Teachers union warns of school budget problemsby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota school districts are facing at least $130 million in budget deficits for next year, according to the state's teachers union. DFL legislators offered a partial fix on Wednesday. But state education officials reacted coolly to the idea.
Things may be tough all over, but they're really tough in schools in Crosby and Ironton.
The district reckons it will face a $1.3 million budget deficit next year.
At nearly $1,000 per student, the deficit is higher than any other district in the state.
"School districts can no longer function the way we did in the 20th century," Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland said. "In the end, we have to reinvent ourselves."
The problem: two major employers are pulling out of the area. Weyerhauser's lumber plant closed and Douglas Machine is moving to Alexandria.
The school superintendent estimates as many as 125 families may leave.
That will have a major impact on the district's enrollment, now about 1,200 children, and it is the biggest factor in the expected deficit.
Balancing the budget with staff cuts would mean layoffs for about a third of the teachers.
But since district voters turned down a levy referendum last fall, officials can do little more than start talking about what schools can do without.
The story is similar across Minnesota, in Osseo, Brainerd and Robbinsdale.
More than 40 school systems are reporting that a promised 1 percent increase in state funding won't keep them in the black next year.
The state teachers union said they fear layoffs could top 1,000 teachers and staff next year, closing schools and ballooning the number of kids in classes all across the state.
Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher called on the state to increase school funding, despite the state's own nearly $1 billion deficit.
"We can't decide to invest in children's education only when times are good. Yes we have a deficit, but there will never be a perfect time to make tough decisions," Dooher said. "There will always be political resistance, there will always be other programs that need money. The fact is, our schools much have an inflationary increase, this session, that takes effect next year."
Democrats in the House said they would come up with another 1 percent increase in school funding, about $49 million.
Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, said his bill would take unused funds from the "Q Comp" teacher pay initiative, budget reserves and administrative cuts.
It would amount to about $51 per student.
Another provision would allow districts to shift that same amount of their own money out of capital funds and into operating funds.
With the promised increase, the new money would equal about a 3 percent increase in aid to schools.
Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, represents the Crosby area as well as Brainerd.
"The $51 might mean less cuts in extra curricular, extra co-curricular. It might mean more teachers. It might mean, well, two schools are closing in my district, in Brainerd," Ward said. "So anything we can do to help our kids will be welcome, more than welcome at this point."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty held schools harmless when he laid out his own billion-dollar financial workout plan earlier this month.
But a statement from Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren today said that's probably the best schools should hope for.
Seagren said Minnesota already ranks among the nations' highest for the proportion of the school bill paid by the state.
- All Things Considered, 03/19/2008, 5:50 p.m.