Mankato Free Press: Districts still waiting for Gov. Dayton to appoint school trust lands director

Mankato Free Press: Districts still waiting for Gov. Dayton to appoint school trust lands director

Source: The Mankato Free Press

Today’s edition of the Mankato Free Press features a school trust lands-related story written by Jessica Bies.

Click here to read the complete story.

Here is an excerpt:

Schools districts throughout Minnesota are waiting this month — some more patiently than others, it would seem — for Gov. Mark Dayton to make good on his promise to appoint a dedicated trustee to manage Minnesota’s school trust land.

About a dozen school districts have passed resolutions calling for Dayton to do so, the Star Tribune reports. Several more are expected to vote on similar resolutions later this month, Mankato Public Schools among them.

But though the appointment would supposedly benefit each of the state’s school districts, early support comes mostly from the Iron Range.

Why is that?

“A lot of people I’ve spoken to didn’t even know there was trust land,” said former state Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin.

Before becoming a representative she didn’t know about the property, either. While environmentalists — and avid outdoorsmen — know the land exists, unless you’ve spent some time in northeastern Minnesota, chances are you’ve never run across it.

“People in the Iron Range know it’s there,” she said.

Everyone else? Not so much.

“Which I find really disturbing,” Dittrich said.

That’s just one reason Dittrich, now associate director of governmental relations for the St. Peter-based Minnesota School Boards Association, has been pushing so hard for a new trustee.

The land has also been mismanaged, she said.

Revenues generated primarily through the sale of timber and mining leases is put in a permanent school fund to gain interest. But the fund, currently looked after by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, yields far fewer dividends than Dittrich says should expected, only about $24 million in 2014.

“Compared to other states, our trust fund is underperforming,” Dittrich said. “When you consider how much land we own and what is in the fund, we are underperforming.”

The DNR’s management of the land was reviewed in 1998 by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. It found that the agency did not always put the fund’s beneficiaries — thousands of Minnesotan schoolchildren — first.

Unsurprisingly, “conservation” guided many of the department’s practices instead. That’s part of what Dittrich argues make the department a bad trustee.

“The No. 1 duty of a trustee is to have no divided loyalty,” Dittrich said. “In other words, undivided loyalty. The DNR has their own direction and mission as dictated by the state … It has what I would say is a conflict of interest.”

The legislative auditor recommended legislators put an independent agency or director in charge of the fund.

And four years later, in 2012, they did. The Legislature passed a bill to transfer management of the fund to a new director. Funding for the position was appropriated last spring and Dayton promised schools he’d appoint the new trustee by late July.

His office now promises mid-January.

If he sticks to his word, Dittrich said there would finally be “at least one person working with undivided loyalty on behalf of schoolchildren every day.”

In the meantime, the Minnesota School Boards Association has asked the state’s school districts to consider adopting resolutions pressuring Dayton to make the appointment.

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