Monson weighs in on legislative session

MARSHALL — According to Marshall Superintendent Scott Monson, the outcome of the legislative session in regards to public schools turned out similar to what the district had anticipated.

Monson highlighted five notable items, including a 2 percent annual increase in per-pupil funding over the course of the next two school years.

“Unfortunately, the 2 percent per year funding increases are not adequate to maintain pace with inflation,” Monson said. “However, public schools have experienced flat (0 percent) funding in past years, so a 2 percent increase is better than no increase at all. With rising costs exceeding 2 percent, most public schools — including Marshall — will see deficit budgets in 2017-2018 despite the 2 percent increase.”

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius also acknowledged that there were positive and important provisions in the E-12 educational bill thanks to Gov. Mark Dayton’s “steadfast leadership.”

“The bill increases funding for every school district by 2 percent in each of the next two years, meaning more funding on the bottom line for Minnesota schools to help them with the rising costs of educating students,” Cassellius said in a news release. “It also funds additional high-quality early learning opportunities for children.”

Dayton vetoed the original E-12 education bill, saying that it was insufficient and endangered school districts’ basic operations and local property taxpayers’ pocketbooks. He added that even with the significant investment, it’s not enough to prevent some school districts from teacher layoffs for the upcoming school year.

“There is s substantial investment in early learning which will benefit children and families across Minnesota, although I believe we can do far better in this area,” Dayton said in a letter to House Speaker Kurt Daudt. “I am pleased that the bill includes up to an additional $50 million for pre-kindergarten. Results from the first year demonstrated significant demand for this program from parents, teachers, principals and superintendents. This bill, however, failed to meet the known demand for the pre-kindergarten program established last session. This additional funding is one-time only which is a detriment to establishing ongoing programs to serve our youngest learners.”

Monson said pre-K funding increases Pathway I scholarships but freezes Pathway II scholarships. The funding is also postponed by four years, until 2020.

“Having additional funding for pre-kindergarten is a positive outcome of the session,” Monson said. “We need to learn more about the specific details and what this might mean for our district and then determine how we might be able to move forward and provide additional opportunities for our youngest learners and their families.”

A third item was the approval of a 40 percent agriculture tax credit for school facility debt. Often referred to as Ag2School, its passage would help farmers relieve 40 percent of their property taxes coming from a new or existing capital improvement levy in their respective school districts.

“The Ag2School tax credit was a focus in the school board’s advocacy efforts, so it is good to see that included in the bills,” Monson said. “The tax credit will affect existing property taxes as well as any potential future property taxes, for school facilities.”

Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Paap shared his gratitude to Congress and Dayton for passing and signing the omnibus tax bill, of which the 40 percent tax credit was a part of.

“This tax provision is critical for addressing the current agriculture economy in Minnesota and the burden placed on farmers as it relates to the amount of property taxes paid towards school debt bond levies in a bi-partisan and positive manner,” Paap said in a news release. “We appreciate their efforts to find sustainable solutions to fund capital school projects and help reduce the cost paid by farmers and landowners.”

There were also some changes in regards to teacher licensure — changes that could be simultaneously good and bad. Monson said the focus on teacher recruitment and retention establishes a new Professional Educator Licensure Board, establishes a new tiered teacher licensure system and requires each district to negotiate a plan and strikes statutory language for placing teachers on unrequested leaves of absences.

“Changes made in the teacher license system will hopefully be a step toward fixing the crisis we are experiencing in finding licensed teacher candidates for open positions,” he said. “There is more work that needs to be done for districts to be able to attract and retain great teachers.”

While trying to accommodate the teacher shortage, there is always the potential of lowering the quality of teachers employed across the state. Cassellius explained that Dayton fended off some of the most troublesome parts of the original bills passed by the Legislature, but she noted that some troubling issues remain.

“Without further action this bill lessens the professional licensing requirements of teachers and threatens our ability to have a highly-trained professional in every classroom,” Cassellius said. “It fails to address the growing unfunded cost to educate students with special needs, and it makes funding to our American Indian kids temporary, preventing long-term efforts to address historic disinvestments in our native kids and their education.”

Concurrent enrollment teacher credentialing was also expanded statewide, with $375,000 annually for four years.

“It is my hope that the additional support for concurrent enrollment teacher credentialing will be enough so that we are able to continue to offer concurrent enrollment classes for students in future years,” Monson said. “The college credits earned by Marshall High School students are beneficial to students and their families.”

With a $1.6 billion budget surplus, Cassellius said that Minnesota “could’ve gone big for kids, but the Republican-led Legislature had different priorities.” Education is definitely worth fighting for in the future, she said.

“This bill keeps the lights on, but falls short of the kind of investment every Minnesota child deserves,” Cassellius said. “I thank Gov. Dayton for his commitment to public education in Minnesota. We must keep standing up for Minnesota students so they have the resources they need to succeed in school and in life.”