Origin of school layoffs, closings is in the capitol


The news Wednesday was brutal. After losing two out of three levy questions in November, Osseo Area Schools will cut $16.3 million from next year’s budget, laying off 166 teachers, closing two elementary schools and combining three others. The same goes for Big Lake Public Schools, which will cut $2 million from its budget by laying off 21 teachers and 12.5 staff.

Osseo parents were livid. “It’s an injustice,” Sara Krueger said. “The changes they made did nothing to help the budget crisis.”

“In their whole decision, it didn’t seem like they put the kids first,” Denise Blanchard said. “They’re not doing what’s best for all the kids in the district.” Both were quoted in the Star Tribune.

Osseo Superintendent Susan Hintz told the Star Tribune the failed levies are old news. “That’s where everyone wants to start. We have to deal with the current reality and make the best of what we can for the future.”

The blame for these injustices lies not on those who voted against levy requests. The blame lies squarely with conservatives’ disastrous anti-education funding priorities.

State policy makers had a choice: Adhere to “no new taxes” dogma or follow through on the state’s promise to fund schools. Parents in Osseo and Big Lake, among others statewide, are seeing the results of the “no new taxes” philosophy as their school systems disintegrate before their eyes.

What’s worse, Governor Tim Pawlenty claims schools already have enough money. On Jan. 17, Pawlenty said 2007’s “$800 million increase” in state education spending was enough and schools shouldn’t expect more.

“That’s a reasonable increase,” Pawlenty told the Associated Press. The state’s funding system is “largely broken,” he said, adding that state aid increases are not the solution. “It ain’t the future and it’s not really the fix,” he said.

Pawlenty said schools got an $800 million increase. Sure enough, the number at the bottom of the tally sheets is $794 million.

But $200 million is one-time money, which means it runs out at the end of the two-year budget cycle.

Kindergarten funding is increased from .557 to .612 per student, but is still substantially less than the 1.115 schools receive for first-grade students.

About $8 million was restored to Early Childhood and Family Education programs and increased aid to Head Start. This means the programs are getting the money they last received in 2003.

The state put $326 million in new money to help cover underfunded yet mandated special education. A good deal? Consider this: The gap between the cost of special education mandates and what the government pays for them was $531 million in 2006-07 and $603 million in 2007-08. With the influx of money in the biennium, the deficit will be “only” $516 million in 2008-09 and $569 in 2009-10. The next year it will again cross the $600 million mark.

Is the money a helpful boost? Sure. A squirt gun at a house fire is a boost as well.

$244 million will cover the 2 percent basic funding increase the first year and 1 percent the second year.

“That 1 percent is a slap in the face,” Gregg Allen, superintendent of the Osakis school district, told reporters.

The Foley School District is working to stay afloat. Superintendent Fred Nolan said expenses rise about 3.9 percent each year, so anything under a 4 percent increase is a step backward.

Nolan points to these 2009 financial projections: if the district cuts $255,000 from its budget, and if the state bumps income up 4 percent (remember, it’s 1 percent next year), then Foley stands to lose “only” $400,000, leaving a fund balance of $888,000.

Here’s what Education Commissioner Alice Seagren has said about funding increases: “We need to see how to redeploy our money more effectively. Before we put more money on the table, are we using the existing money effectively and efficiently?”

Next year Osseo Area Schools will cut $16.3 million by laying off 166 teachers and closing two elementary schools. The situation in Osseo must not be bad enough to break a “no new taxes” pledge and “put more money on the table.”