More than $1 billion in federal aid could come to Minnesota schools and state colleges and universities under the federal stimulus law signed by President Obama.
The huge infusion of cash would come as welcome news to school districts that have been slashing millions from their budgets and face uncertain funding prospects this year from a state Legislature wrestling with a $4.8 billion shortfall. Initial reports indicate that the stimulus aid can be used to hire teachers and buy supplies, defray costly special education expenses, and modernize schools.
"In terms of our needs areas, it's right on target," said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-North St. Paul, and deputy chairman of the Senate's education committee.
Some legislators expressed reservations about the short-term nature of the stimulus funding and restrictions on how it might be used. They warn that the money comes only once, and caution that schools that expand programs and hire more teachers will have to fund those on their own when the stimulus funds dry up.
"We're glad to have it, but it's pretty much one-time money for ongoing needs," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, and chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Division. "It's a problem child, but we love all our children."
The figure, released by the Minnesota Department of Education, is only a preliminary estimate. Still, it represents the first real effort by the department to put a dollar figure on Minnesota's stimulus windfall for schools.
The money, meant to cover two years of education expenses, would be divided in several ways, state deputy education commissioner Chas Anderson said Thursday. The biggest chunk -- as much as $821 million -- would be targeted at keeping school and college budgets at their current levels, and avoiding further reductions caused by the souring economy.
The next largest pot of money -- $199 million -- is for special-education expenses, needed to help educate children with physical, behavioral or learning disabilities. Special education is a particular sore spot for educators, who argue that the federal government doesn't pick up nearly enough of the tab for such expenses. There is additional funding for the Head Start program for preschoolers, as well as money for grants available to individual schools and districts. The total comes to $1.1 billion. The department released that figure to education committees in the state House and Senate on Wednesday.
To put the funding amount in perspective, the K-12 budget for the two-year spending cycle that ends this year is more than $14 billion.
Accurate figures are coming
A clearer picture on how the money will be distributed will come after the March 3 state budget forecast, Anderson said. After that, Gov. Tim Pawlenty will release a revised budget that will incorporate the stimulus funding. Anderson said state officials don't yet have accurate figures of how much each Minnesota school district will get.
The $821 million chunk of the stimulus package is meant to be split among K-12 schools and Minnesota's colleges and universities. How exactly that split will work out has yet to be determined, though money is supposed to be allocated first to K-12 schools to prevent budget reductions. Some of that money could also be used for early childhood education, and even non-education purposes.
Some educators fear that use of the money will be too restrictive, and that legislators might be tempted to use the stimulus money to help reduce the state's budget shortfall over the next two years.
"We are very concerned that the state will decide to reduce its allocation to public schools and partially substitute this federal stimulus revenue instead," said Mary Olson, spokeswoman for Anoka-Hennepin schools, the state's largest school district. The result of such a maneuver would be no new money for schools.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, warned that the stimulus package remains a moving target.
"They're getting new information almost hourly from the federal officials, clarifying the intent and the strings that are attached," he said. "Obviously, it will be helpful, but we're somewhat concerned about the strings attached, and that there won't be as much flexibility as we would like to see ... But, clearly, any money is going to be helpful given the dire budget straits we're looking at here in Minnesota."
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547