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Some Minnesota districts plan to bank ‘EduJobs’ stimulus money to deal with future ‘funding cliff’

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the Obama administration will quite literally deposit $167 million in Minnesota’s bank account in the hope that school districts throughout the state will get busy preserving and creating jobs for teachers.

And a staggering number of Twin Cities teachers need jobs. As the result of more than $150 million in budget reductions and the Legislature’s ratification of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2009 unallotment to schools, worth $1.4 billion, last spring metro area schools cut some 1,500 educators, according to estimates by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts

A number of district administrators, however, don’t plan to recall laid-off staff now, when pupils have already been assigned to overstuffed classrooms for the current school year. Instead, some plan to save the money for next year, when they face what one has termed a “funding cliff” of unprecedented proportions.

For the two-year budget cycle beginning July 1, 2011, Minnesota faces a $5.8 billion budget deficit. Combined with this year’s decision by the Legislature to delay $1.9 billion in current school funding, the fiscal chasm looms enormous, administrators say.

Funding reductions foreseen
“We just feel that the size of the state’s deficit problem is such that schools are going to probably see some type of reduction in funding,” said Tony Taschner, director of communications for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, which is in line to receive $5 million in so-called EduJobs funding.

“We’ve made significant reductions this school year and will go forward with those,” he said. “We’re having a levy [PDF] this year and asking residents whether they want to go to the maximum in terms of what’s allowed.”

With 27,000 students, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan is the fourth-largest district in the state, right behind Minneapolis. To close a $25 million gap in its last two budgets, the district cut 144 jobs, raised fees for student activities, eliminated transportation for all after-school activities and cut programming. In 2011, the district will likely have to find another $23 million to cut.

Bernadeia Johnson
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Bernadeia Johnson

In an interview last week, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said there are plenty of gaps that can be filled by the EduJobs money this year. Particularly given its focus on closing the achievement gap, MPS is in desperate need of literacy coaches and other classroom support professionals.

St. Paul Public Schools hasn’t decided what to do with its share of the funding. SPPS needed to cut $27.2 million from the current year’s budget and faces some $23 million in cuts next year.

Initial recommendation: Bank the money
In Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, the math is similarly grim. The school board and cabinet have yet to make any decision, but Finance Executive Michelle Vargas’ initial recommendation is to bank the $7.2 million in cash.

Over the next three years Anoka-Hennepin must find $100 million, or 25 percent of its budget, to cut. Its $8 million share of the “edujobs” money? “It’s a drop in the bucket,” Superintendent Dennis Carlson told MinnPost last month when Congress passed the funding.

Stimulus notwithstanding, Carlson said he will likely have to lay off 500 to 700 teachers. “We’re the largest employer in Anoka County,” he said. “The economic ripple over the next three years is huge.”

Isn’t that ripple precisely what the federal stimulus is intended to reverse?

Job creation is the main purpose of stimulus funding: Instead of drawing unemployment, job holders spend their wages, sending stimulant ripples out into the community. The sooner the spending commences, the thinking goes, the sooner it can spark the creation of other jobs.

Slow spending pace has drawn criticism
Indeed, the slow pace with which states are spending past infusions of stimulus dollars has draw criticism on both sides of the political aisle. State officials counter that they are trying to forestall charges of reckless spending by being cautious in approving public works projects and other eligible uses for the money.

In addition, two years after the collapse of the economy, the number of “shovel-ready” projects is limited. Locally, this seeming Catch-22 recently resulted in a decision by Hennepin County to spend some of its stimulus on a long-debated $130 million luxury hotel at the Mall of America. It was the only project that qualified, County Commissioner Randy Johnson told the Star Tribune.

Ethan Pollack
Ethan Pollack

Minnesota isn’t the only state where school districts are choosing to hang onto the one-time federal grant, noted Ethan Pollack, a policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Ideally, he explained, stimulus money should be spent as quickly as possible. But the reality is that lots of school systems are share Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan’s reasoning.

‘Budgets may continue to get worse’
“The much larger point here is that states are still facing huge funding gaps,” he said. “State and local budgets are on two- to three-year time lags, so even after the economy starts to recover budgets may continue to get worse over the next couple of years.”

When the money gets spent – something that has to happen by September 2012 – it will of course help, he added, but a bigger boost would be some kind of coordinated effort in Washington to address the states’ crises.

“Throwing a little bit of money at them helps, but it’s like swatting at a mosquito while your house is burning down,” he said. “A lot of this money, as it goes out, will do nothing to stop the bleeding. It will just stop things from being worse.”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/02/2010 - 08:37 am.

    Given the budget gaps you describe, $167 million is a pittance: less than $30 per Minnesota resident. It is not likely to have a significant impact whether spent today or a year from today.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/02/2010 - 09:32 am.

    This sop to the teachers union is like a needle exchange program for heroin addicts.

    Not only does it offer nothing to cure the problem, it discourages even trying.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/02/2010 - 11:02 am.

    Mr. Swift–
    The facts are that needle exchange programs are effective in reducing the incidence of HIV infection, which is their reason for existence.
    They were never intended to reduce the incidence of addiction itself; there is no reason to suppose that they would.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/02/2010 - 11:46 am.

    Right Paul.

    And this sop is meant to reduce the loss of NEA membership dues, and was never intended to reduce the incidence of academic or systemic failure.

    P-BO & Co. are payin’ the Democrat party’s endorsement dues before the sea change in November cuts off their free access to the nation’s credit card.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/02/2010 - 12:04 pm.

    I thought the “stimulus” fund was supposed to be for “shovel-ready” projects?

    One of the many reasons why people don’t trust this government and this administration is because they see Obama and the democrats using this trillion dollar slush fund to simply pay off political supporters. What happens next year when that money is gone? The local taxpayers will have to pick up the tab as usual. Oh wait … they said they were going to “bank” those shovel-ready funds.

  6. Submitted by Julie Blaha on 09/02/2010 - 03:30 pm.

    The reason this money isn’t “shovel ready” is in part due to its timing. If it had been passed earlier in the year as it was intended to be, it could have been used to staff schools this year. But the money coming in now right when kids are walking in the door is really problematic.

    And, honestly, putting teachers in the classroom is just for the unions? Since when did unions become the only group in the country that cared about keeping teachers in front of kids? Saying it’s about dues is clearly an attempt to justify what everyone knows in inadequate school funding.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/02/2010 - 06:14 pm.

    This is not an optimal way to fund our nation’s education system. It isn’t going to be any easier to pay off the national debt in 2030 if America’s workforce has inferior math and science skills because we fired our teachers back in 2010 to save money.

    But the refusal to spend the money to keep teachers off of those unemployment rolls, and the extraordinary shortsightedness of savaging the education of tomorrow’s workforce in order to avoid having to borrow (or, heaven forbid, raise taxes) today, reflects a pretty screwed-up set of priorities.

    If we’re going to take all our children’s money and spend it on our wars and health care, we should at least given them the tools to make more money.

  8. Submitted by Eric Larson on 09/02/2010 - 11:19 pm.

    Under the old statement “Facts are Subborn Things”
    Let’s not layoff the needed education staff. Let’s pay them less for a couple of years. We are all getting by with less these days. Why not the education industry? The ISD’s need to try something different then what they have tried in the past. MEA members and all ISD employees start thinking like this. Do less, with less, and get paid less doing it. By the way. By all measures Consumer Price Index is as low as it’s been in decades.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/03/2010 - 06:52 am.

    The latest evidence says that teacher quality makes a big difference but how exactly does one achieve better teacher quality?

    1. There are lots of teachers. It’s relatively hard to find small numbers of highly skilled people – see banking or lawyering. It’s much harder to find very large numbers of very skilled teachers.

    2. We as a society won’t pay more. Why do the job? Especially in the city or in a rural area where it’s hard to attract doctors who make much more than teachers.

    How exactly can we expect more than competence from a profession that isn’t particularly well paid, that requires vast numbers of people, that often has very difficult working conditions – including issues of physical safety? We expect teachers to do work after school while most people are able to leave that at the office unless they’re highly compensated or moving up a career ladder.

    If you decrease job security without increasing pay, you’re in effect cutting the level of income of the profession (some teachers may only be willing to work at the current salary levels because of those job protections). If we’re hoping to attract better teaching talent, a pay-cut isn’t the way to go.

    Plus, if you couple the teaching-profession reforms to higher base pay, that makes it much harder for unions to oppose – “We oppose giving most of our union members a raise!” isn’t going to be a popular stance.

  10. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/03/2010 - 07:11 am.

    #9 Richard interesting ideas/statements. Please elaborate on this/them a little bit more in the future. Always like your writing(s). I think you may be a bit off in the rural statement but that is a minor quibble.

  11. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/03/2010 - 07:13 am.

    Ms. Hawkins a future idea would be to cover something about a rural school district ( and not just the usual stuff) but something more on the lines of “picket fences”.

  12. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/03/2010 - 07:17 am.

    Sorry not bizarre picket fences stuff but more about the small town community.

  13. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/03/2010 - 08:24 am.

    Sorry last post, U of Michigan has some interesting stuff on this. Rural teachers also have to wear multiple hats.

  14. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/03/2010 - 08:45 am.

    Richard advises: ” There are lots of teachers. It’s relatively hard to find small numbers of highly skilled people – see banking or lawyering. It’s much harder to find very large numbers of very skilled teachers.”

    And then opines: ” We as a society won’t pay more. Why do the job?”

    I think society will pay more for very skilled teachers; I know I would.

    The problem is that because teachers are unionized, and because a union’s job is to protect the lowest common denominator, we’d have to pay the worst as well as we pay the best….no thank you.

    By the way, I’m confused why it is evidently a faux pas to point out that Ms. Blaha is President at Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota?

    I see her LinkedIn page has been scrubbed of other connections with EdMN, was she overstating her CV, or is she suddenly ashamed of it?

  15. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/03/2010 - 01:14 pm.

    “I think society will pay more for very skilled teachers; I know I would”.

    Glad you agree with me Tom. But you lost me when used a personal attack on the author and usual the union rhetoric.

    I’ve just started volunteering at a local public high school, and I’ve been learning a lot about low-socioeconomic schools and curriculum and whatnot.

    First off, these kids are nice. If you’re friendly to them first, they rather enjoy asking questions and discussing their plans for the future.

    Second, some of these teachers are simply overwhelmed. They don’t get a big book of lesson plan ideas or a master schedule, just a three-page list of topics that are required by the state. It’s really hard to come up with three or four new plans every day for the AP physics, regular physics, general chemistry, and honors physics. Not to mention the handouts and supplies for each class. Small wonder many resort to awful worksheets and handouts.

    Third, the curriculum for an average high school student is hopeless. How can you learn elementary physics when you’re only halfway through Algebra II? No sine for basic wave-functions, even though it’s on the list of state requirements! Systemic failure – the science and math departments aren’t talking to each other.

    A complicated mess indeed, but little to do with unionization.

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