Schools are not the state’s piggy pank

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Hey buddy, remember that $423 million I borrowed from you earlier this year? Don’t worry, the check is in the mail.

That’s right. The state didn’t have enough money to pay its bills on time earlier this year, so it stopped payments to school districts in March, April and May so it could use that money to cover its expenses. Now the state is paying schools back the money it didn’t pay them this spring.

The state has done a lousy job of running its finances and schools have paid the price. Never mind that state aid to schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent since 2003. Never mind that while politicians hoot about “holding schools harmless,” schools are shedding staff and programs to pay their bills. Never mind that property tax levies were supposed to be for “extras” but now are necessary for more than 95 percent of Minnesota’s districts and account for as much as 20 percent of some districts’ operating budgets. Never mind that last year the governor and lawmakers shifted 27 percent of state aid to a later year so they could balance the budget, and this year increased that shift to 30 percent.

Catching a pattern here? State underfunding of education is the biggest problem we face. Nothing will proceed until we are on solid financial ground – not closing the achievement gap, not challenging gifted students, not lowering the dropout rate and helping more go to college, not gaining smaller class sizes and offering a greater variety of courses.

There are rumblings that the state may be forced to withhold school payments in the fall or next spring because of inability to pay its bills on time. This is inexcusable. School districts are not the state’s piggy bank and should not be treated as such. The state is not holding schools harmless.