DFL leaders in the Minnesota Senate have proposed across-the-board cuts of 7 percent as part of their plan to erase the state's $4.6 billion budget deficit.
The Senate education bill follows through on the threat, although the 7 percent reduction in K-12 spending would be softened to 3.2 percent with the inclusion of the one-time federal stimulus money. Education represents about 40 percent of state spending.
Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, the chair of the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division, said he's not happy with the cuts, but they're necessary given the financial circumstances.
"The cuts are real, and there's no way to sugarcoat trying to balance the state's budget," he said. "It's a real budget problem that we have. But we've tried our hardest to try to make districts survive through a very tough period."
Stumpf said ongoing federal money for special education and other programs is not reduced. The Senate bill does not change the state's base funding formula, but instead subtracts $273 for every student from a school district's annual revenue total.
Those totals vary widely among school districts, making the cuts hit some harder than others.
Brad Lundell, executive director of the group Schools for Equity in Education, said the Senate cuts are troublesome. Lundell represents 61 school districts with low property wealth and low financial resources.
"These districts are already in many cases at the lower end of the state formulas and in many cases don't have referenda, so they're really stuck," he said. "And many of them were counting on growth that has slowed down due to the collapse of the housing market, or slowdown of the housing market. This just spells pain, in capitol letters with an exclamation point behind it."
The Senate education plan contrasts sharply with two other budget plans on the table. House Democrats hold school funding flat, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proposing a slight increase. But both plans delay some state payments to school districts until the second year of the two-year budget cycle.
Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, said she doesn't like the Senate's funding approach, but she does like the bill's policy provisions, including relief from state mandates and charter school reform.
Olson said she's pleased the bill preserves the governor's performance pay initiative for teachers, known as Q-Comp.
"It's there," she said. "You know, there have been efforts to negate that or undo it in previous years and they're not doing that. And I think there's a recognition that it is working, and it's accepted by many of the districts."
The Senate education bill is expected to move quickly through three committees. And a vote on the Senate floor is planned for early next week.