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Local school leaders pushing for more state funding
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Bob Meeks, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, says local school budgets have suffered. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
School leaders throughout Minnesota say it's time for state lawmakers to end their financial pain. Members of the Minnesota School Boards Association gathered Monday in St. Louis Park to put the finishing touches on their 2005 legislative agenda, and state funding was the prevailing concern. They're pushing for an increase in state support over the next two years.

St. Louis Park, Minn. — The past three years have been tough for most Minnesota school districts. State funding levels have remained flat, but the cost of doing business keeps rising. Bob Meeks, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, says local school budgets have suffered.

"Districts from Warroad to Winona, from Worthington to Duluth are cutting deeply -- not their fringes, but deeply into the meat of the programs," Meeks said. "And if we don't do something this year, I don't know, we're going to be in such a position that the education we're providing won't be first class."

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Image Dan McElroy

The association is asking for lawmakers to increase basic education funding by at least the rate of inflation. Some members want to put a finer point on the request. Karen Morehead of Forest Lake pushed unsuccessfully to set the increase at 3 percent. Morehead says it's time for state lawmakers to help out districts, like Forest Lake, that have not been able to pass a local tax increase to support the schools.

"This is very important, for them to step up to the plate and give us the money to cover the mandates that they provide to us," Morehead said. "If they would stop mandating things, we probably wouldn't be in the state that we are. But trying to keep up with their laws, with the money they give us, is very difficult."

Budget woes have hit all sizes of school districts. St. Paul is projecting a budget deficit that could reach $24.3 million next year. School Board Chairwoman Toni Carter says lawmakers must make public education a state funding priority.

"Over the past few years, tucking in here and pulling out there, we've been able to manage and still stay on track with student achievement," Carter said. "We don't see the ability to do so, if in fact we're going to be short $24.3 million in the coming year. That puts everything we've done at total risk. We need some help."

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Image Rep. Mindy Greiling

School leaders could see some hope of financial help next month when Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveils his two-year budget proposal. The Republican governor has recently said he wants to provide for money for K-12 education. Pawlenty's chief of staff, Dan McElroy, says a projected state budget deficit has not altered that plan.

"The governor has been very clear that he expects to have as part of his budget proposal a reasonable inflationary increase for K-12 funding," McElroy said. "But that it will be tied to accountability measures. So that there is some reform, some innovation, some new ideas that will be part of his funding package."

McElroy says the budget details won't be finalized until late January, 2005. House and Senate leaders from both parties are also preparing for the funding debate.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, says she'll sponsor a bill to increase the funding formula by 2.5 percent, an amount she describes as practical under the current budget circumstances. Greiling is also challenging school board members and other education groups to get more aggressive.

"I don't think the average person knows how to track what legislators say, compared to what they do. So, the education groups that do know how to do that have to help people get organized and play hardball," said Greiling. "And they haven't done that. I've just been amazed how passive they have been. I think they're coming out of that now."

The call for increased education funding is expected to get louder later this week. Officials with the Association of Metropolitan School Districts will release a report detailing budget problems facing their 26 member school systems.

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