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School funding ideas meet deficit realities

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

ST PAUL - Minnesota schools and teachers hope more state dollars will be directed their way this year, but an economic downturn may mean they could face budget cuts instead.

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In advance of the upcoming 2008 legislative session, key lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are indicating there will be little new spending as the state looks for ways to fix a projected $373 million budget deficit.

Disappointed by what they saw as lackluster school spending increases approved in 2007, coupled with a record number of school levy votes last fall, education groups and some legislators wanted to boost general state aid this year.

"Just because the budget forecast is poor doesn't mean our school needs have changed," Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said. The statewide teachers' union believes at least a 3-percent increase to the basic school funding formula is needed for next year -- on top of a planned 1-percent hike, Dooher said.

But the projected budget deficit and greater focus on issues such as transportation spending mean schools probably will have to wait until 2009 to see any major finance changes, said LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, the top senator on education funding.

Stumpf and others say lawmakers could look at many areas to actually cut state spending when they return to the Capitol Feb. 12, including in education.

"That could be part of the mix," he said.

Republican Pawlenty also has hinted that new spending will be scarce this year. In a recent speech, Pawlenty said the state will continue to make small changes in school aid from year to year, but he urged local school board members from across the state to think about education needs 20 years from now and how that system should be funded.

Pawlenty called the current school funding system "largely broken," adding that incremental per-student state aid increases are not the solution.

"It ain't the future and it's not really the fix," Pawlenty told the Minnesota School Boards Association.

The governor will have a series of education reform proposals for the upcoming session, spokesman Brian McClung said. It is "unlikely" Pawlenty will support cutting school spending to help erase the state budget deficit, McClung added, noting schools were spared massive budget cuts five years ago when the state faced a $4.5 billion deficit.

"From the governor's perspective, K-12 education funding is a high priority and it's unlikely that that is an area that might end up in a package to balance the budget," McClung said.

To be sure, lawmakers will discuss education funding in the coming months, even if they do not spend more this year. Stumpf said much of the education debate is leading up to 2009, when a new two-year state budget must be drafted.

"I think some issues you want to continue to talk about so they at least stay before the legislative body," said Stumpf, chairman of the Senate E-12 Education Budget Division.

That includes looking at ways to overhaul the education funding system of state aid, local property taxes and other revenue. A legislative task force has been studying the issue and is expected to release its recommendations next month.

Funding for public pre-kindergarten through high school makes up $13.8 billion of the state budget; lawmakers last year increased school aid by $800 million.

Top Democratic lawmakers have said the Legislature should focus this year on improving the state's economy. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the best use of state revenue would be to expand early childhood education programs.

"I believe that the most strategic investment in education would be (pre-kindergarten)," Pogemiller said. "We should make a strong commitment there. That will make a difference to our state."

Pogmiller added that he doesn't know "whether we will have the resources." He called the suggestion "kind of a hope and a wish."

Many lawmakers already believe schools will not see new funding this year.

"We're not going to give them any money. There isn't any," said Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican and House education committee member. "It'll be more of a policy year."

If public schools do not see many changes from the Legislature this year, it will not be for lack of discussion. Since shortly after lawmakers ended their regular session last May, numerous education committees and working groups have met dozens of times to discuss everything from student transportation to early childhood programs.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, who helped lead a panel exploring student literacy issues, said work could get done on several education policy items this year.

Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said she and other lawmakers have learned not all teachers believe they are leaving Minnesota colleges and universities prepared to address reading challenges facing youngsters entering school.

It is an important issue, Saltzman said, because studies show literacy programs can reduce the number of students who later must enter special education programs.

"We are questioning how we can (help) our institutions of higher education in ensuring our teachers have sufficient skills," Saltzman said.

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