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Senate tax bill includes boost in funding for area schools

ST. PAUL — Tucked within the $432 million tax-cut bill expected to be voted on in the Minnesota Senate today is a provision that has area superintendents excited.

It would allow all school districts in the state —not just those in the seven county metro-area —the right to levy up to $424 per pupil. In the case of Rochester Public Schools, that would mean an extra $3 million in funding per year if the school board decided to levy the full amount.

"We would be extremely excited if that does go through. It was our top priority going into the session," Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Munoz said.

This funding option would not be available to schools until the 2015-2016 school year. Despite the delay, Munoz said it would be a welcome chance for more funding at a time when the district is faced with budget cuts. The district faces $1 million in cuts to next year's budget along with another $1 million reduction the year after that.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers approved a new category of educating funding called location equity revenue. It allows districts with more than 2,000 students to levy up to $212 per pupil and gives metro area school districts the option to levy twice that amount. These levy increases do not require voter approval but instead are decided by local school boards.


Funding hole

Then there's the area school districts now caught in the so-called "donut hole." They have more than 960 students so they are not eligible to levy additional dollars through small school revenues. But because they have fewer than 2,000 students, they do not qualify for location equity revenue. The Minnesota Rural Education Association estimates about 100 schools fall into this funding hole.

Zumbrota-Mazeppa Public Schools is one of those districts. Superintendent Tony Simons said it is unfair that districts like his don't have the same funding options as others in the state.

"I think it should be fixed. I really do think it's only fair, especially since a lot of us aren't receiving the aid that the metro schools are getting," Simons said.

In order for the proposal to move ahead, the Senate first needs to approve the tax bill. The Minnesota House will have to decide whether to vote on the Senate bill or opt for a conference committee to come up with a compromise plan. The House's bill does not include the school funding provision.

But not all greater Minnesota lawmakers are cheering this school funding provision. Preston Republican Greg Davids said it would lead to a spike in property taxes and does not give voters a chance to weigh in.

"The voters have to have a say in it," he said. "The Legislature wants school districts to skirt around the vote with massive tax increases."

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