State funding proposals that would either freeze or cut school spending over the next two years pose the direst financial threat to Minnesota schools in years, several Twin Cities superintendents said Wednesday.

The superintendents spoke at a news conference to release survey figures showing that 32 Twin Cities school districts expect budget shortfalls totaling $136 million or $223 million next year. Which figure becomes reality depends on whether a House or Senate school funding bill becomes law. Those deficits translate into anywhere from 512 to 854 layoffs for teachers. Hundreds of other school staff would also get pink slips.

The House has passed the bill that would freeze school spending for two years, while the Senate approved a bill cutting spending by 3 percent over the two-year budgeting period. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed some K-12 spending increases that would be targeted to particular schools.

That has created the unusual scenario of some school officials finding the Pawlenty plan preferable to either the Senate or House versions. Both the Senate and House are controlled by DFLers, normally big education spenders.

"The governor has the best proposal on the table right now, absolutely," said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD), the lobbying consortium that conducted the survey, and that represents most of the Twin Cities' school districts.

The survey covers most of the school districts in the metro area.

Survey results covered only the next school year, for which school districts are now planning budgets. But school officials warned that, two years down the road, things could get "catastrophic" without any new funding from the state.

"We've never seen numbers like this in a single year," said Anoka-Hennepin schools superintendent Dennis Carlson. He said the district -- the state's largest -- could be facing an unprecedented $50 million budget deficit in the 2010-2011 budget year under a worst-case scenario of the Senate cuts becoming law, a typical contract being settled with teachers, and voters turning down a levy renewal referendum that the district might hold in November.

A best-case scenario of the House plan and voter approval of the levy renewal, which still hasn't been authorized by the school board, would result in no cuts, Carlson said. The levy renewal would ensure $8 million a year in funding for an undetermined number of years.

Teacher contract negotiations, which begin soon for school districts, are a major factor in how districts fare in the two years to come. Clearly, school officials, many of whom have frozen their own salaries, are expecting teachers to modify their contract demands.

"They understand the situation," said Pat Gleason, AMSD chair, and vice chairwoman of the Wayzata school board. "I don't think there will be unrealistic demands. But there's no way of predicting that."

The AMSD has historically surveyed districts at the beginning of the legislative session about their funding outlooks, and typically comes up with deficit predictions. Unlike this later survey, when figures are available from the House, Senate and governor, those surveys have had to make assumptions without hard legislative proposals on which to base them.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547