School officials brace for cuts

Published 10:53 am Friday, December 19, 2008

Some might refer to a $5.27 billion state deficit forecast over the next 2 1/2 years as “challenging,” “difficult” or most often — just plain “bad.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls it an “opportunity for reform.”

State Sen. Dan Sparks and Rep. Jeanne Poppe met with the Austin School Board Thursday to discuss the grim details of the immediate $426 million gap now until June and what the legislators expect from the upcoming session which convenes Jan. 6.

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“It’s going to be a really challenging session,” Sparks admitted. “But I think there’s a real opportunity here.”

Viewing the state budget glass as half full may be legislators’ only choice as they work to amend political differences and tackle the substantial red ink.

Board member Dick Lees called the “reform” theme a “cop out,” and said the state needs to “cut down on liberal giving.”

“What the hell are we supposed to reform around here?” he asked.

Lees, who works in corrections, said that from his experiences, way too much is spent on human services when it could go to education.

Board member Dave Simonson said he wants the partisan bickering to stop.

“When is the legislature going to grow up and stop playing politics?” he asked.

“We’re with you, and we understand that,” Poppe said.

“You’ve got to be prudent,” Simonson said. “Anytime we get a surplus, you give it away and here we are again.”

Poppe told board members this “harsher” session will be difficult because everyone is going to be pushing their values.

“There’s been a lot of talk about education still being the No. 1 thing in Minnesota we want to protect,” she said. “I think there’s a fear of a special session. I think that’s a bad thing.”

There are no concrete or otherwise predictions as to how much education funding will face the chopping block. Sparks said at this point, any numbers “would be unfair.”

The Austin district currently has three operating referendums; 75 percent of districts in Minnesota have at least one, and about half that went to voters this election failed.

Other obstacles are unfunded mandates, like No Child Left Behind: federal legislation that mandates standards-based education reform.

Green said that when less than 5 percent of districts’ funding comes from a federal level, “we’re jumping 90 percent of our hoops.”

Sparks said there will be focus on unfunded mandates during the session.

“I think with the new president-elect, we are going to see some changes to No Child Left Behind,” he said.

The Austin district has laid out a 2009 Legislative Platform, a “wish list” of sorts for the legislature.

Detailed in the platform are: general education funding increased by 1 percent each year at a minimum for 2009-10, equal to $350,000 in new funding for the distinct; fully-funded all-day everyday kindergarten ($933,000 in new funding); avoid the implementation of a statewide health insurance pool; allow districts to levy for health insurance premium increases; and enable school boards to determine the school start date.

“We don’t want to circle all the wagons in a crisis and shoot in,” said interim superintendent Bruce Anderson. “Let’s take a long look and put all the systematic steps in place.”

“Don’t strangle us — that’s what they’re saying,” Sparks said is the consensus among districts.

Pawlenty will roll out his budget proposal in the last week in January, after which legislators will hash over the two-year budget until the deadline in May.