Grant helps teachers keep jobs

Published 2:48 pm Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More Austin Public School teachers will keep their jobs thanks to an estimated $1 million dollars in federal aid from the Education Jobs Fund.

According to Mark Stotts, the district’s finance and operations director, Austin Public Schools was notified last week it would receive funding from the Education Jobs Fund, a one-time federal program signed into law in August with the intent of maintaining and creating education jobs for the 2010-11 school year.

The incoming aid helps ease the district’s projected $1 to 1.5 million deficit for next year, acting as an insurance against possible job cuts in the immediate future.

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“We can use that money to pay for staff that otherwise would have been cut from our budget,” Stotts said.

That means that teachers’ salaries that would normally come out of the district’s general fund will be covered by federal aid, which balances the projected budget deficit for next year.

The federal aid assigned to Austin Public Schools is part of $167 million the state of Minnesota applied for from the Education Jobs Fund, which allocated $10 billion in state education assistance. Ninety percent of the money will be divied out this year, with the remaining 10 percent given to the district next year.

While the extra funding is good news for the district, it does create complications in budget projections for several years down the road. The danger in using the money to hire more teachers, according to Stotts, is trying to figure out how to pay these teachers once the money received from one-time grant runs out.

“You’d have to know that you could afford it down the road to keep those people,” Stotts said.

Because the district learned last week about the extra funding, Stotts said there also wasn’t time to consider hiring new teachers for the current school year.

Stotts is quick to caution that this latest federal aid won’t replace the levy up for debate in the Nov. 2 referendum.

The two operating levies, which provide $304.53 per student combined, are among three levies that the district uses. Overall, the three levies equate to $719 of funding per student, or roughly $3.5 million.

The levies, if passed, would provide funds, based on student enrollment, for the next 10 years, allowing the district to better project its budgets. While no new school taxes will be raised if the levies are passed, taxes would decrease if the levy was voted down.

Still, Stotts said, it would end up taking money out of the district’s budget which won’t be replaced by one-shot federal grants. According to Stotts, if the levy was voted down, the district would end up having the same $1 to 1.5 million projected budget deficit for the next school year and beyond, which won’t be replaced by federal aid.

“We’re not actually getting more money from this education jobs bill,” Stotts said. “That’s the problem with one-time money.”

Another dose of stimulus funding

The Education Job Fund aid comes on the heels of last year’s stimulus funding, which included about $1.1 million in special education funds, about $500,000 in Title I funds and about $2.6 million in stabilization funds. While the special education and Title I funds are to be used over a two-year period, the $2.6 million in stimulus funds given to the district was a one-time grant.

The district didn’t really benefit from last year’s stimulus money, according to Stotts, since the state reduced the amount of annual aid given to Austin Public Schools and other school districts based on the amount of federal stimulus dollars each school was granted. Basically, as a way to balance the state budget, the state withheld the same amount of funds the district received from federal stimulus dollars.

“The good thing about this (Education Job Fund) is the state cannot reduce aid or general education revenue to the school district,” Stotts said. “Now we get this money and the state can’t reduce our general education aid.”

Special education programs and funding will remain consistent despite the incoming federal aid, Stotts said, especially since special education programs fluctuate based on the amount of special-needs students in the district. Students in special education programs often have Individualized Education Plans and the district, mandated by federal law, must have the staff to meet those needs. The district then creates and reduces jobs for special education staff based on special-needs students who enter or leave the district.

“It isn’t like class size,” Stotts said. “In class size, we can determine what kind of staff sizes we can live with and determine accordingly.”