Lawmakers giveth, oil companies taketh away


Joe Brown, superintendent of Grand Meadow Public Schools, calls the situation a “good news, bad news” scenario: State lawmakers last week found one-time, $51 per student in extra money for the 2008-09 school year. Brown figures this will net his small, southern Minnesota district about $18,000.

The bad news is that the economic boost will go out the back of his buses next year.

“No one anticipated $4.25 per gallon (in diesel fuel) a year ago,” he said. On Tuesday, the Energy Information Administration showed diesel was up 16.6 cents per gallon from one week ago and $1.69 from one year ago.

The $51 per student comes from a variety of sources, but principally the money comes from the governor’s Q-Comp plan. Q-Comp encourages school districts to change the way teachers are paid. After three years, only 10 percent of school districts have signed up for the program. That’s why lawmakers saw an opportunity with Q-Comp money set aside for districts that join in the 2008-09 school year. Legislators suggested cash-strapped districts might receive greater benefit from the money than those districts that accept the quick Q-Comp cash.

Q-Comp isn’t the only source of the $51 per student payoff. Some come from cuts to the Department of Education. Some come from budget reserves.

“The extra money is good news,” Brown said Tuesday. “It’s just not good enough.”

Under the best of times, education finance is not for the faint of heart, and these are not the best of times. A governor-appointed task force and follow-up investigation found the state is $1 billion short of providing a bare minimum education each year. Upon receiving the results, Governor Pawlenty threw the report in the trash can.

As a result, school budgets are more and more reliant on property taxes. Students in wealthy districts end up taken care of while students in poor districts battle with cities and counties for what little money is left.

Making matters worse, the governor is now leading the call for “Annual Yearly Progress,” a testing formula that shows more than 700 Minnesota schools were below average last year clearly a concocted number with no basis in truly measuring “annual yearly progress.”

It is under these circumstances that the governor deigns to reach into his deep pockets and find the spare change that could give schools another $51 per student in 2008-09. This amounts to about 1 percent of all school funding, which goes on top of the 1 percent the governor had agreed to give schools next year for a total increase of 2 percent.

Which brings us back to oil. Diesel prices jumped 36 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the Energy Information Association. That’s a problem for Grand Meadow, which had to move $15,000 from its general education fund to transportation just to cover the increase in diesel prices.

Grand Meadow is better off than most districts. Its building is heated using geo-thermal energy (“our heating bills are about $8,000 month now; it was $26,000 in February the year before the new building was built,” Brown said) and it owns its own bus fleet, using three buses to transport its 371 students (“Mower County is the only county in Minnesota without a lake. Our district is like Philadelphia; everything is north, south,” Brown said)

Brown made the math simple: The additional $51 per student will generate $18,870. The increase in diesel fuel costs for Grand Meadow schools this year is $15,060. This represents a 47 percent rise in diesel costs from last school year to this school year.

National oil expert Jim Ritterbusch said in his Tuesday newsletter that “Chinese power plants are running short of coal and earthquake-hit regions are relying on generators for power. China also seems to be ramping up diesel imports ahead of the Olympics. They appear to stockpiling.”

China is stockpiling diesel and Grand Meadow is feeling the squeeze. Drizzling out $51 per student is a slap in the face for Minnesota schools. The time for lawmakers and the governor to stand by their schools was last week. Sadly, Q-Comp took precedence. This is not what is best for schools. State policymakers need look no farther than school buses to see their failure.

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