of the State’s deficit.  What did Governor Pawlenty do?  Did he find a revenue stream to cover this cost?  No.  He had made a pledge not to raise taxes.  So he cut services and state funding wherever he could and raised fees wherever he could.  The end result was he had to push the cost of education funding back on to property taxes.

Since I have gone on long enough rather than say more, I would like Griff to ask Kari Nelson to explain how, contrary to what some have said, relying on property taxes and renewing operating levies is not always the best plan for funding schools.  From what I understand there is a problem with being forced to ask for what you need now and not being able to predict what you will need in three years because of increased costs and inflation.  This method of funding creates a roller coaster effect where it seems you can never catch up and you always must go begging for more.  I think this creates in the public suspicion that the schools whether they are run efficiently or not are bottomless pits and can never get enough money.  Whatever solution we come up with for funding our schools the formula needs to be adequate, sustainable and provide for equal funding.

I do support the current levy proposal because the cuts without it will be deep.   But I believe we need to find a better way to invest in public education.

One thought on “Education – Issues of concern.

  1. Patti Jackson says:

    I agree that all teachers need an increase in salary. I have worked for the state before and I understand what you are saying about salary increases. Teachers may get a spending increase, however, along with it comes benefit increases. And the cost of health insurance is increasing rapidly each year. Funding for teachers needs to be made at the state level and teachers need a salary increase because the cost of living is increasing each year. Teachers have a great responsibility to educate our children to be the future leaders of this country.