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The K-12 Debate
By Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
July 2001
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The tone for the debate over K-12 education spending was set back in January, when Gov. Ventura proposed a lean budget that teachers and school administrators said shortchanged Minnesota's students. Although the House and Senate more than doubled the amount of new money for schools that Ventura initially proposed, many of those who objected say $381 million in new spending is still not enough.


January 23, 2001 - Gov. Ventura proposed 'lean' K-12 budget

February 24, 2001 - Lawmakers consider restoring a state board of education

April 3, 2001 - Ventura administration and teachers' union official disagree over numbers being used in the K-12 debate

May 4, 2001 - House and Senate pass K-12 bills which are vastly different

June 12, 2001 - Districts begin preparing for government shutdown

June 28, 2001 - House passes compromise K-12 bill
TWO PARENTS IN THE SUBURBAN MOUNDS VIEW SCHOOL DISTRICT produced a video tape and launched a Web site this spring to help spread the word about the need for more state funding for schools. The projects couldn't prevent their school board from cutting 76 teaching positions as it tried to close a $4 million budget shortfall.

Statewide, school districts sent layoff notices to about 3,000 staffers in anticipation of a lean state budget. Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says the bill's final numbers, 2.5- percent increases in each of the next two years, won't be able to reverse those decisions.

"The cuts that were made were based on a funding formula that was very much like the one that was passed now, so I don't think there's going to be a lot of recalls of staff," Kyte says.

Kyte says a few teachers will return to fill vacancies created by recent retirements. But overall, he says Minnesota schools will have smaller teaching and administrative staffs this fall. That means larger class sizes and fewer programs in many schools.

Scott Croonquist of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts says school boards are also looking at ways to bring in extra money, such as higher student-participation fees.

"Students and parents will be paying more for everything from football and volleyball and hockey to band and choir and orchestra. All those extra curricular activities are going to require higher fees," Croonquist says.

Few educators are applauding the funding bill, but many small rural school districts will benefit from a provision that shifts $415 per student from excess tax levies onto the general education formula. The shift is a wash for districts with such levies in place, but the 37 districts that have not been able to get local voter approval will get a financial boost.

The South Koochiching School District, for example, will see an additional $160,000 a year. The district of 387 students operates two schools located 84 miles apart in northern Minnesota.

"The community has been very good about supporting education," according to Superintendent Jerry Struss, who says the shift is a tremendous help. "We've had a couple of referendums for building, so we do have debt service levies in place that are pretty substantial for the size of our district. To go to the people again for another levy for operating expenses would be extremely difficult to sell. So, we haven't even attempted to do it."

Once they've figured out their budgets, school administrators must begin adjusting to a new system for negotiating contracts with teachers and other employee groups.

Gov. Ventura and House Republicans pushed hard for the "structural balance provision," which requires district officials to show they can afford new contracts with the money they're already receiving from the state. No penalty was included.

School boards like the change, but Judy Schaubach, president of the statewide teachers union, Education Minnesota, says it will make negotiations difficult. "What is difficult is for school districts to try be clairvoyant, to really determine exactly what the costs will be. No one could have predicted a year ago that gas prices were going to be at the rate they were, and of course what the school districts are being asked to do is project what all these costs will be and take that into account," according to Schaubach.

After they've had a better chance to assess the bill officials from Education Minnesota and other state organizations plan to launch a campaign to share their assessment of it's full impact with state lawmakers and the public.