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Metro schools warn against state cuts
By Tim Pugmire
Minnesota Public Radio
January 8, 2002

Metro area educators say state lawmakers must stay away from K-12 education funding as they try to solve the state budget deficit. Officials with the Association of Metropolitan School Districts released financial data Tuesday to show further cuts would deepen what has become a widespread financial crisis for schools.

Vicki Roy (left), chairwoman of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, warns of "catastrophic" budget cuts if the Legislature trims K-12 education funding. Richfield Superintendent Barbara Devlin, right, says her district has cut expenses three years in a row. She blames the problems on inadequate state funding.
(MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)

The 27 Twin Cities area school systems that make up the Association of Metropolitan School Districts are facing a combined budget shortfall next year of nearly $100 million. Many of the districts must soon make cuts to balance the books.

Educators fear their problems could be compounded if Gov. Ventura and legislators reduce K-12 funding to help deal with the projected $2 billion state budget shortfall. Vicki Roy, a school board member from Burnsville, says further cuts could be catastrophic.

"We have long since passed the time when there was fat to be cut," Roy says. "We are now looking at significant changes in the way we deliver services to our students, and those changes are not for the good."

Roy says the financial crisis facing metro school districts will have a devastating effect on their ability to maintain high quality programs. In Richfield, school district officials are considering cuts in reading support, technology education and music classes to address a $1.6 million shortfall. Richfield Superintendent Barbara Devlin says this is the third year in a row for cuts, which she blames squarely on inadequate state funding.

"In Richfield, our funding has barely kept pace - has not kept pace with inflation, whereas some expenses have far exceeded the rate of inflation," Devlin says. "Last year for example, our utility costs jumped by 114 percent, our transportation fuel costs increased by 39 percent, health insurance costs increased by 16 percent."

Several school district leaders also blame the budget problems on their failure to win local taxpayer support for levy referendums last November. Only about one-third of the metro area districts that asked for a property tax increase succeeded.

A referendum defeat in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district has forced school officials to cut $6.7 million from next year's budget. Superintendent Dan Kaler says they'll have to close an elementary school and lay off at least 50 teachers.

"Bottom line, students lose as a result of these cuts. We'll do the best we can to continue to provide the quality education that is expected and that our students deserve, but it will be difficult in the upcoming year with this shortfall in revenue," says Kaler.

Legislators last year shifted K-12 funding from local property taxes to the state income and sales taxes. Public education will now make up 40 percent of next year's state budget.

Association leaders say they want lawmakers to exhaust every possible option before considering any cuts in education. They say they're encouraged by similar comments made by DFL and Republican legislative leaders. But Rep. Alice Seagren, a Republican who chairs of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says she doesn't see how a $2 billion deficit can be addressed without looking at education spending.

"I think that we'll have to consider it. We're going to try to keep any budget cuts as far away from kids as we possibly can, but I think we're probably going to have to be looking at some kind of adjustment - at least hoping that sometime in the future the economy will turn around," says Seagren.

Gov. Ventura, who has said there should be no "sacred cows," will release a plan Thursday for adjusting the state budget.

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