Gov. Mark Dayton took his pitch for emergency school aid from the halls of the State Capitol to Minnesota school hallways on Wednesday.
From Rochester to Rosemount, the DFL governor is touring the state’s schools to appeal to local legislators to pass his $137.9 million plan that would boost education funding before Minnesota school districts are forced this summer to lay off hundreds of teachers and draw down reserves.
“This is an emergency,” Dayton said outside Parkview Elementary School in Lakeville, part of the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, which has a $12 million budget deficit this year. “The effects of that are going to be just devastating on the children. ... There’s no going back to third grade or fifth grade; if the resource isn’t there, they miss out. This couldn’t be more important.”
His last-ditch proposal was prompted by news coverage of this year’s school shortfalls — the largest reported in years. According to a survey by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, 26 Twin Cities school districts are confronting a total shortfall of more than $108 million for the 2018-2019 school year, with many balancing their budgets by cutting teachers and staff or by dipping into their reserves. Another 33 greater Minnesota school districts face deficits.
But Dayton’s pitch may be a long shot.
Less than two weeks remain before the session ends. And Senate Republicans said Wednesday in a statement that districts already received new money less than a year ago.
Some districts are facing deficits because of declining enrollment or teacher pay raises, and “committing ‘one-time’ money to schools is really bad policy,” Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus, said in a statement. “It puts local districts in an impossible position for budgeting and planning and creates a false crisis when the ‘one-time’ funding runs out.”
GOP leaders have also said that districts’ budget shortfalls are problems of their own making — and the result of Dayton’s work to expand prekindergarten programs. While Dayton wants to dip into the state’s projected budget surplus to increase the school funding, Minnesota Senate Republicans have proposed using the surplus for tax cuts.
Dayton has also proposed boosting special education funding by about $19 million for 2019.
On Wednesday, Rep. Jon Koznick was the lone Republican to join Dayton at the Lakeville school along with several DFLers. He said “we will entertain the discussion” but added that funding for special education and pension programs may be more appropriate.
Dayton also visited Franklin Elementary School in the Rochester district, which has a $1.6 million deficit. He will travel Thursday to Park Side Elementary School in Marshall, a district that faces a nearly $350,000 deficit, and to Talahi Community School in the St. Cloud school district, which has a $4 million deficit.
“Minnesota schools are still struggling,” Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Superintendent Jane Berenz said.
In Rosemount, the state’s fourth-largest school district would get an extra $4 million under Dayton’s plan. Without it, schools will cover this year’s $12 million deficit by dipping into the district’s reserves, which is like a savings account. Districts have a June 30 deadline to give final budget approval.
Unlike districts such as Minneapolis that face declining enrollment, the 28,000-student suburban district is growing. But Berenz said the district — like all Minnesota schools — hasn’t recovered from the state funding freezes and shifts from a few years ago, which caused the south metro district to cut 200 staff members and student programs. Local voters passed a referendum in 2013, which “stopped the cuts, but we were never able to recover from those cuts,” she said. “We have not reinstated anything.”
“I promised Minnesotans that, if I were elected Governor in 2010, I would increase state support for K-12 education every year — no excuses, no exceptions,” he said. “I have kept my promise."