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School Upkeep Costs A Sore Point For Minn. Schools

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Some Minnesota school districts say they are at a disadvantage in paying for basic maintenance because the state allows only a small number of them to raise taxes without voter approval.

A special committee will make recommendations to the Legislature in February on how and whether the system should be changed, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Sunday (http://bit.ly/JDJ7rb ).

About $1.3 billion is designated statewide each year for school facilities. A recent report by the Minnesota Department of Education showed that half of that money comes from voter-approved levies and the rest comes from district or state funds.

Just 25 Minnesota districts can raise taxes for facilities without voter approval because they have a certain mix of student enrollment, building square-footage and facility age. Those districts receive nearly 22 percent more funding, per pupil, for capital expenditures than districts not in the program, state figures show.

Forest Lake isn’t one of them. District leaders hope voters will approve a $176 million tax request in May to repair a crumbling running track, antiquated heating and cooling systems, outdated classrooms and other building problems.

“We have not had the money to keep up with maintenance as well as we should have,” said Superintendent Linda Madsen. “It has built up over the years and we have to make some decisions.”

In 2010, voters in Forest Lake defeated a request for $24 million in capital funds. School officials pressed Minnesota lawmakers to create a committee to study ways to make school facilities funding more equitable. That group is wrapping up its report.

Commission co-chair Bob Indihar, superintendent of Moose Lake schools, said districts that don’t qualify for alternative funding generally are smaller or rural districts, and they struggle to keep up with basic building repairs.

“This is supposed to be a statewide system,” Indihar said. “The state is responsible for educating all kids, but we have some districts who have it easier than others. It’s a huge issue we are trying to tackle.”

State Rep. Duane Quam, the only Republican lawmaker on the facilities committee, said he worries voters are about to lose more control over their property taxes.

“Frankly, that local decision capability is something we need to have,” Quam said. “Without checks and balances, you end up causing turmoil and frustration.”

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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