As districts fear more cuts, school allies prepare for a fight

Fearful that Minnesota will cut funding to school districts to help close a $1.2 billion deficit, school officials and their allies in the state capitol are preparing for a fight in the young legislative session.

School district leaders say cutting education funding would make a bad situation worse. State funding has stayed mostly flat in recent years, they say, but costs such as salaries and health care for teachers keep increasing.

Dennis Carlson
Dennis Carlson is superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest district in Minnesota in terms of enrollment.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

They worry that local districts have already cut so much that cuts from the state would truly affect classroom instruction. Dennis Carlson, the superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin school district, the state's largest, recently told MPR News additional budget cuts might compel his district to cut 600 teachers in four years.

Anticipating more cuts to school funding, the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, started running television ads this week to get its 'don't cut' message out ahead of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget plan.

More than a third of the state's budget is spent on K-12 education. That funding has been mostly spared in recent years as the state trimmed budgets to address deficits. Pawlenty has delayed some payments to schools, but he insists those will be paid back.

"Strategically and from a quality of life standpoint, I think K-12 is one of the most important things we can do," the governor said last week. "It needs to be reformed badly ...so it's not just a matter of shoving more money in there. We're trying to protect them again this year but my final budget decisions won't be out for a week or so."

The governor also noted that several states have already cut education funding.

That has some wondering if education funding could soon take a direct hit.

If so, there will be a fight to spare education from budget cuts, said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, who chairs a key education committee. But she sees a bright spot.

"I'm happy all the senators are up for reelection. I can't imagine any of these current legislators that are running for governor want to say that they want to be the ones who cut education going in to try to be the nominee," Greiling said. "So I think all those political dynamics will work in the favor of kids this year."

Greiling plans to keep pushing for what she calls the "new Minnesota Miracle." The plan would completely overhaul the state's funding formula and boost funding substantially. Given the current budget, lawmakers could add the money later, she said.

State Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, is wary of such an idea because future budget forecasts aren't any better.

"To just make promises we can't keep for however many years I don't think is of too great a value." Plummer said.

There's another funding issue that worries school leaders. While all the focus in the short-term will be over money, education officials say the long-term issue is the formula used to dole out that money.

"I hear among some of my colleagues this increasing call that something simply needs to be done," said Greg Vandal, superintendent of the Sauk Rapids-Rice School District in central Minnesota.

That 'increasing call' he speaks of specifically refers to whether districts might sue the state to force a change to the funding formula. No district has sued, but Vandal said he has received more calls about the possibility in recent months.

The issue isn't just whether there's enough money, he said, but whether the money is distributed equitably.

For example, flat state funding has forced nearly every district to ask voters to raise local property taxes. Those levies were designed to pay for extras, like technology upgrades. But Vandal said levy money now only goes for day-to-day, classroom spending. That raises the constitutional question of whether the basic education of children should be put in the hands of voters who can't always afford to vote yes, he said.

"Is it fair that a high-property wealth district can have access to resources more easily than a low-property wealth district?" Vandal asked.

The state constitution guarantees uniform education the way it guarantees free speech, the argument goes. But no town would ever ask voters whether free speech should be granted. Why do that for education?

The drawbacks of a lawsuit are its cost public relations risks. Districts joining a lawsuit could be criticized for spending money on lawyers instead of kids.

Vandal and others say they'll watch the capitol this spring to see if any actions bring the possibility of a lawsuit any closer.

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