Dayton proposes emergency school spending

Gov. Mark Dayton made a late plea Tuesday that Minnesota lawmakers provide an increase in school funding to head off layoffs and program cuts.

As districts set budgets for next year, dozens report they'll cut teachers or staff, raise class sizes, close buildings and trim extracurricular activities. Dayton said spending the legislative session’s final three weeks debating tax cuts without helping schools would be “terribly wrong.”

"And you look at the amount of tax cuts in the House bill for somebody making $40,000 is $6," Dayton said. "Would you rather have your $6 or would you rather have that money collectively going to our schools to improve quality of education and stave off the kind of drastic cuts some are going to be forced to make? It's a question of priorities."

Dayton is seeking $138 million in emergency aid. That translates to $126 more for each child in public school. The DFL governor said it would help schools limp through until a new state budget is adopted next year.

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“It is a Band-Aid, but it is more of a tourniquet and you can save limbs and even lives by advancing those temporary measures,” he said.

The extent of the shortfalls differ by district, but there are common causes. Enrollment has dropped in some places faster than local leaders can adjust. Costs of special education programs have soared. And teacher contracts have added more pressure to district budgets.

Education Commissioner Brenda Casselius said if schools have to cut now it will be hard to recover later

“In kindergarten, our kids learn the difference between a want and a need," she said. "This one-time emergency funding is most definitely a need.”

Last year's two-year state budget included back-to-back 2 percent increases in school aid.

"These budget shortfalls are not of the state’s making," said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester and chairwoman of the Senate Education Finance Committee.

Republicans argue one-time education funding fixes have a way of becoming permanent spending increases. And House Education Committee Chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said Dayton's approach applies a broad-based solution to a narrower problem.

"I think we need to look on this on a case-by-case basis," Loon said. "I don't sense an urgency or an emergency situation."

Districts that are seeing fewer students need to adjust their spending, she said.

"If your enrollment is declining, which is the case with some of these districts, you're going to need to make adjustments," Loon said. "They're difficult. No one likes to do it. No one likes to lay off teachers and really respected and trusted staff people. But if you've got fewer students sometimes that is the difficult decision that you are faced with."

Loon said she'd be open to discussing ways to give school districts flexibility to dip into special reserve accounts if they're having trouble balancing budgets.