SEE trains parents to be better lobbyists

This article submitted by Stephanie Everson on 1/28/97.

by Stephanie L. Everson
According to the Minnesota Constitution, Article XIII, Section 1, " is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools." SEE, Schools for Equity in Education, is making sure our legislature is keeping that promise.

SEE held a training session last Tuesday evening in the middle school media center. Richard H. Berge, Ph.D., executive director, and Kathy Saltzman, Community Coordinator for SEE, were there to train parents and citizens to be more effective in communicating with their legislators.

SEE legislative positions

1. SEE believes that legislation must eliminate inequalities in educational opportunities between high property school districts and low to average property districts. Since Minnesotaís education funding system relies heavily on property tax, districts with low property wealth arenít able to raise as much revenue as communities with high property wealth, and as a result students receive unequal educational programs.

2. SEE opposes any expansion in the use of public money for nonpublic education. At a time of limited public funds, SEE believes the state must focus its education revenues on public education.

3. SEE believes the special education funding base should be raised to reflect actual school expenditures for special education programs.

4. SEE supports the goal of reduced class sizes in elementary grades.

5. SEE is opposed to reduction in secondary pupil weighting. Currently, secondary students are funded based on the pupil weighting system of 1.30. If current legislation goes into effect this number will be reduced to 1.25.

6. SEE also recommends the establishment of ongoing funding for technology, such as computers, etc., that is flexible and available to all districts.

Current SEE concerns

An important legislation SEE is working on now is the spending caps that have been put on the funding formula. This has been in recent news, but many average citizens donít know what this will entail.

At the close of the 1995 legislative session, the projected income for the 1998 biennium was not adequate to continue state aid to education that was currently being spent, so the legislature enacted a bill to decrease the funding formula for statewide schools. At the beginning of the 1997-98 biennial legislative session, which convened on Tuesday, Jan. 7, the projected income was within the current funding levels.

Unfortunately, the legislation has already been enacted, so beginning in July of this year, public schools in Minnesota could lose over $300 million in state funding. The Paynesville Area School District alone will lose $659,498 over the next two years.

House File 1, chief authored by Alice Johnson, and Senate File 3, chief authored by Michelle Fischbach, are companion bills in the House and Senate that seek to eliminate these funding caps enacted in 1995. If these bills are successful, they will not give Minnesota school districts more money than they currently have, they will simply restore the same amount of funding they have now.

If the funding is not restored to the school districts, there will not only be an upset to teachers, who will indefinitely be cut, but it also disrupts the students who will no longer be offered the same quality of education.

The General Education Funding Program

The basic general education formula establishes the basic level of per pupil funding for the 354 school districts in Minnesota. General education aid is determined by subtracting the amount raised by the local property taxes (general education levy) from the formula allowance; but, Saltzman said, "If the funding formula was higher, districts wouldnít have to resort to levys."

There is a great discrepancy between the educational programs offered in high property wealth communities and low to average property wealth communities. Both Berge and Saltzman pointed out that most SEE membership is with school districts with low to average property value. Although there are more SEE membership districts in outstate Minnesota, there is a larger number of students represented in the metro area.

Some of the wealthier communities in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area have a very high level of educational programs, that with low to average property wealth in some districts outstate are just not possible. Saltzman referred to a situation where a student may have a question about a science problem. One school may say, "We just send her to our science specialist in the science lab," while another school would say,"What science specialist?" "What science lab?"

Some programs school districts can get along without, but budget cuts donít only hit those areas. In the Stillwater school district where Saltzman is from, the junior high went without math books for three years because the school was unable to go through with purchasing new ones with their current budget. The teachers gave assignments on worksheets and handouts, but as one parent said, "How can I help my child with her homework when I have no book to refer to?"

Most recently, Paynesville has had to make budget adjustments for the 1991-92, 1992-93, and 1993-94 school years. In the 1995-96 and 1996-97 sessions, because of more available revenue, the Paynesville district was able to add more than before to their current programs and staff, but if the current legislation is allowed to go into effect, they will be forced again to make further adjustments.

How you can make a difference

Making your ideas known to legislators can sometimes seem overwhelming. You may feel that your one letter wonít make any difference, but this is not the case. According to Saltzman, legislators rarely hear from individual citizens, so when they do they know it is an important subject. One legislator she talked to said, "When I get five to ten letters, I know it must be a hot topic."

Even if you donít know everything about an issue, let your legislator know youíre concerned about it. You donít have to be the expert to write a letter or make a phone call. Even one paragraph stating youíre concerned about the funding in your school district will let them know it is an important topic they need to debate. Just introducing yourself as a constituent is important to them. They are your legislators elected by you, to represent you. Saltzman pointed out that if they know your name and that youíre interested in an issue, they will sometimes check with you to ask your opinion before they go before the committee to debate it.

Another way to stay up-to-date is to attend a legislative committee meeting. Every bill is first heard and discussed at the committee meeting, and theyíre open to the public. Legislators are real people. If you have a question on an issue, ask one of them.

Even if you donít have time to write a letter, your calls are welcomed. If your legislator is out of the office, their staff will be there to take your call; "but donít be surprised," Saltzman said, "if they pick up the phone."

Legislators want to know when a change is needed, but it is also encouraging when they hear theyíre doing a good job. A quick note or a call letting them know you appreciate the work theyíve done is a great incentive.

Legislators also have access to E-mail and fax machines, if these are more convenient for you; but, Saltzman said, "Form letters donít tend to be as effective as a personal note. If a legislator gets 500 of the same letter, they will often only look at the first few."

Also, parents should talk to their school faculty. Ask teachers and staff how proposed cuts will affect your children. What programs will be lost? How many teachers will be cut? Since the bulk of a schoolís budget goes for the administration and teachers, they are usually the first to go. Saltzman pointed out, "You have the power to have an impact if you know the means!"

More information

Minnesota is among the nation's leaders in making government information available to the public. All these publications are free.

Session Weekly covers listings of House bills and committee schedules. Call 612-296-2146 or 1-800-657-3550 to subscribe, or find it on the internet at http://www. house.leg.

House Index provides information on the status of a particular bill. Call 612-296-6646.

Updated committee meetings and agendas. Call 612-296-9283 for 24-hour recording.

Briefly reports senate committee and floor action. Call 612-296-0504.

Senate Index provides information on the status of a specific bill. Call 612-296-2887. For copies of pending bills, call the chief clerk's office at 612-296-2314.

For updated Senate committee schedules, call 612-296-8088 for prerecorded hotline.

To connect to the legislative home page on the internet:

SEE legislative hotline: 612-220-9192 or 1-800-666-6837, press "4".

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