State leaders are focusing on education today as Gov. Pawlenty heads to New Orleans to chair a meeting of the Education Commission of the States and in St. Paul, a Minnesota House committee will hold a hearing to discuss a plan to secure more federal funds for schools.
The meeting comes as school officials are growing increasingly anxious that school funding will be cut this legislative session. The concern has grown even more as Gov. Pawlenty, who protected school funding in the past, suggested he might be willing to make cuts this year.
Funding for K-12 schools is the biggest portion of the state budget. It has also been one of the areas that Gov. Tim Pawlenty has tried to protect during his two terms in office, but that may change.
In December, Pawlenty suggested that he was unhappy that school districts were giving teachers raises when other sectors have been forced to cut "We asked them to freeze salaries," he said. "We asked them to freeze compensation levels, but many of them have not done that."
He was even more aggressive on his radio show last month.
"At least as to cuts like most of state government or other programs in government got, we said we would protect military and veterans and public safety and K-12 schools and we've done that," Pawlenty said. "But if they got money to be giving out salary increases then maybe the protection layer gets rethought, I think."
Pawlenty's comments don't necessarily mean schools will see a cut. He may be threatening cuts to force school districts to take a hard line regarding teacher contracts. If he proposes cuts it would be a big change.
In 2006, Pawlenty campaigned on increasing funds for schools.
"Our kids deserve the best education so let's increase funding for our schools but let's also hold them accountable for better results," he said in a campaign ad.
But that was before the economic downturn. In July, Pawlenty unilaterally cut $2.7 billion to balance the books after failing to reach a budget deal with the Legislature. As part of those cuts, he withheld $1.8 billion in school payments forcing many schools to borrow money with interest. And last month, State Finance officials announced Minnesota faces another $1.2 billion budget deficit.
"This year, when he's actually talking about teacher settlements are too high and 'Everything is on the table.' I'm scared for education," said DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling of Roseville.
Greiling chairs the House K-12 Education Finance Committee and has been pushing for an increase in school funding. Last year, the state Senate voted to cut education funding, but Pawlenty opposed the cut. Greiling said the 2010 session will be difficult for school districts if Pawlenty has changed his mind.
"We only won out last year when the Senate wanted to cut Education funding by 7 percent because the Gov. helped," Greiling said. "Without his help this year, it's two against one and we're on the losing side."
Greiling also takes issue with the notion that funding for schools has been "protected" in the last few years. She said a school payment delay and flat funding means the education budget hasn't kept up with inflation. While Greiling is concerned that K-12 could see cuts, DFL state Sen. Leroy Stumpf said it should be an option.
"Yes, the Legislature will have to look at K-12 spending," Stumpf said. "But if we're forced to make reductions in that area it will translate very quickly into two things."
Those things, Stumpf said, are property tax increases for school districts that can offset the cuts and cuts to classrooms for those districts that can't raise property taxes.
That concerns Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union. He said Pawlenty and the Legislature should consider additional revenue like tax increases to fix the budget problem.
"This is a huge hole that we're looking at, and we understand that," Dooher said. "But education is so important and our kids don't get to go through third grade a second time; so if they don't have the resources, they're going to get behind and we need to make sure they don't get behind."
Absent any cuts, Minnesota is set to spend about $13.3 billion on K-12 education during the two-year budget cycle.