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Schools ask governor to appoint school lands trust director - soon

An increasing number of school districts are calling on Gov. Mark Dayton to deliver on his promise to appoint a director of school trust lands as soon as possible.

Last session, Dayton signed an appropriations law to fund the position — originally created by a 2012 law — that will oversee management of about 2.5 million acres of state forest land that generates revenue for schools. The governor was to have made the appointment of a director for the new office by July of last year.

Currently, the Department of Natural Resources manages the School Trust Lands.

Representatives from the Department of Administration told the House Education Finance Committee Tuesday they are in the process of working with the DNR to produce an official job description for the director position, which they hope will generate a nominee for the governor in the coming weeks.

Several committee members peppered Denise Dittrich, associate director of governmental relations for the Minnesota School Boards Association, and representatives of the DNR with questions about the history and purpose of the School Trust Lands and the new, independent director position.

Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) said the School Trust Lands is an important, if overlooked, source of revenue for Minnesota’s K-12 schools. But he was concerned about whether the new director position would add “another layer of bureaucracy.”

To date, almost 20 school districts have authorized resolutions that amount to asking Dayton to make the appointment a priority, said Dittrich– a former DFL legislator from Champlin who was a key sponsor of the legislation that created the independent office.

“(Management of the trust) must have undivided loyalty,” she said. “I will continue to contend the trustee cannot be the DNR, who is committed to the DNR and beneficiaries of the trust at the same time.”

Representatives from the DNR say they have been committed to developing long-term strategies to improve the annual revenue the trust lands generate.

The trust, created in 1858 as part of Minnesota’s constitution, set aside acreage in every state township that schools can use for investment purposes to produce another source of funding. Originally, the trust held ownership of 8.1 million acres of land across the state. However, that land was sold off over decades and now amounts to 2.5 million acres, most of which are located in the northeast part of the state, primarily St. Louis, Koochiching and Itasca counties. The bulk of the revenue is generated through leases to mining and timber companies.

In fiscal year 2014, the trust lands generated K-12 education revenues that amounted to $28 per pupil.

Past stories on this issue:

“Increasing school trust fund land revenue”

“School trust lands potential 'gold mine'”

“Who should manage school trust lands?”

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