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Schools await budget fate

JACKSON -- It's a game of 'hurry up and wait' for local superintendents, who are anxious to see how the finalized state budget will affect the funding their districts receive, but can't yet plan on any one scenario.

"Now it's a matter of sitting back and seeing what the house proposal and senate's proposal is," said Jackson County Central Superintendent Todd Meyer. "The one sad thing about this is all of the school districts are kind of in a holding pattern. You're supposed to set up the (district) budget for next year but you don't know if they're going to increase, cut or freeze."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's state budget proposal includes a 1.9 percent increase in public school funding, a number that falls below the roughly 3 percent inflationary increase administrators need to maintain programs.

The legislature must approve the final budget for the next two years, but in the meantime, the JCC school board is preparing three budgets of their own: one assumes maintenance of funds the district is currently receiving, one plans on a 2 percent increase for each of the next two years and the final budget accounts for a 3 percent funding decrease.

"You want to be able to do your job and you've got to basically do your job three times," said Meyer, adding that the governor's proposal included some "interesting ideas."

JCC is still in better financial shape than many districts in southwest Minnesota, Meyer said.

"In the fall of 2007 JCC passed a $950 per pupil operating levy, which is one of the reasons we were hiring (this academic year) when most of the districts around us were eliminating positions," he said.

The district began the 2008-2009 school year in the black, and could probably "cover" for a year or two if even a modest increase is given, Meyer said, but added that districts can't operate that way indefinitely.

"If they end up cutting funding to education, then we'll end up having to do cuts. That's a given," he said. "You cannot continue to not fully fund education year after year after year, and that's why you have all these districts all over the state that have to have an operating levy.... Everyone is being so careful and continuing trying to figure out how to make due with less."

Pawlenty has gained $1.3 billion by delaying some payments to schools.

"What they owe us now, we may get several months from now," explained Dave Skog, director of management services for Worthington District 518. "There's always been some aid shifting, we just might have more of it."

Worthington Superintendent John Landgaard said the district is holding off on any drastic action.

"At this point we're not really utilizing what the governor has proposed," he said. "It's still early in the process and at this point there's no definite direction on if the governor's budget is going to come out in the end plan ... past history in this scenario has suggested that we don't plan for any money."

Pawlenty has also proposed increasing funding up to 2 percent to schools whose students are meeting standards and expanding his Q Comp program statewide.

The controversial program, one aspect of which is performance-based pay for teachers, has gained little participation from rural schools. The governor hopes to change that with his proposal to provide a 5 percent increase in funding to schools that join.

"I wouldn't have too much of a problem with it," Meyer said of the program, which he has researched but the JCC school board hasn't discussed at length. "A huge number of the teachers end up getting the pay they're hoping to get anyway ... It wouldn't be too much of an issue for us; our teachers already do a fantastic job."

Not all educators support the program, however.

"It's a collaborative effort between teachers and the district, and at this point the teachers have not expressed interest in wanting to participate," said Landgaard.

Ultimately, Meyer said, funds spent on education are funds well spent.

"If you want the economy in the future to be good you need to invest now in education," he said.

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