Legislators say education will be a focus of 2007 Session

WILLMAR -- Education will be well represented when the Minnesota Legislature convenes in January, area legislators told the Willmar School Board Monday.

WILLMAR -- Education will be well represented when the Minnesota Legislature convenes in January, area legislators told the Willmar School Board Monday.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, and Sen.-elect Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, spoke with the board about the upcoming session and some education issues they expect to discuss.

Many of the newly elected legislators are interested in education issues, Gimse said, and he expects that to have an impact on the upcoming session.

With Democrats now controlling the Minnesota House, some "fresh sets of eyes" will be looking at education proposals that may have failed to gain support in the past few years, Juhnke said.

At this point, it's not possible to say what school funding proposals might look like at the end of the session, Juhnke said, but there are several issues he knows will be considered by House Democrats.


"It is a priority of our caucus to fund all-day, everyday kindergarten for every school district that wants it," he said.

Some districts, like Willmar, have offered full-time kindergarten, but they still receive the same amount of state aid as districts with half-time kindergarten.

Another point of discussion will be special education funding. Juhnke urged board members to contact members of Congress, asking to have the federal government live up to its promise to provide 40 percent of the funding for special education services.

The state has also frozen funding for special education since 2003, he said, and it has been a strain on many budgets.

Superintendent Kathy Leedom said the district spends about $2 million on special education each year. "We are very proud of our special education program," she said, but it would help the district to receive more state and federal aid for special education.

The Legislature is likely to discuss the length of the school year and ways to change annual testing requirements, Juhnke said.

Returning legislators and new members "have education and health care in mind," Juhnke said. "There's a sense of cooperation I haven't sensed for a while."

Gimse added, "I feel the same way."


Gimse said he is optimistic about the Legislature will be able to handle a surplus estimated at $1 billion after inflation is factored in.

However, "I'm also advising caution," he said. "One of the key factors to that is keeping taxes low."

The state has created a healthy business climate, he said. "We need to do what's right for education and health care" without impeding that, he added.

Committee assignments haven't been made public yet, Gimse said, but he has been told he will serve on the E-12 Education Budget Division, which deals with education spending in public schools, including early childhood programs. "I look forward to it," he said. The committee will be working hard, as its members meet daily during the legislative session, he added.

Gimse said he also expects to be named to the Transportation Budget and Policy Division, Agriculture and Veterans Budget and Policy Division and the Economic Development Budget Division. All those committees are subcommittees of the Senate Finance Committee.

The time since the election has been an exciting time for him, Gimse said, and he promised to be accessible to the board members and others from the district.

Leedom said the school officials are available to answer questions legislators might have, too.

Gimse and Juhnke agreed that the idea of requiring school districts to spend 70 percent of their budgets on instruction will be an issue during the session.


Most schools are already at or close to that level. Juhnke called the idea a gimmick that didn't pass from committee last year and most likely won't be discussed this year.

"I don't see it as an issue that needs to be pressed," Gimse added.

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