Want to build a school?

If you read nothing else today, you’ll want to read Tom Weber’s story about the school district in Rushford that wants to fund new school construction in a state bonding bill.

If allowed, it’s a huge shift in philosophy and one that could lead to some of the most cantankerous floor debate we’ve seen at the Capitol in awhile.

Traditionally, new schools are funded by property taxes. There are two segments of a school district’s budget: operating expenses and capital expenses. New school construction falls into the latter category and it’s often accompanied by a levy — taxpayers get to vote on whether a new school should be built.

By all accounts, the one that’s there is a dump. According to Weber, the administrator in the school system has dismissed the idea of asking local taxpayers to foot the bill, because it would require a 48-percent increase in property taxes and there isn’t enough wealth in the district.

There is a loophole in the current law allowing bonding money to be used when school districts consolidate. But Rushford consolidated 20 years ago.

“We do have districts out there in a similar situation as us; the buildings are literally falling down around them, and despite everything going on, we’re making the best we possibly can, but there’s no light at the end of tunnel for us,” said district Superintendent Chuck Ehler. “And we need our state and we need our elected officials to be aware of that and be willing to be risk-takers, along with us, and say, ‘Absolutely, schools are part of our infrastructure.'”

That may be, but it’s not hard to see what the reaction will be in communities that just tagged taxpayers for new schools. Why should they not get other taxpayers in the state to help pay for what they’re now paying?

It’s also true, as a person on Twitter told me today, “we’re all in this together and we all benefit from an educated population.” That’s true, which is why the state assumes responsibility for paying for a good deal of the “former” in the budget divisions above. But isn’t it also possible that if some districts get state taxpayer help, more districts will have failed levy votes for new building construction, assuming the state taxpayers will help out?

If the Rushford proposal gets very far, that’s the question that the debate will orbit.

One postscript: In July 2008, I toured the area of Rushford hard-hit by a 2007 flood that killed a half-dozen people in southeast Minnesota. My tour guides were readers of NewsCut. When we get to the part about the school, note its importance in the town’s recovery from a traumatic disaster. It’s a good testament that a school in a community is more than just where you learn things.