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Teachers' Fate Rests with Legislature
By Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
June 12, 2001
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Preparations for a possible state government shutdown have made many Minnesota school districts even more concerned about their financial future. Education leaders say the ongoing budget impasse at the Legislature has also left thousands of teachers waiting to find out whether they'll have a job this fall.

Kerry Felt, the Minneapolis school district's human resources director says the fate of many teachers won't be determined until the Legislature acts, which, she says, could come too late.
PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS, PRINCIPALS, superintendents and school board members have been complaining for months about what they see as an inadequate amount of state money proposed for K-12 education. The Legislature adjourned last month without finishing its business, and this week's special session appears far from resolving the major tax and spending issues.

Without knowing how much money they're getting, school districts' officials have had to make some tough budget decisions to meet their July 1st deadline.

"Ultimately I think schools are in two places right now. They have either already cut programs for next year or they have taken steps to make those program cuts next year," according to Greg Vandal, superintendent of the Sauk Rapids-Rice district and president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Statewide, school districts plan to cut an estimated 2,700 staff positions due to projected budget shortfalls. Normally, district leaders would now know how much funding they'll get and would be rehiring many of those laid-off teachers. In Minneapolis, 223 first-year teachers received lay-off notices as the district wrestled with a $29 million budget shortfall.

Kerry Felt, the district's human resources director, says 126 of the teachers have already been called back to help the district fulfill its commitment to low class sizes in elementary grades. Felt says the fate of the other teachers won't be determined until the Legislature acts, which she says could come too late.

"I think the fear that they would go out looking for other work is definitely there. And the longer that we leave them sitting there not re-appointed would certainly enhance that possibility," she says.

Felt says she hopes many of the teachers work as building substitutes until full-time positions open up. Despite the cuts, she says Minneapolis is still recruiting and hiring some teachers for special education, math and other hard to fill positions. But making hiring decisions without final budget numbers could leave some schools short staffed and others with more then they need. Many districts have frozen their hiring as they wait out the legislative stalemate.

Districts are also bracing for a possible shutdown of state government. Officials in the Ventura administration say that possibility is remote but they must make the necessary preparations in state departments.

Bob Meeks of the Minnesota School Boards Association says a shutdown could be trouble. "It appears that about 85 percent of our revenue will continue to flow if there's somebody at the state level to write the check. We're very concerned that when the state shuts down the process of giving revenue to the districts will also shut down - then we do have major problems," he says.

Meeks says his organization is advising school boards to assume there will be no K-12 funding bill by July 1st. Greg Vandal of the MASA says school superintendents will have few financial options if a government shutdown disrupts their cash flow.

"I know that schools across the state that have fund balances will be tapping into their fund balances and quickly draining those rainy day accounts. Schools that do not have fund balances will be talking with lending institutions if they're going to keep their doors open," Meeks says.

Vandal and Meeks say their organizations are working to get information out to their members about the possible funding scenarios. House Democrats will hold a public hearing Wednesday at the capitol to get feedback on how the budget impasse is affecting Minnesota schools, as well as nursing homes, and families.