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School cuts smaller than expected
By Tim Pugmire
Minnesota Public Radio
January 10, 2002
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Gov. Ventura says his proposed cuts for K-12 education spending are considerably less than in other budget areas, but many educators say schools could still feel a lot of financial pain. The governor's budget balancing plan doesn't touch the basic funding formula for education, but he included a controversial proposal to make schools start paying millions of dollars a year in state sales tax.

Education commissioner Christine Jax says school officials should be relieved they would see only a 1 percent state funding cut this year under Ventura's plan, considering the size of the state's deficit. Another 2.6 percent cut would occur in the following year.
(MPR file photo)

Ventura says he wants to spread the pain of balancing the state budget to everyone, but his list of proposed spending cuts included less pain for public schools than other budget areas.

Even though K-12 education will make up 40 percent of all state spending, Ventura calls for just a 1 percent cut for the next school year, or $92 million. He wants to cut 2.6 percent, or $318 million, the following year. No reductions are proposed to the basic per-pupil funding formula. Ventura's education commissioner, Christine Jax, says she thinks K-12 education was spared.

"When you look at a $2 billion shortfall and what could have happened to education, the fact that in the first biennium we're only seeing a cut of 1 percent, I think that educators should be relieved," Jax says. "And we're not touching the formula, which is something else that should relieve them. Because that's about flexibility and control for them."

The governor's plan includes a variety of cuts in specialized aids and grants to schools. Provisions for inflationary increases in special education funding are eliminated. And charter schools would get less state money to help lease buildings.

Ventura hopes to bring in more revenue by adding state sales tax to all school district purchases. Jax says cities and counties pay sales tax, and so should school districts.

"It will have an impact on school districts because they're not used to it," she says. "But at the same time, it's fair in that everyone is treated the same. It's something they can plan for and it's something that is spread out."

But some educators say eliminating the school sales tax exemption will mean a big increase in their per-pupil expenses.

"There are a number of additional costs that are being put into this budget, which in reality means there will be additional cuts of programs and staff in school districts."

- Judy Schaubach, president of Education Minnesota

"That's a $50 million a year cost to school districts," says Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "It's actually the same thing as a $50-per pupil unit cut in the foundation aid. It will have the same affect."

Kyte and other education leaders are also concerned about another proposed spending cut in Ventura's plan. The governor wants to phase in a provision approved last year to send additional state aid to school districts that haven't passed local tax levies.

Lake City Superintendent Jerry Jenson says his district was counting on that $415 per pupil payment, and decided not to hold a levy referendum last fall because the money was supposed to be on the way.

"If the governor's proposal occurs where that's phased in gradually, we've missed that window to generate additional revenue. It at least sets us back a year, and that's going have tremendous negative budget impact on our district," says Jenson.

Rising costs and less-than-expected state funding last session has already put many school districts in tough financial shape. Judy Schaubach, president of the state teachers union Education Minnesota, says she thinks the governor's plan puts districts in even greater jeopardy.

"The fact is, there are a number of additional costs that are being put into this budget, which in reality means there will be additional cuts of programs and staff in school districts," says Schaubach.

Legislative committees will begin hearings on Ventura's proposal next week. House Republican leaders say they'll resist any reductions to classroom funding.

Rep. Alice Seagren, chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says she wants to see the funding impact on individual school districts before passing judgement on the governor's plan. Senate Democrats also say school funding ranks low among the possible cuts they would support.

More from MPR
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  • Plan gets chilly reception from all sides