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District seeks funding, authority from lawmakers

District 833 is lobbying state officials, asking for more local control, a solution to the state's teacher shortage and the authority to re-up its referenda without voter approval.

On Thursday, the South Washington County School Board received a visit from its representation to the Minnesota Legislature. Six legislators attended the School Board meeting, asking what they could do for District 833.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said that of the lobbying groups from which legislators hear, "you're at the top of our list."

District 833 presented its legislative platform, and legislators listened and dished out pleasantries.

Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury said constituents sing the praises of District 833 often during election seasons.

"Thank you," Ward told the board. "We hear good things when we're door knocking. We hear good things about the district."

Base funding

The usual request for an increase in the base formula — per-pupil-unit money annually provided from the state — consists of a district request for inflationary increases.

Board member Ron Kath said the money is spent wisely.

"When we ask for funding, this district takes that money and puts it into the classroom," Kath said, noting a balanced budget and district's attention to holding down the cost of administration.

Education is expected to be a primary topic of this legislative session, which began in early January with a $1.4 billion state budget surplus over the next two years.

But board member Michelle Witte said of the formula: "We don't have a surplus. We have mandates that are not being met. It's not about more. It's about keeping up. There's a lot of money that we should get from the state."

Fewer referenda

Superintendent Keith Jacobus and the School Board asked for legislators to propose or support bills that would "move away from the endless cycle of referendums.

"We'll be back on the ballot this fall."

Jacobus said the district is anticipating a request for voters to enact a $14 million levy renewal, as well as the second half of an operating levy to bolster general revenue.

District 833 got behind by $900 a pupil, Jacobus said, because of lack of state money.

While he said that 100-plus meetings explaining a referendum is time and money well spent, Jacobus said that if the Legislature gave additional taxing authority to elected school boards, it would result in district employees using their time to educate kids rather than focus on a referendum.

The district is asking the state to allow a school board to approve the renewal of one referendum for every voter-approved referendum.

"At least just once," Jacobus said. "No new money."

And it's only fair, he added. Other elected officials, at the city and state levels, can raise millions and billions of dollars without voter approval.

Special education

Supplemental state aid specifically for special education would help the general fund, which tends to subsidize special education, Jacobus said. The district asked to end what it calls a cross-subsidy between the two funds.

Kent acknowledged the issue and asked if there is "one bite-size chunk" on which the state could attempt to make progress.

Jacobus pointed to assistive technology as a growing need with which earmarked state money could assist.

Year-round school

The district asked for local control of its calendar, being able to start before Labor Day or attempt a year-round approach.

It's proven that to eliminate extended summer vacations can reduce "summer slide," Jacobus said.

"Kids leave us with what I call fragile knowledge," he said.

Single-track year-round school isn't the only option, Jacobus said, and there are ways around going to school during the Minnesota State Fair — historically one of several reasons the Legislature has resisted allowing school in the summer.

Pace and rigor are important, Jacobus said.

"Our brains have worked like this for a long time," he said. "We need a number of rehearsals and time for reflection."

With more local control given to school boards, the process of getting ready for testing would improve, and interventions for low-performing students wouldn't wait until summer school, Jacobus said.

Kent noted that the State Fair is "only one of the dynamics" and asked if District 833 would consider a pilot project proposal.

Jacobus said the district has had informal discussions about a pilot project but also that the timeline for a state waiver was too aggressive for the district to discuss with its unions and then approve by February.

"We couldn't get it done in one month, (but) our union is very interested in looking at what's best for kids," Jacobus said.

Any waiver proposal would not be made until 2018, he added.

'Bathroom bill' and more

Legislators also questioned the School Board on its opinions of hot topics at the state Capitol.

Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said the so-called "bathroom bill" — which could require transgender students to use the bathroom of their birth sex — might come to a vote this legislative session. Having the School Board on the record with its opinion about the proposed law would be beneficial, Schoen said.

Kath said the board hasn't had a discussion about the bill, so a group opinion about it has not be formulated. Jacobus said the issues are not new to schools, that staff and students treat people with dignity and respect, and that the district has followed federal policies, recommendations and guidelines.

Schoen said he hopes the School Board will have the discussion, in order to give the Legislature direction.

Discussion also included teacher licensure, disparities between districts, and school readiness, among other topics.