Part 1 The Faded Miracle
In 1971 I got an A- on a paper I wrote for a college government class about
the “Minnesota Miracle.” I still have it. The Miracle was a state law which
gave poor school districts almost as much money to educate children as rich
school districts spent. It was prompted by the fear that the courts would
’s school funding to be in violation of the “equal protection” clause of
the US Constitution. A bipartisan legislature passed the change and it helped
put Governor Wendell Anderson on the front cover of Time. How unequal were
’s districts? One extreme example mentioned in my report gave the example of
Sioux Valley, and Deer Creek. In the 1969-70 school year the former spent $4,814
per child while the latter only spent $419 per child. And it wasn’t as though
Deer Creek didn’t care about its kids. Deer Creek’s school taxes were almost
three times as high as
’s. Deer Creek was poor.
For a brief moment in the late Seventies and early 80’s
was among the leaders among the fifty states in spending for public education.
My recollection is that we were ranked 5th in per pupil spending for
several years in a row. Today we are ranked 23rd.
Although it was a bipartisan legislature that passed the
Miracle, Nixon’s Watergate assured that it would be a DFL legislature that
would have to live with the Miracle’s consequences by turning out dozens of
Republican office holders. What the generous DFL legislators discovered was that
public schools were a bottomless money pit. With 80 percent of the burden for
public education on the state’s shoulders School Boards were happy to spend
state tax money which they couldn’t be blamed for raising.
Even DFL legislators reacted predictably. They began
turning off the spigot. For
, which were also suffering from declining enrollments, it was a double whammy.
it was an era of mass layoffs of 100, 150 or 200 teachers. Somehow the School
Board could never quite believe that the Miracle was over or that a DFL
legislature would abandon them.
At the end of the 1980’s
parents began agitating for new schools. The School Board proposed a $55
million building bond. It campaigned by showing the public photos of crumbling
’s skeptical senior citizens asked: “Well, why didn’t you take care of
them?” and the bond went down in flames as did a $35 million bond a year
later. Finally, a much smaller $26 million building plan was put into effect in
large part because nearly half the money to pay for it came from the state.
This was a tough time to be a school superintendent. Over
five years the District averaged a new superintendent each year. That finally
ended with a local boy, Mark Myles. Myles made significant budget cuts which
made him no friends among our teachers. He also began a school maintenance plan
which put $2 million into the schools each year.
Then the district caught a break. By 1993 the state was
once again at the mercy of the courts and the demands of poorer school
districts. The legislature responded by offering state matching money to any
school district whose voters approved raising property taxes for school
operations. In the case of
the state’s match was three state dollars for every local dollar raised. Bob
Mars, who initially opposed the “excess levy”, was persuaded by others, me
among them, that this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Bob circulated a
pledge to school board candidates which obligated them to support the levy on
the condition that they offset any local taxes raised by cutting other local
taxes for the schools. In effect,
would get three million state dollars without raising local taxes at all. The
pledge also obligated the Board to pay off a $5 million operating debt that the
district had accumulated and use the rest to build a reserve fund of 10 million
dollars. The levy passed and, when it was renewed in 1997, was put to use in the
classroom although the state match had been reduced to two dollars for every
local dollar raised.
The levy renewal failed in 2001 leading to teacher layoffs,
larger classes and the end of a seven-period day in the high schools. Judy
Seliga-Punyko was typical of the people who voted against the levy even though
her own children would suffer from the subsequent cuts. Like me, Judy wanted a
high school closed. Unlike me, she thought it fitting to teach the school board
The levy was renewed in 2003 thanks to a new bargain
crafted by Nancy Nilson. Although I was a firm believer that
was a two high school city I was coerced into supporting three.
demanded that three 9-12 high schools be kept open until the student population
dropped below 2,800 or it would vote against the levy. Coercion worked and the
With each excess levy the state has reduced the incentive
so that now the local/state match ratio is only 55% local dollars to 45% for
has fallen to 23rd in per pupil expenditures one vestige of the
ranks third in the amount of money it pours into poor school districts.
The question for
is how far it is willing to dip into its own pocket for quality schools. If
wants to compete with the top school districts in the state it has no choice
but to pass excess levies even though the state’s match has been diminishing
How the imposition of the Red Plan will dispose local
voters towards an excess levy remains to be seen. Its bricks and mortar vs.
teachers and programs. We know that in
, Dr. Dixon’s old district, and
to our north, excess levies failed twice after voters approved major building
plans. Of course,
’s situation is a little different. Our voters have no say in the Red Plan.
More Red Plan
Chronicles in two weeks. Meanwhile, anyone wishing to insure a public vote on a
new building plan can visit: letduluthvote.com.