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New MN budget helps rural schools

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ST. PAUL — A revised two-year Minnesota state budget that starts Tuesday is good news, rural education advocates say.

Rich suburban school districts have done well at raising residents’ taxes to improve their budgets, and the state has done a good job of boosting urban districts’ funding. Rural school officials say they have not fared so well, until this year.

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“For many years, rural schools saw average to below average funding increases when compared to schools in the urban core,” Sam Walseth of the Minnesota Rural Education Association wrote. “It isn’t that those schools don’t need the additional dollars, but rural schools need them, too.”

Walseth and others say that changes some with the new budget.

Chairman Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, of the House Education Finance Committee said the funding gap between Twin Cities and rural schools increased 67 percent in the past decade. When Democrats took over both legislative bodies and the governor’s office, he added, that changed.

“We enacted legislation that cut this unfair funding disparity by a third in just two years,” said Marquart, who long has been an outspoken advocate for increased rural school funding.

“Strong schools in greater Minnesota are the backbone of our community, but underfunding, cuts and borrowing have threatened the health and sustainability of our rural schools in recent years,” he said.

Tax increases last year helped boost school funding, Marquart said, allowing lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton to fund all-day, everyday kindergarten and other programs. They also paid back schools that the state forced to provide money to balance the state budget.

Walseth said the Twin Cities-rural education funding gap has varied over the years. In the 1990s, state officials took actions to lower the 37 percent funding advantage Twin Cities’ schools enjoyed. It fell to 26 percent, but soared when “a decade of deficits and no new state taxes ensued,” he said.

“Every Minnesota student deserves a great education, no matter where they live,” said Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby.

One of the problems was that suburban districts with high property values often had little problem increasing their own taxes to add revenue. In poor districts like many in greater Minnesota, however, voters were reluctant to raise property taxes that already were increasing faster than in the Twin Cities.

Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, came up with a plan to provide more state aid to those poor districts, something Walseth credits with helping to turn the tide for schools he represents.

Another factor that helped rural districts is a $25-per-pupil increase in basic education funding.

A $54 million added pot of education money is part of a $263 million spending increase folded into in the existing $39 billion, two-year state taxpayer-funded budget.

New spending is among several laws that take effect Tuesday (many other laws begin Aug. 1). Highlights include:

  • Women get benefits of longer time off when they become mothers and should find other improvements in the workplace. Also, money to help train women for higher-wage jobs will be available.
  • Bees are big winners, with the state being required to pay some beekeepers for colonies they lose to insecticides. Another law regulates what products nurseries may label as “bee friendly,” and the University of Minnesota was awarded money to help determine why bees and other pollinators are struggling to survive.
  • Community-based providers of services to the elderly and disabled will get a 5 percent state funding increase, most of which is expected to go to higher wages.
  • Railroads and pipelines that carry crude oil will see more regulation, and money will go to help train and outfit public safety workers in areas where the oil travels. Also, railroad crossings where there are oil trains will be eligible for safety improvements.
  • Dog and cat breeders must be licensed and inspected by state officials.
  • Free school lunches will be fully funded after reports that some qualifying students had been turned away. Also, money is available for all kindergartners to have school breakfasts.
  • Hospitals and nursing homes, especially in rural areas, will get more state aid.
  • Rural high-speed Internet improvements will receive $20 million.
  • A new law cracks down on speeders in road construction zones, and the state may increase speed limits on highways now limited to 55 mph if it can be “reasonably and safely” accomplished.
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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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