Three of the five school districts that serve K–12 students in Chisago County (Rush City, Forest Lake, and Braham) are asking voters to approve school operating levies on the Nov. 6 ballot. The other two districts that serve our county (Chisago Lakes and North Branch) both passed school-related referendums last year.
As fiscally responsible members of the Chisago County Board of Commissioners, we wanted to find out why our local school districts are asking for these levies, so last summer we held an educational summit to learn more. We invited school districts serving our county to come to a County Board meeting and explain why they felt it necessary to ask taxpayers for more money.
We were shocked at what we learned. All five school districts serving our county receive approximately 40 percent less in school funding than the state than the state’s highest endowed districts. Out of 330 school districts in the state, every one of our five districts is ranked far below the state median — for example, Forest Lake at 203, Braham at 287, and Rush City at 298. And yet due to the fiscal responsibility of our local school administrators and the dedication and skill of school staff, they are providing a quality education right here at home with a fraction of the resources that other schools have.
Translated into real dollars, we found that the Rush City and Braham school districts will receive just a little over $9,500 per student from the state of Minnesota for the 2018–19 school year. In contrast, the school district at Hendricks, Minnesota, will receive almost $17,000 per student — close to double the amount — in a town one-fourth the size of Rush City on the South Dakota border. The Forest Lake school district will receive about $10,500 per student.
How could this be, we asked. Upon further research, we learned that this huge disparity is the result of a very complicated, somewhat arbitrary school-funding formula developed by the state decades ago. The state takes money from Chisago County taxpayers, funnels it into the state-managed education fund, and then doles it out based on a cumbersome, outdated formula — and our students in east-central Minnesota are short-changed.
We set out to do something about it. We went to our local legislators and asked them to address this disparity at a legislative level. We received responses from our state representatives and state senator, who indicate that they are already working to even out the state school funding formula — but this will be a big, time-consuming task that may not be accomplished in one legislative session.
That is why — even though we both have a strong record of opposing tax increases — we are publicly voicing our support for the operating levy referendums for our area schools. This is the only means we have of preserving the viability of our local schools in the short term. These referendums are not for frivolous or wasteful expenditures, but for the day-to-day education our students need. Unfortunately, budget cuts alone will no longer allow these districts to balance the books, keep class sizes manageable, recruit and retain quality educators, and offer quality courses and extracurricular activities. We are working with our legislators to do what we can to fix things in the long term, but this year we urge you to vote yes for your local school levy.
George McMahon, Chisago County Commissioner District 3
Ben Montzka, Chisago County Commissioner District 4