Minnesota's largest school districts have been able to save or add scores, even hundreds, of teaching jobs and other positions this year, thanks to federal stimulus funds, according to newly released state figures.

Breakdowns show that the state's largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, owes the equivalent of 413 full-time jobs to the stimulus package. For St. Paul and Minneapolis, those figures are 444 and 364, respectively. Overall, $643 million in stimulus money has been allocated to the state's public schools.

Take those numbers away, some say, and cash-strapped districts would have suffered crippling classroom losses at a time when future state funding is uncertain.

Not having that money "clearly would have been just devastating," said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association for Metropolitan School Districts. "The layoffs would have been really severe."

But some officials suggest that the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Had stimulus funding not been there, the state may have found other ways to provide some of the money, they say.

Many jobs were saved indirectly, the result of a complex manipulation the Legislature designed to plug the state's budget deficit. In effect, $500 million was removed this year from state education funding to help erase the budget shortfall, then it was replaced by federal stimulus funds.

"I think it would have been a very difficult conversation" if the state had really cut that much without the stimulus money, said Matt Mohs, director of Title I programs for the St. Paul Public Schools. Even without the cuts, the district had to deal with a $25 million deficit for this year, and that meant laying off 117 teachers.

Many education jobs that were reported as "saved" presumably would have been cut had the stimulus money not been available to plug the $500 million hole.

Instead, the Legislature kept education funding steady for this year and next.

Statewide, the number of K-12 education jobs added or saved is 7,421 so far, out of 11,852 jobs saved in all categories, according to Minnesota's Office of Management and Budget. More than 5,800 school jobs were declared saved because of funding maneuvers at the state level. The remainder were created with stimulus money allocated directly to districts for educating low-income and special education students, among other purposes.

The what-if question

What's uncertain is whether state education funding would have been cut deeply had stimulus money not been available.

"I would find it difficult for them to cut education to that degree," said Jeff Solomon, director of finance and operations with Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, was more emphatic. "I don't even have a ghost of a thought that education funding would have been cut that much," said Greiling, head of the House K-12 education finance division. "There wouldn't have been that many jobs lost."

State Department of Education spokesman Bill Walsh stressed, though, that the prospect of big cuts to schools was very real until the stimulus funding came through.

"Education was being talked about as taking a cut," he said. "It might not have been quite as big [as the $500 million], but it was in the conversation."

Some of the figures appear puzzling. The small Main Street School for Performing Arts, a Hopkins charter school, reported 248 jobs saved or created. School officials could not be reached for comment.

Expiration date

School districts have already been spending stimulus money directed at special education students and those from low-income families. St. Francis, for instance, has used its share to hire back five teachers laid off in February. In Osseo, stimulus funds were earmarked for hiring 20 new teachers and teacher aides. Management and Budget, which collected the job figures, shows Anoka-Hennepin using stimulus money to hire the equivalent of 49 staffers.

Stimulus funds are good for just two years, meaning that officials must come up with additional money to keep their newly hired staff employed.

Minneapolis has used most of the almost $10 million it received for two years of special education funding to plug annual deficits in the program created when the district provides required services. That deficit is $35 million this year, according to Peggy Ingison, the district's finance chief. The rest of the special education money has gone toward staff training and a study of the district's special education programs.

Money was also allocated to some districts for school lunch programs.

Albert Lea public schools, for instance, have been allocated $20,000 for two dishwashers, and Dugsi Academy charter school in St. Paul has been allocated almost $12,000 for a dishwasher.

Mohs, from the St. Paul schools, said that, because the stimulus money is fleeting, the district tried to use it to pay for things that have long-term impact. That means spending it on coaches who help teachers with literacy, and other staff-training initiatives.

"We wanted to be careful that what we invested would stick with us," he said.

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