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School district sends layoff notices as government shutdown looms

WORTHINGTON -- In preparation for a possible July 1 government shutdown, District 518 sent layoff notices to 470 employees, including the superintendent, principals, teachers, paraprofessionals and custodians.

Three Democratic-Farmer-Labor state legislators from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area visited Worthington Tuesday to discuss the possible shutdown's impact to schools with local leaders.

"The only thing we have here today is ... the DFL side. If we had the Republicans here we would hear a different thing," said Linden Olson, a member of the District 518 Board of Education. "I think that this is symptomatic of what is wrong with the legislature."

State representatives Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, and Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, visited Willmar, Worthington and Marshall Tuesday, listening to concerns and getting feedback from people about proposed legislation and the shutdown.

The three lawmakers criticized state Republicans, stating they are unwilling to compromise to develop a budget before the shutdown deadline.

They also stressed the need for education funding and the corresponding need for adequate funding in other areas -- which would allow the state to halt its practice of delaying payments to school districts to prop up the general fund. By delaying payments, the government essentially borrows money from the schools.

Superintendent John Landgaard, District 518's superintendent, said his district has been prudent with its money and has retained an adequate fund balance.

Even with its reserves, however, the school would have to borrow money in order to make it through September, and even with borrowed funds, the school could only run for an additional two months.

Borrowing the money would cost about $30,000, said Paul Karelis, Worthington High School principal. He wondered whether the state would pay for that -- and what would happen to schools in statutory operating debt.

"We provide a quality education to many kids in this district, and that might be compromised," Landgaard warned. "How are we going to get a solution on the table?"

Davnie replied that compromise was the solution, and advocated increasing taxes for the top two percent of earners in the state of Minnesota.

Karelis also wondered what would happen to students who could not take the writing, reading and math tests required to graduate from high school in the state of Minnesota. If the state shut down and tests were not administered, students could not graduate and move on to college.

"I've seen no evidence that school districts or other local government agencies have the authority to shut down like the state," said Cornelius Smith, superintendent of Round Lake and Brewster schools. "I don't know where we'll go."

Greiling expressed optimism and hope that a court hearing set for Thursday would solve some of the most immediate problems for schools and allow them to remain open in the event of a shutdown.

"I just think it's terrible to be playing chicken with the schools," Greiling said.

The education bill was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and vetoed by the governor. It contained provisions for increased evaluation and regulation of teachers, as well as other policy changes.

"It felt like someone who'd had a bad experience with a teacher wrote the bill," said Sheryl Hoekstra, who teaches second grade at Prairie Elementary.

Slawik said Tea Party anti-government sentiments were behind some of the negative language in the bills.

"They think teachers are overpaid and underworked," Slawik said.

Though evaluations for teachers are nearly universally supported, the vetoed education bill would require District 518 to perform 500 evaluations a year rather than 150-175, Landgaard said. The school would have to hire an additional full-time staff member -- without any additional funding from the state -- for that purpose.

"There needs to be a better communication tool between districts and legislators on education," Landgaard said.

Gary Fisher, superintendent of Luverne Public Schools, said the situation had taken on a spiral effect, and that everything was going downward.

"What it is, is both parties have dug their heels in, and people are going to pay, and it's the wrong people who are going to pay," Fisher said. "Let's get over the feeling of 'OK, let's make a statement' and just sit down and get (the budget) done."

Davnie encouraged people to contact their lawmakers, and said constituents could make a difference.

The education bill also included some major changes to the state's integration funding, and could potentially spell the end of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative.

The bill that was passed would have provided funds for "innovation transition aid" for one year, and then "literacy aid" for a second year. The funding for the greatly altered program would be the same in Greater Minnesota but cut drastically in the Metro area.

The vetoed bill also allowed schools to use the money on their own rather than collaborating with other schools. Funding would be based on student growth, which could cause tension between schools and make collaboration difficult.

"It gives us a year to shut down," said Sharon Johnson, coordinator of the NCIC.

The governor vetoed that bill, leaving the Collaborative, too, in limbo. A new bill could contain the same provisions, or nothing at all about integration -- meaning the NCIC would continue its operations as usual for another two years.