As some Minnesota school districts prepare to lay off teachers because of massive budget shortfalls, Gov. Mark Dayton called on state lawmakers Tuesday to dedicate $137.9 million in emergency aid to all districts across the state.

The DFL governor said he was struck over the weekend by news reports detailing cuts planned by at least 59 Minnesota school districts facing significant shortfalls for the next school year. With many schools planning to lay off teachers and staff members, Dayton said the state should step in to help given its projected budget surplus.

Extra money for schools should be a bigger priority than tax cuts that Republican lawmakers are now pushing at the State Capitol, Dayton said.

“It would be terribly wrong for the Legislature and myself to spend the session’s final three weeks discussing tax cuts as the primary use for the next fiscal year’s projected budget surplus while our schools are facing such severe operating deficits,” he said.

GOP leaders of House and Senate education finance committees disagreed. They said the school districts’ budget shortfalls are problems of their own making — and the result of Dayton’s work to expand prekindergarten programs, rather than dedicate more money to K-12 classrooms.

“I don’t sense an emergency situation,” said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who said the governor should have set aside more money for the “core functions” of the state’s education system, rather than early education initiatives aimed at preschool-age children.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said in a statement that the federal government is also partly to blame, because it hasn’t delivered on its promises to cover rising special education costs. She said her party has proposed a task force to look into that issue. In the meantime, she said school districts need to do more to keep their own budgets in check.

“The truth is, some school districts have not been realistic about how much they can afford to pay their employees, and have entered into union contracts that are squeezing classroom budgets,” she said.

Planned cuts

Around the Twin Cities metro area, 26 school districts are facing a shortfall of more than $108 million for the next school year. The Minneapolis district, facing a $33 million deficit, is considering cutting 350 to 400 positions. St. Paul schools are short $17.2 million.

Meanwhile, at least 33 school districts in other parts of Minnesota are planning to cut a total of 85 teachers and 75 staff members, according to a recent survey by the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

Dayton’s plan would provide aid to all Minnesota districts, amounting to $126 per student.

In Robbinsdale, where a $10.6 million gap is forcing the district to consider cutting 73 staff positions, school board President John Vento said he welcomed the help. But with such a large shortfall, he did not think it would be enough to avoid layoffs.

“We are very supportive of the governor’s proposal, and it will help us this year,” he said.

Shakopee interim superintendent Gary Anger said his district would make good use of the approximately $1.2 million in additional help it would get under the governor’s plan, but he said planned budget cuts would have to go ahead.

The district is short $2.6 million.

Anger said the cuts are “necessary to mitigate projected shortfalls in the future and to help sustain district education programs.”

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said Dayton’s efforts to boost education spending during his two terms in office haven’t been enough to catch up after a longer period of stagnant funding and the rising costs of paying and providing benefits for teachers. Dropping enrollment is also a factor in some districts facing budget problems.

Cassellius said patching up the holes in districts’ budgets is critical to the long-term success of the state’s schools.

“In kindergarten, our kids learn the difference between a want and a need,” she said. “This one-time emergency funding is most definitely a need.”

Dayton’s proposal comes less than three weeks before the Legislature will adjourn for the year — far too late, Loon said, to allow enough time to sort out bigger school funding problems.

But Dayton insisted that his timing was no different from that of GOP legislative leaders, who are introducing their major policy and spending proposals in the waning days of the session.

“My message to the Legislature is: I know it’s late in the session, but this emergency school aid is no later than your omnibus spending and tax bills,” he said.