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Rural lawmakers defeat school sharing, for now

ST. PAUL - Rural lawmakers afraid that local firms could lose business helped defeat a proposal to encourage school districts to work together.

Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said he fears the bill could force schools to buy from someone other than local businesses. "There is a feeling between a community and a school district that is very special and very important."

The bill lost 33-31, but its supporters say it will return before the legislative session ends this spring.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said that many fellow rural lawmakers did not understand the measure.

"There is an exception for everything," said Stumpf, chairman of the Senate education finance committee, adding that local businesses should not be hurt.

The proposal began with Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, after a local school superintendent complained that bus transportation was considered an education expense.

"Transportation has nothing to do with teaching children," she said.

The original proposal, which Bonoff worked on with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, would have required schools to buy products from an approved list. But the bill was changed to meet complaints that it was too restrictive.

Bonoff said the bill would not require buying the cheapest products, and leaves the door open to buying goods locally.

"I do believe we have given the school districts the type of latitude they are looking for," Bonoff said.

Still, she said, "school districts should purchase their goods and services in the most economical way possible."

That is the goal of the measure, which strongly encourages joint purchases of goods and services.

The bill would require the state Education Department to contract with a consultant that would study school purchasing needs and promote improve "service delivery, efficiency and economy." The consulting firm would be paid a percentage of savings it generates.

Fewer than a third of Minnesota districts use a state purchasing pool already in place to buy a wide variety of products.

Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, said that, for instance, the best price for computers is through the state pool.

"This is one of the softest mandates we could have come up with," Olson said. "Don't we want most of our resources going to the education of our students?"

With the state facing a large budget deficit, Stumpf said that this concept is a good way to save a few million dollars.

"There is money to be saved out there," Stumpf said. "We are going to have to turn every rock over."

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.