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Sweeping K-12 Bill in Minn. Would Abolish State Board

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The Minnesota legislature approved a jam-packed $124 million education bill last week that would abolish the state school board, lift a cap on superintendents' salaries, and provide generous funding for teacher professional development.

The bill, the product of marathon negotiations between House and Senate leaders, also seeks noteworthy changes in special education funding and includes $12 million to establish three "residential academies" for troubled students.

Gov. Arne Carlson indicated last week that he would sign the measure, which would also allocate $70 million to help school districts train teachers to implement the state's new Profile of Learning. The profile is a package of requirements that students must complete in order to graduate from high school, beginning with the class of 2002.

Early in their negotiations, the lawmakers agreed to put the 79-year-old board of education out of business on Dec. 31, 1999, although the bill they passed calls for a task force to examine school governance between now and the end of next year.

The board, whose nine members are appointed by the governor, was roundly criticized last fall for its efforts to write a "diversity rule" requiring districts to reduce educational disparities between students of different racial and ethnic groups. ("In Minn., Criticism May Quash Board's Diversity-Rule Proposal," Dec. 3, 1997.)

Precedent-Setting Move

If the panel indeed is abolished, Minnesota would become the first state to make such a move, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. The Minnesota board's rule-making powers would be given to the state education commissioner, who is also a gubernatorial appointee.

Ken Morris, the president of the board, said he wished lawmakers had called for a study of education governance before voting to scrap the board. "This is a little bit 'cart before the horse,'" said Mr. Morris, who was appointed to the panel in January.

Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based NASBE, said abolishing the Minnesota panel would "set a dangerous precedent." Noting that Minnesota has gone through numerous state commissioners of education in the past five years, she argued that the board can provide stability.

But the Republican governor also has made several changes to the panel, which is widely perceived as a highly political body.

Bob Wedl, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, the state's education agency, said the board's power had been "eroding over the past 20 years." The panel can't write rules--its primary responsibility--without authority from the legislature.

"The legislature is really the school board in this state," Mr. Wedl said, "and they recognize that."

The state board is still working on its final rules for the upcoming Profile of Learning. The package of graduation requirements is now scheduled to take effect for students entering 9th grade next fall. But the education bill gives districts the option of phasing in the exercises more slowly by requesting a waiver from the state education agency.

Judy L. Schaubach, the president of the Minnesota Education Association, said the teachers' union will continue to urge the state board to delay the requirements for students for one year. "We need to make sure [we're] not putting kids at risk," she said.

The MEA was pleased with the legislature's commitment to providing staff-development money for teachers to implement the new standards, Ms. Schaubach said, noting that much of the funding will come from an ongoing appropriation. Districts that have made good progress on gearing their coursework to the Profile of Learning can use some of the money to reduce class sizes.

Funding Changes

The legislature also moved to solve a problem that has bedeviled Twin Cities school districts by voting to remove a cap that limited superintendents' salaries to 95 percent of the governor's annual $120,000 paycheck. The measure received particular support from the St. Paul district, which is in the market for a new superintendent.

The bill also includes $12 million to set up three residential academies for troubled students, a priority for Mr. Carlson. The money would pay for renovations and operating costs, while state education funds and social-service dollars would follow students to the schools.

One contentious issues lawmakers addressed involved special education funding. Under the compromise hammered out in a House-Senate conference committee, the state would assume some of the cost of local districts' fees for due-process hearings.

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