ST. CLOUD — Like most of the budget mess that has shut down state government, Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican lawmakers in charge of the Legislature are “this close” on K-12 educational funding, and yet worlds apart. (Video from The Uptake below.)
That was the message Dayton reinforced Tuesday, July 12 with a stop at Apollo High School for a round table discussion with local St. Cloud school district officials, his first outside St. Paul since the shutdown began nearly two weeks ago.
The discussion centered on special education funding, an area of disagreement between the DFL governor and Republicans that could significantly affect the St. Cloud school district and others with significant numbers of special education students.
“The 129,000 school children who are in special education around Minnesota have a huge amount at stake in these budget deliberations,” Dayton said. “The purpose of my coming here today and going elsewhere around Minnesota is to communicate what’s at stake for them, for us, in these budget deliberations.”
Dayton was expected to travel Wednesday to southeastern Minnesota for more public forums.
While Dayton’s K-12 schools budget and the GOP K-12 budget both proposed roughly $14 billion in spending, Republicans would freeze the state’s contribution to federally mandated special education funding in order to put more money into the general formula.
But in school districts such as St. Cloud’s with many special education students, that’s a formula for increased financial hardship, School Superintendent Bruce Watkins said.
“We want to provide quality services to all students, and special education students are no different,” said Bruce Watkins, St. Cloud’s school superintendent. “But more and more of our operating levy is going for (special education).”
St.Cloud School Superintendent Bruce Watkins, Governor Mark Dayton, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius during public forum
The school district has seen the gap between special education costs and revenues go up from $6 million a year to $9 million a year over the last seven years, an amount larger than the school district’s property-tax based operating levy, he said.
The Republican proposal would leave Minnesota’s school districts $48 million shorter on special education funding than Dayton’s plan, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.
“St. Cloud as a regional center bears the burden of educating children on a regional basis,” she said. “They would stand to lose $1,000 per student in special education funding under the current (GOP) plan.”
Many of the more than 100 people who came to hear the round table discussion Tuesday did not appear interested in the finer points of education policy.
Many appeared to support Dayton’s negotiating line that new, permanent revenues need to be part of the final solution to bridge a remaining $1.4 billion budget gap. All were adamant that the two sides reach an agreement sooner, rather than later.
Minnesota Republicans’ refusal to consider any kind of tax increase to solve the state’s budget crisis got a normally mild-mannered St. Cloud State Professor very angry. Professor of Environmental and Technological Studies Tony Akubue addressed Governor Mark Dayton and several Republican leaders gathered for a Special Education roundtable in St. Cloud.
“When you say, ‘this is off the table, and that is off the table,’ you have lost the capacity for independent thinking,” said Tony Akubue, a professor at St. Cloud State University who spoke during a public comment period. “I’m sure most of you are taking your salaries. Meanwhile, 22,000 people are out of a job. It’s not about you. It’s not about you.”
Republicans attending Dayton’s meeting emphasized how close they said the two sides were to hammering out a final budget agreement, on K-12 and other contentious areas, despite their insistence on no new state revenues.
“We are willing to work together,” said Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, chair of the House Health and Human Services Reform committee. “We have our differences but we’re also very close, I think.”
State Senator Dave Brown of Becker, Minnesota is apparently breaking away from his fellow Republicans and is supporting some of the new revenue proposals that Governor Mark Dayton has recently made.
Sen. David Brown, R-Becker, said he could support a new revenue source, such as eliminating tax loopholes. But “only to pay back school districts what the state owes them” from accounting shifts and payment delays, he said.
Gottwalt invited Dayton to come back to St. Cloud with Republican legislative leaders to hammer out a final budget agreement away from St. Paul.
Dayton conditionally accepted, but only after Republicans respond to the proposals he’s made to bridge the remaining $1.4 billion budget gap with one of their own, in writing, he said.
“Let’s get this done,” he said.