Gov. Tim Walz is considering moving the state away from making school districts rely on local tax levy referendums to fund their operations. A report in the Star Tribune Monday said Walz is considering overhauling the way the state funds school districts, to make the state more responsible for school funding and making referendums “rare or extinct.”
Such an overhaul would be difficult. School finance is a complex issue. Trying to equalize funding for school districts that are so different in size, location, demographic makeup and property tax base is no small challenge.
It would be expensive, too. The Star Tribune reports the state’s K-12 school districts bring in $1.6 billion in referendum levies all together. Adding that to the state’s current K-12 appropriation is an expensive prospect. And it wouldn’t be a one-year addition. School budgets are not going to go down in the years to follow.
But reducing the need for school districts to hold referendums to fund operations would be a great boon to school districts across the state. The need to go to the voters every few years is a burden for school districts. There are no guarantees that a majority of voters will agree to pay more. We’ve seen several referendums in the area, and in New Ulm, that have failed over the years for reasons having little to do with education. A failed referendum leaves the school district with no choice but to cut staff and programs. A referendum campaign can be divisive among the district voters. Whoever wins, the other side is going to be angry, either at having more tax foisted on them if the referendum is successful, or that their school children will have to make do with less.
So we welcome Walz’s willingness to look into an overhaul of the school funding system. The last major overhaul resulted in the 1970 “Minnesota Miracle” that revamped the property tax and school funding system so well that Gov. Wendell Anderson made the cover of Time magazine.