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David Jennings, former Minn.
House Speaker, & School Superintendent
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
August 20, 2010
Verne Johnson (Chair); Janis Clay, Paul Gilje, Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz,
Tim McDonald, Clarence Shallbetter (phone), Bob White
Summary of David Jennings' comments:
Jennings senses a lack of vision on the part of current candidates for
Governor. He opposes shifting expenses to the following biennium. He
believes wealthier Minnesotans shouldn't pay a lower percentage of their
income in taxes than lower income taxpayers. Other points he made: changes
in schools are needed, including reducing the size of some districts and
increasing the size of others; high priority must be given to
pre-kindergarten education; The state shouldn't accept federal money for
Context of the meeting-The
Civic Caucus is interested to hear from Mr. Jennings, an experienced
public official and businessman, about the current state of the state
budget and how it may be re-envisioned during this time of turnover in the
office of the governor.
Welcome and introductions-
After a stint in the Marine Corps, David Jennings graduated from
University, He worked briefly for a Congressional staff and in the
construction business before being elected to the state legislature in
1978. He rose quickly to become Republican minority leader in 1982. When
the Republicans gained the majority in 1985 he became Speaker of the House
for two years before leaving the legislature. He spent 9 years as an
executive with Schwan Food Companies and later served as Commissioner of
Commerce under Governor Ventura and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional
Chamber of Commerce. In January of 2002, he became COO of the Minneapolis
Public Schools and went on to serve a year as their interim superintendent
during the 2003-04 school year. He recently retired after serving as
superintendent of schools for the Eastern Carver County Public Schools,
based in Chaska.
Comments and discussion-During
visit with the Civic Caucus, the following points were raised:
you for the invitation to speak, Jennings told the group. Since the range
of topics on which he might comment is broad, he began with the big
budget issues are being worked through on the campaign trail--"Let
me talk briefly about the highest level of it. First of all, frightening
as it may be, I believe the discussions about how the budget will all be
resolved are going on right now," and it's not just in places like the
Civic Caucus. It's actually happening on the campaign trail. Policy is
decided, in many ways, on the campaign trail. The candidates are being
pinned down at the local Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary meetings as to
what they're going to do.
the cynicism people have about campaign promises the candidates are going
to be held to what they say during the campaign. Those commitments are
being made right now, and its going to be very difficult to change them in
any comprehensive way.
is the time for the governor to lead the state's government--The
real show is the governor's race,
said. The Legislature is not the place to develop bold new initiatives or
set a vision. Legislators react to what the governor and others propose be
done, and eventually develop a plan that may or may not resemble what's
been proposed-but however it ends up it is a reflection of the governor's
proposal. So the discussions taking place right now matters, and that is
particularly true of the discussions in the governor's race. Whatever
happens after the election will somehow be an outcome of these
gubernatorial campaign is lacking vision--Jennings
said he doesn't see the right level of conversation coming out of the
current campaigns. "I don't hear a vision for
being articulated in a meaningful way." After his experience with Ventura,
he's not sure a third party in "the middle" offers the ideal choice. "If
Tom Horner wins he has to worry about a power base from which to
govern-either amongst the voters nor in the legislature."
if he could imagine a state-level body to perform planning functions.
"Yes, but I don't see how you create a structure that forces a vision for
the state. It's about a vacuum in the area of leadership. The vision has
to begin with the leader to whom that planning effort is accountable.
Politics has gotten so petty and mean that I don't know how you get
leadership with the courage that the job requires."
4. It's not healthy or trustworthy to shift expenses to another
participant asked what, really, are the consequences of continuing to do
what we're doing? Can't we keep going on with the shifts, and with
cutting? The bond rating agencies do not seem to mind and are keeping our
credit ratings high.
time presumably you're going to have to pay," Jennings responded. "It has
less to do with what the bonding houses say, and more to do with having a
system that is sound and trustworthy. What we're doing now is
irresponsible, and maybe unethical."
must perceive that the taxing system is fair--Mark
Dayton has proposed a very particular tax program. What would happen if he
were to act on it? "I don't think he'll get the revenue he wants. Everyone
hates income taxes, including me. It is true though that right now the
wealthy are paying a smaller portion of their income than the poor and
middle class. That creates a scenario that doesn't bode well for the
future. If the perception of the vast majority of voters is that the
system isn't fair, it's going to create an opportunity for charlatans to
come in, for radicals on either side of the parties-that's what the
present race is showing us," he said.
Optimism that the government and the people will come to terms with
hopeful-but just a little-that this crisis is serious enough that the
state will come together around it." The situation may be serious enough
that the Legislature will have to come to terms with it, and the public
will be willing accept an otherwise unpopular solution. "I'm not a fan of
the shifts," he made clear, or the fiscal games that have been played to
date. They have long-term side-effects: "Quie came in at the end of 1982,
and when I came back to
administration in 1999 it was only then that they were finally unwinding
the effects of the Quie administration's shifts."
proponent of long-term, structural change. It requires a willingness to
rethink all sides of the budget equation: taxes, spending and shifts.
schools are too large; some, too small--What
can be done to improve education? The fact is, as in everything, there is
an optimal organizational size for schools. Most districts like
Minneapolis are too large. Many rural districts are too small. Somewhere
in between there is an optimal size. I'm not sure what it is, but I'll say
10,000 students. We ought to be moving toward that.
whether he sees any practical ways to do that-to move toward
'right-sizing' a district. It would take years to do, he said; you've got
to commit yourself to the years it would take to do it. Someone has to say
these districts are too small, and these are too big-it has to be
connected to what works best in the delivery of services for kids.
8. The educational achievement gap is about the early years--To
a question about early childhood education,
said that he is cautious about the terms. "Early-childhood is a type of
program and has a particular meaning. I'm a believer that the achievement
gap is about the kids not being ready when they come to school."
Minneapolis' own data shows that if a student comes to school unprepared
it is nearly impossible for the system to "catch them up". If they come to
school ready, it is possible-despite all the other negative factors-that
the system can help them. The battle over who will prepare pre-K kids and
how in the current situation "is a fight over turf and limited dollars;
it doesn't have to do with what's coherent and best for kids." ECFE
programs have an agenda. Head Start programs have an agenda. Private
pre-school and daycare providers have an agenda. All of them seem more
interested in their agenda than in "what works best." That "what works
best" question can only be answered by policymakers.
not convinced that parent choice alone has the capacity to drive
improvement of schools. "The challenge for school districts when making
decisions for poor kids is that many students don't have a caring and
responsible adult in their lives that is capable of and willing to make
Education will have to be cut to balance the budget--"Part
of the solution for the current state budget crisis will be cutting
education. Not because it's a good idea, but because they're going to have
to. They've sucked all the quarters out from under the sofa cushions."
Education is where the only remaining pot of serious money remains.
Meanwhile, the prospects for making those cuts in a manner that preserves
program and furthers what needs to be done for kids are dim. There is no
infrastructure in Minnesota or anywhere else that is more resistant to
meaningful reform than the education establishment, Jennings said, and
that includes the education programs at colleges and universities that
train future teachers. "I have discussions with people at higher education
institutions, and many of them don't seem to believe they have anything to
do with the problem."
faculty in most school districts is too entrenched. "The way tenure works
today is so outdated and so outrageous that it needs to be changed for
that reason alone-not just because doing so would also be good public
should opt out of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and send back federal money--"I'm
a radical on federal involvement in K-12 education. I think Minnesota
ought to tell the federal government to keep their money and then run our
own schools without all the federal strings." We'd have to have a
discussion about how that federal money is used now, and where there would
be a gap. Jennings said that he believes Minnesota's work with the federal
government on education has been unhelpful and manipulative of the state's
a story from his first days in the legislature. "In 1979 the legislature
is in session, and we're nearly done putting together our aid deal, from
the state to local districts. The House is tied, and we were meeting in
the basement to negotiate. Then we are contacted by the feds-they had just
completed some regulations and rules to guide the creation of particular
education legislation by the states.
feds say that we're not in compliance on that particular policy, but we
know we're not-we're better." So they went to Washington to argue that
Minnesota should be granted a waiver because its program is better. The
staff at the US Department of Education said that they also believed that
our program was superior, but 'if we let you deviate on the top side, we
have to let people deviate on the bottom.' It was all about compliance
then, and still is."
told the group, "I said the state should turn down the money. But we took
it then, and do now. I've had no experience with the federal government
since that time that has been any different. If you're a high standard
state, you are forced to gravitate toward the mean. I have a deep and
abiding cynicism of how the federal government is helping on matters of
state should assume more of the local role in paying for K-12--"
The state has a constitutional obligation to provide for free access to
equitable education programs for all the state's kids. . "I think what
Ventura tried to do, having the state assume more responsibility for
paying for K-12 education, was the right thing to do. He proposed having
the state take it over and widening the sales tax base to pay for it. The
legislature said yes to the first part, no to the second-yes to the easy
part, no to the hard part.
saying the state needs to write a bigger check-what I believe they need to
do is assume full responsibility for both paying the bill and for
education reform. I think if you're going to be responsible, you figure
out what works and you figure out how to put it in operation and how to
pay for it."
participant said that there seems to be discontinuity in Jennings' points:
The federal involvement with the state is harmful, but the state
involvement with the localities is good? Yes, that is so, he said-the
state has responsibility for the interests of the entire state and too
often individual districts are wary of the kind of change that is needed.
"They don't have the broader courage to restructure."
a particular example, from Eastern Carver County. "The first issue we
faced was a space issue; whether we would have two high schools or one."
When the question had come up in prior years they didn't make the hard
decision. Instead, "they built a new middle school, and moved 9th
grade out of the high school and into its own 9th-grade-only
center. That was not in the best interest of the students. It was a
said that by the time he arrived in the district the buildings were
overloaded again. So they built a new high school, and got the referendum
through "by a whisker."
organizations districts have a hard time making highly charged political
decisions he said, so they certainly will have a hard time instilling
reform or innovating. That is why the state must be more involved, with
the public interest in mind.
Government Aid should be removed--Productivity
was formerly achieved through a direct relationship between the source of
money and its use. Should we do away with LGA, cutting out the
middleman-to increase accountability?
eliminated LGA tomorrow there'd be an amazing number of jurisdictions in
Minnesota that wouldn't notice. It's always been a way to pump extra money
into certain jurisdictions, such as cities in rural
or regional hubs. The only conclusion that can be drawn about this is that
it's a political decision.
decisions made with LGA money are often not the best use of funds.
"Localities don't trust the state, so many cities don't count on it as
part of their operating budget-the state is now an unreliable partner."
Instead the cities set up a budget without it, and then if the money comes
in they make a one-time expenditure on a fire truck or capital project.
cutting local government aid is okay if state spending requirements on
local government are also reduced-from an accountability perspective the
unit of government that mandates a service should deliver a service."
Everyone should be treated fairly: "I don't think the state should mandate
something and then give only part of the money to pay for it; or, worse
yet, give different amounts to different local governments.."
Business leaders don't trust politicians to solve state problems--Many
business leaders don't trust the politicians who make decisions.
Corporations are pressed by the quarterly report, so if they can do
something to decrease their expenses they're going to have the short-term
view. But they do understand that the things we talk about with education
and health care have long term consequences. Getting them to support
change, you first have to get them to trust that the state government can
be depended upon to handle that change. The legislative sessions are
painful to watch. And the outcomes are sometimes bizarre. Getting their
support for spending or taxing changes first requires getting them to
trust the people making the changes.
tax structure needs to be reworked--We
have to ask ourselves if we can maintain the revenue we have now without
rethinking our tax policy. We've got to look at where the global economy
is now, and ask how we can levy taxes that are competitive.
problem is not as simplistic as that we have a bunch of programs throwing
money out the window. It is as much about whether we have a tax code that
is still relevant in a flattened and digital world economy. We do not. The
current code is outdated.
15. A new
round of coordinated transportation planning and an elected Metro Council
the topic of transportation-including roads and rail-Jennings told the
group that the issue is "about someone keeping an eye on the bigger
picture, about how the state can lead development of the larger vision we
have for Minnesota and how we're going to grow in the next twenty years or
so." Are we going to encourage more coherent and sustainable development
or are we going to simply continue to allow sprawl to be the solution? He
said that he hears some people say we should add another outer ring-994,
effectively, to surround 494 and 694. Others say that we should just stop
building roads and start building taller buildings.
know if either of those are good ideas. I do think we should have a
planning process that filters out local biases." He said that he believes
strongly in creation of a larger and an elected Metro Council to bring
coherence to the planning process-"that would bring more reason to the
discussion but the Legislature will oppose it because the Met Council
would 'gain' power and the power gained would be at the expense of
went back to the importance of the governor's race in setting a vision for
the future of the state in these times. "I believe the only person who has
the bully pulpit and the power to convey a vision to ordinary voters is
the governor. I can't think of another way to do it."
to Mr. Jennings for the visit.