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Dayton continues push for 'emergency' school funding

ST. PAUL—Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton lately is all about an "emergency" funding plan for public schools running deficits.

He's on a bully-pulpit kick, urging Republican lawmakers to change course late in the legislative session and spend $138 million to shore up school budgets to reduce the likelihood of teacher layoffs or larger class sizes. He wants the GOP-controlled Legislature to authorize the money instead of planned tax breaks.

So far, he's getting nowhere.

But he's not stopping.

On Tuesday, he penned an open letter "To the People of Minnesota" pushing the plan. Next, he'll take it on the road. On Wednesday, he'll visit Parkview Elementary School in Lakeville and another elementary in Rochester. On Thursday, he'll pitch the idea at schools in St. Cloud and Marshall.

What's this all about?

Perennial issue

Every year about this time, school districts set their budgets for the following year. For years, it's been a somber affair for many superintendents as they foresee deficits.

The reasons vary and often range from decreasing enrollment, increased costs for special-education spending because more kids are diagnosed with disabilities, higher transportation costs and increased teacher and staff salaries, to name a few. This happened again this year. St. Paul schools, for example, face a $17.2 million shortfall.

Dayton, his Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and some local school officials blame the perennial issue on a decline in state aid to local districts from 2002 to 2012. In short, they say, school funding hasn't kept up, and now it's coming home to roost.

"From 2003 to 2012, our state's public school aid decreased, in real dollars, by almost $2,000 per student," Dayton said last week. "Since then, we have reversed that trend, increasing per-pupil aid by more than $1,000 in real dollars and investing $2 billion overall in E-12 education."

News spurs governor

On May 1, when Dayton introduced his emergency funding plan, he said the idea came to him as he read news reports from around the state chronicling a number of the school districts wrestling with budget shortfalls. At least 59 districts are in that boat, according to survey data collected by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts and the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

That's why, Dayton said, his plan came so late. The Legislature faces a mandatory May 21 adjournment, and the emergency school funding plan came late — well after battle lines had been drawn on other matters, including a complicated series of changes to the state's tax code.

Dayton's plan would increase per-pupil school funding by 2 percent and provide from tens of thousands to millions of dollars to various districts based on a state formula, at the expense of some cuts favored by Republicans in their tax plans.

Republicans aren't playing ball

Dayton doesn't appear to have persuaded Republicans.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who chairs the Senate Education committee, said the funding shortfalls "are not of the state's making."

"The truth is, some school districts have not been realistic about how much they can afford to pay their employees, and have entered into union contracts that are squeezing classroom budgets," she said in a statement.

Dayton's letter

Dayton is framing the issue as not merely a need for more school funding, but — in an election year — as one of schoolchildren versus corporate tax cuts.

"Rather than help our schools and schoolchildren through this emergency, their (Republican) House and Senate caucuses would protect multinational corporations from paying up to $255 million in taxes on profits they have sheltered overseas," Dayton wrote.

Republicans disagree with that.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who chairs a House education committee, said she's unsure if there's enough surplus money to cover Dayton's proposal. She said the Legislature could instead loosen restrictions to allow schools to tap into their community education funds, which include recreation and early-education programs.

"If that's something the governor wants to entertain, we can have those discussions," Loon said.

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