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Pawlenty, lawmakers want to mandate sharing

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, explains a proposal to require school districts to work together in buying supplies. She joined Gov. Tim Pawlenty and others in making the Wednesday announcement. Staff photo by Don Davis

Schools save money when they combine business-office services, so Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a coalition of state legislators want to require cooperation.

A bill being considered would require many school purchases to be made only from approved vendors that might provide lower prices because they buy in bulk.

"There are 340 school districts and 150 charter schools in the state, but back-room functions don't need to be duplicated 490 times," Pawlenty said Wednesday in introducing the concept. "Shared services will allow Minnesota schools to focus resources where they are needed the most -- in the classroom and on improving student achievement."

Many schools, especially in rural areas, already share services, such as hiring one superintendent for more than one district.

As a large district, the South Washington County Schools would be open to partnering with smaller districts and charter schools, but the district already does a lot of working together to save money, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

For example, the district's nutrition services department jointly bids its food products requirements with five neighboring school districts, and provides food services to Valley Crossing School, he said.

The District 833 Purchasing Department has entered into joint powers agreements with multiple area school districts that allow it to buy goods and services through contracts entered into by other districts, he said.

Executive Director Lee Warne of the Minnesota Rural Education Association said his group, representing 40 percent of the state's districts, long has supported shared services and has asked lawmakers to provide incentives for implementing the concept.

For rural districts, he said, the key is to save on "back office" services, freeing money for classrooms.

Pawlenty said he will continue to introduce shared-services proposals affecting counties, cities and other governmental entities.

The proposal would deal with schools that "in many cases are doing the same things over and over again, but doing them separately," Pawlenty said.

The governor said many "backroom functions" can be shared among districts, such as payroll, curriculum, special education, purchasing, food services and information technology departments.

Also, Pawlenty added, employees of small districts do not get as much practice in their jobs, an argument for combining duties. "The more you do it, the better you get at it."

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said he fears some of his union members will lose jobs if the proposal becomes law, but Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, disagreed.

"There is very little job loss," she said. "There may be redeployment."

Dooher said the proposal is a diversion from serious state budget problems and would do little to save money.

Also, Dooher added, rural districts could be hurt because there may not be enough area businesses approved to sell to schools.

Like Warne, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said that he has questions about the proposal. His education finance committee examines the issue today.

"There are several questions about how this all works," Stumpf said. "Who is going to create these lists of approved vendors and how can local venders participate?"

The senator said local businesses need to be able to sell to districts, but it is not clear if that could happen under the measure.

"If it was strictly on the lowest-priced purchase, I could see where local vendors could get aced out," Stumpf said. "Those local vendors are very important when you have fund raisers for school. ... They always contribute."

Stumpf needs some answers before supporting the plan.

"The concept is good in that we are always trying to get the most for our dollar," Stumpf added.

Patricia Drey Busse contributed to this report.