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Pawlenty administration seeks federal school aid after all

After weeks of gubernatorial grumbling, the Minnesota Department of Education formally applied today for $167 million in federal education stimulus funding. The state had until Sept.

After weeks of gubernatorial grumbling, the Minnesota Department of Education formally applied today for $167 million in federal education stimulus funding. The state had until Sept. 9 to ask for the money and school administrators were beginning to fear ideology would trump concerns about the budget crisis.

Superintendents in the state’s 350 school districts were notified by e-mail this morning, according to Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

There was, however, no official announcement from the office of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who earlier in the month criticized Congress for approving the $26 billion stimulus package.

“The federal government should not deficit spend to bail out states and special interest groups,” Pawlenty said in a statement. “Minnesota balanced its budget without raising taxes and without relying on more federal money. The federal government’s reckless spending spree must come to an end.”

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His sentiments were echoed by Rep. Michele Bachmann.

The so-called EduJobs money is earmarked for teacher and school staff job preservation at the district level. Administrators will be notified Monday how much each district will receive and the process by which they will get the money, which proponents had said could preserve as many as 2,800 Minnesota teacher jobs.

The application for the funding consisted of a single question; states had to elect the funding formula they would use to distribute the money. Minnesota will hand it out according to the state’s complicated primary funding formula.

“It’s not a simple thing,” said Kyte. “It’s not the same for every district.”

The formula guarantees schools a base rate of $5,124 for each student, plus money allocated according to each district’s needs. The formula includes compensation for schools that are rural, serve a high-poverty student body, and so on.

The guidelines for spending the money dictate that it must go to create or preserve jobs, but strapped districts can use the funds to meet increases in the cost of benefits, to give raises as well. Districts that chose to borrow money rather than lay off can use the cash to replenish reserves.

Some districts are expected to spend the money right away, but many are considering holding onto it until next year, when even larger education funding deficits are anticipated.

“Some districts will recall, some will hire,” said Kyte. A lot depends on what they already did.”

Other administrators have been critical of Congress’ timing in passage of the relief bill, noting that with pupils already assigned to overstuffed classrooms for the 2010-2011 school year, there’s little point in hiring additional teachers until next year.

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Education policymakers have no hard statewide numbers, but estimates are that in each of the last two years, about 2,000 Minnesota teachers have lost their jobs.

During that time, the state’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, laid off nearly 500 and St. Paul Public Schools, the state’s second-biggest district, last year shed 100 teachers.

Like many other states, Minnesota has used past infusions of stimulus dollars to divert funding from one program to another in an attempt to balance the budget, which has a projected shortfall of $7 billion. States face a cumulative budget gap of $62 billion for the current fiscal year.

The U.S. Department of Education has said it wrote the EduJobs spending rules in such a way that states can’t use the money to bolster the bottom line. Officials will be required to show that they are maintaining education funding despite the infusion.

Kyte singled out Assistant Education Commissioner Lori Grivna, a former member of the Mounds View School Board, for her efforts to ensure schools get as much of the money as possible. Federal guidelines say states can reserve 2 percent of the stimulus dollars to cover the costs of processing the grants, but Grivna decided the MDE will keep less than one-fifth of its possible share, he said.