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Education organizations worried about what state budget holds for schools
Minnesota school districts are bracing for another year of budget pain and potentially tough contract negotiations. Lawmakers must solve a projected $4.5 billion state budget deficit next session. Republican Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty has said he'll try to protect K-12 funding from cuts. But the organizations representing school boards and teachers say they'll still need an increase to avoid financial trouble.

St. Paul, Minn. — Most of the state's 341 school districts have been living lean for several years, even during good economic times. Rising costs and less than expected state funding have forced many schools boards to raise fees, cut programs and lay off teachers.

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Image Teachers need more pay, Schaubach says

Now, the state is facing a $4.5 billion dollar budget shortfall. Minneapolis school board member Judy Farmer, who is president of the Minnesota School Boards Association, says members have reason for concern. "These numbers are not like any numbers that they've seen or heard in recent history. The size of this deficit is so much bigger than anyone anticipated," she said.

Yet despite the extraordinary shortfall, MSBA members rejected several proposals for insulating districts from the financial pain. While crafting the association's legislative platform, members of the delegate assembly refused to consider a proposed resolution seeking an increase in state K-12 funding of inflation plus one percent. The delegates also voted down a resolution calling for the state to allow school districts the same authority to raise local property taxes that cities and counties have.

Bruce Endler of the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school board says such levy authority would cause financial disparities among districts. He says it would also let legislators off the hook. "There are no resources available, and it makes it easier for our state legislators to say here is your tool for acquiring additional resources," he said. "And for many of us, that leaves us in the cold so to speak. I hate to be quite so blunt, but it does leave us in the cold."

School board leaders say they'll push lawmakers to live up to the funding obligations established two years ago when when basic K-12 funding was shifted from local property taxes to the state budget. That reform resulted in hundreds of school districts asking local voters in 2001 and 2002 for additional tax support.

But school leaders in districts where levies passed are still worried about the possibility of more budget cuts. Susan Nierengarten of the New Ulm school board says the financial picture will remain cloudy until lawmakers act.

"I hope that the state funding situation doesn't put us back into a position that even though our voters have given us additional operating money, that we don't have enough to maintain what we're currently providing," Nierengarten said.

While school board members might be content to protect what they have, the state teachers union is boldly pushing for a funding increase.

Education Minnesota president Judy Schaubach says schools will need an inflationary bump to prevent painful budget cuts. An increase is also needed to help teachers's chances for a pay raise.

Schaubach says Minnesota has dropped from 19th to 20th in average teacher salaries. She says salary hikes are needed to ensure teacher quality.

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Image Judy Farmer

"The question really is how are we going to attract and keep people in the profession? We have to have competitive salaries," Schaubach said. "And I would submit that really teachers have balanced out what they think they need in terms of keeping good people, and what the economic realities are in their districts. They are already making those sacrifices."

Schaubach says she believes a tax increase might be needed to provide adequate funding for schools. But that's an option Gov.-elect Pawlenty says he won't consider. School board leaders say they expect teachers to share in the budget-balancing pain when it's time to negotiate contracts.

Bob Meeks of the School Boards Association says if finances are too tight, they might ask the Legislature to temporarily waive the requirement to negotiate new contracts. He says salaries would remain at current levels for another two years.

"It's the not the best thing to happen to not be able to give adequate raises. But during a time of crisis we have to look at all options," Meeks said.

Meeks says the MSBA will wait to see the budget proposals from the new governor and legislative leaders before deciding whether to pursue the issue.

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