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Omnibus education finance bill approved during contentious hearing

Rep. Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, comments as the committee begins to amend its omnibus bill March 24. Photo by Paul Battaglia

After receiving sharp criticism from Gov. Mark Dayton, an education finance proposal likely to promote plenty of debate has taken another step in its journey.

Approved as amended by the House Education Finance Committee Friday, the omnibus education finance bill now heads to the House Taxes Committee. Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) sponsors HF890.

The bill would increase the General Education Basic Formula funding by 1.5 percent over the 2018-19 biennium — nearly $275 million in additional funding — and create an office of early education and development. But it would also delink non-public pupil, compensatory and transportation aid from the funding increase, while defunding statewide voluntary pre-kindergarten programs and closing two schools.

Its companion, SF718, sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester), awaits actions by the Senate E-12 Finance Committee.

Attendees of the March 24 House Education Finance Committee hearing gather amendments and other documents as the committee begins to amend its omnibus bill. Photo by Paul Battaglia

“There’s good things in this bill, but relative to where we’re at, it falls short,” Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) said.

Taken as a whole, the bill is a strong candidate to promote lively debate if it reaches the House Floor.

For example, contention has been voiced over the bill’s defunding of voluntary pre-kindergarten expansion funding.

Dayton made his displeasure known Thursday, issuing a statement saying, “It looks like the House Republicans intend to use pre-kindergarten funding as a bargaining chip in the upcoming budget negotiations. It is appalling that the best interests of Minnesota four year-olds are being used as a political bargaining chip.”

In his budget recommendations, Dayton proposed $175 million in program funding.

 

Safe water

An amendment approved by the committee would require school districts to “accurately and efficiently” test water supplies for the presence of lead in buildings that serve students.

Inspired by the events in Flint, Mich., Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls) offered the amendment. “We don’t want to be in an adverse position years from now, and we didn’t do anything to prevent it,”

Legislators expressed concerns with the frequency at which districts would need to test, and the costs associated with them.

“We shouldn’t put a mandate on schools before we know what it will look like,” Rep. Roz Peterson (R-Lakeville) said.

 

Perpich proposal

An amendment unsuccessfully offered by Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) would have allowed the Perpich Center for Arts Education to remain open, under the condition it be given one year to implement the changes suggested in the scathing Office of the Legislative Auditor report earlier in session.

“The audit was not for the purpose of closing the school, but fixing the problems to get the school back on track. In the past, Perpich has had a strong and proud tradition. I think we can get back to there,” she said. “I feel very strongly this very would be doing the wrong thing to close it. We need to give them the time and resources to get back on track.”

Rep. Carlos Mariani comments during House Education Finance Committee debate on its omnibus bill March 24. Photo by Paul Battaglia

As is, the bill would close the Perpich Center, effective June 30, 2018, with students being transferred and property sold. The accompanying Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury would convey its students and property to another school district.

Sandstede alleged that pivotal changes to reverse Perpich’s performance were in progress. “We are well on our way. … I have not heard one person ask for us to close the doors.”

Failing to gain committee approval by an 11-6 roll-call vote, the move could be seen as another nail in the coffin for the struggling school.

“It’s my hope an arts high school will continue, but I think [Perpich], as structured, has been proven a number of times to be broken,” Loon said. “In my opinion, it’s not fixable in the current structure that it is.”

As debate continued, Thissen alleged Perpich’s proposed closing is purely political — a bargaining chip to be used for compromise with Dayton later in session.

“It’s morally repugnant,” he said.

“Your comments are offensive,” Loon responded. “I hope we can continue a dialogue on the issue that respects members’ opinions.”

 

Notable amendments adopted would:

  • require the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan be consistent and aligned with the performance accountability measures required under the World’s Best Workforce to create a single accountability system for all public schools;
  • encourage a school district to review data at least once a year regarding the number of students being referred for emotional behavioral disorder evaluations and consult with staff on strategies to reduce disproportionate referrals of specific races; and
  • establish after-school community learning grants that could be awarded to community-based organizations.

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