Schools’ tough math problem? Don’t expect a solution Friday when Pawlenty and legislative leaders meet

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

If you like watching nicely dressed people smugly pointing fingers at each other, then you’ll probably enjoy Friday’s meeting between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders.

But substance for the state of Minnesota?

Forget it. Based on the public comments already made by some of the participating legislators, there appears to be almost no chance of anything significant happening at this meeting, which is supposed to deal with $1.8 billion in school funding “shifts” the governor ordered in his unilateral budget-balancing act last June.

The governor appears to want the Legislature to accept responsibility for the shift and, for the moment, legislative leaders are likely to say, “No thank you,” to that offer.

Start with this: Why does it matter whether this is a Pawlenty shift or a legislative shift?

Worrisome issue for schools
Some schools worry that if this remains Pawlenty’s unilateral shift, there will be no legal authority mandating that the schools ever receive the $1.8 billion. If it becomes a legislative shift, state law requires that the schools be second in line to be paid back, right after rainy-day funds are restocked. Payback might take 10 or 20 years, but eventually there would be a payback.

It’s the difference between having the $1.8 billion “loaned” to the government, as opposed to being “stolen by” the government, according to Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Though school funding shifts have become an almost routine part of the biennial state budget balancing act, the governor’s unilateral action was unique. There is concern among some legislators, school superintendents and, perhaps, even the governor about no payback requirement tied to the governor’s action. And some school officials fear that at the end of the biennium in 2011, the $1.8 billion will simply disappear into thin air.

“We’re trying to convince the governor and the Legislature to do the statutory shift,” said Kyte. “The Legislature would pass it, the governor would sign it. In the past, that’s the way it’s always been done.”

The $1.8 billion, by the way, represents about 27 percent of the money schools expected to receive from the state.

Districts count on low-interest loans to tide them over
School districts have been able to survive such shifts because they could get low-interest loans for two reasons that give comfort to financial institutions. First, done traditionally, the shifts have come with the guarantees of a state payback. Second, districts have the power to raise taxes.

But even low-interest loans cost districts money. Beyond that, school administrators are keenly aware of the ever-increasing overall budget woes. Given that K-12 spending accounts for about 40 percent of the state budget, the time may come when cuts replace shifts.

“All of our superintendents are living on Tums,” said Kyte. “If it gets worse, the Tums will turn to Valium.”

Leaders of charter schools already are heavy into the Valium stage of these hard times. Unlike school districts, charters don’t have access to loans because they don’t have either a long history with financial institutions or taxing authority.

Given these realities, why won’t our, ahem, leaders reach some agreements at Friday’s meeting?

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, is head of the House Education Finance Committee and one of the most passionate supporters of public education in the state.

She believes the meeting will end up being only about “winning political points.”

What Rep. Greiling expects to happen
Greiling is not afraid to call ’em as she sees ’em. And here’s her take on the state’s top political leaders:

–The governor “just wants to cut and shift into the future” so he can maintain his solid no-taxes footing with the conservative base of his party.

–While the governor plays to his base, Greiling believes her own party’s leaders, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, “like the limelight and will try to score political points against Pawlenty.”

Taken a step further, the script for the meeting will go something like this, according to Greiling:

Pawlenty will say that the Legislature should accept his unilateral shift because that maneuver even showed up in the balanced budget the Legislature came up with at the end of session, a budget package vetoed by the governor.

But that’s a classic case of cherry-picking by the governor, according to Greiling. Yes, the legislative budget did include the shifts, but it also included tax increases that would have helped balance not only the current biennium budget, but future state budgets, which show the state’s financial problems getting only worse.

From her view, the leadership, especially Pogemiller, won’t make any deals with the governor until Pawlenty at least acknowledges that the $1.8 billion “shift” is actually an education spending “cut” in its current form.

Meanwhile, she expects the governor to continue bashing local levels of government — in this case, school boards — for continuing to give even minuscule pay increases to teachers. “They must not need the money if they have enough to give raises,” Pawlenty is fond of saying.

Kyte points out, however, that some local teacher unions, such as the one in the massive Anoka-Hennepin County district, did accept a freeze in an effort to preserve jobs.

Though nothing substantive is expected to happen Friday, the shift problem likely will end up being solved by the legislative body as a whole.

Additionally, look for legislators of both parties to seek meaningful reforms that will help at least diminish the budget woes. It looks, though, as if the solutions may not come from the so-called leaders, who seem to be too busy trying to score political points to make a difference.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Colleen Morse on 01/07/2010 - 08:32 am.

    Our educational system, which used to be among the best in the nation, is now failing because of Pawlenty. How will our children compete in a global society without the education that all kids so desperately need? This is exactly why we need a DFL governor. Mark Dayton has promised to increase K-12 school funding for every year that he is governor. If our schools don’t get the money to run themselves, we will have larger and larger classroom sizes, the teachers will be more and more stressed and the kids won’t be able to learn. Is this really what we as a state want? Already there are schools going to four days a week in Minnesota because they can’t afford to be open five days. I can’t believe this is happening in Minnesota!

  2. Submitted by Dave Thul on 01/07/2010 - 08:56 am.

    ‘Photo illustration’? Is that the new term for photo-shopping?

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 01/07/2010 - 02:11 pm.

    What does our class think of the new St. Paul contract? Please discuss. New ideas are especially welcome and will get extra credit.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/07/2010 - 03:05 pm.

    The repeated cry for “more money for education continues.” The largest special interest group in the state will not be satisfied with “cuts” while most everyone else faces real cuts.

    I can not wait to hear the cry when Obama taxes their high cost health insurance plans. However, maybe they “invested” enough money with the Dems to avoid such a tax.

  5. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 01/07/2010 - 03:16 pm.

    To Colleen Morse: I agree with you wholeheartedly. It feels more like Mississippi every day.
    I think all elected officials should be required to spend at least 2 weeks in public schools, observing or possibly even teaching. A week at each level. Or perhaps sitting in the childrens’ seats for a change.

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/07/2010 - 07:02 pm.

    I believe that the Anoka-Hennepin freeze does allow “step and lane” increases, and maybe even an increase in the second year if I recall correctly.

    Also, I believe K-12 escaped the “cuts” in the last budget, but with another shortfall coming it is unlikely that such a large part of the State budget can remain untouched.

    This will be an excellent chance for the gubernatorial candidates to show their leadership by providing their solutions prior to the upcoming legislative session. Firm, dollar figure, tax increase, spending cut figures.

  7. Submitted by Eric Andersen on 01/07/2010 - 07:43 pm.

    Minnesota took American Recovery and Reinvestment Act(ARRA) funds last spring. One of the stipulations of taking those funds requires Minnesota to fund K-12 education at least at 2006 levels for 2009, 2010, 2011.

    To be in compliance with the stipulations in ARRA Minnesota would have to increase K-12 funding from current levels. In addition, I doubt the Feds will look to kindly on the ‘delay of payment’ idea that Pawlenty is going to try to ratify. All of Pawlenty’s ‘bright ideas’ are going to end up causing Minnesota lose a big chunk of stimulus money. Then we will really be in trouble.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/07/2010 - 07:59 pm.

    Our education system in Minnesota was in bad shape well before Mr. Pawlenty declined to live on Summit Ave. That’s not to say that he’s done anything to significantly advance the cause of education, however, in the Legislature or as governor. Then again, I don’t have the answer either.

    I do know that teacher pay is a far more complicated matter than most people seem to think it is. Step and lane increases, for example, are contractual matters of long-standing and considered (by teachers, at least) as something far different than simply keeping pace with inflation. In theory, they are intended to compensate for increased experience and expertise, particularly when tied to obtaining advanced degrees and otherwise improving one’s skills.

    Charter schools have their own problems, one of which is only now coming to light: the potential to Balkanize the education system, permitting those of a certain political/cultural/religious background to further divorce themselves from the community at large. When one of the 8 hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as based in MN sets up its first charter school, you’ll see what I mean. For a list of those groups, see

  9. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 01/07/2010 - 10:54 pm.

    What a waste of time! Another monetary meeting that will be political theater with all the usual malarkey and malevolence. Nothing will be accomplished but more political hot air expended at the Capitol!

    The governor will fire the first volley of political potshots with his Friday radio show. Then with everyone worked-up then the political principals will meet and waste the day arguing, posturing, and rehashing what we have heard for months about the state budget. If anyone has any breakthrough ideas or the chutzpah to get them in motion it will be a political miracle.

    If the participants can not lock themselves in the Capital conference room and not come out until a workable solution and budget proposal is drafted then why have the meeting at all? Otherwise, it’s business as usual for MN milquetoast politics.

    There is no plausible excuse that should be acceptable for canceling this meeting except why have it all if nothing will be accomplished? Not even a MN snowstorm should stop this conference!!!

    Our children’s educations are at stake. It seems like the MN political establishment has forgotten about them with all the inane bologna expended lately!

  10. Submitted by Tom Horner on 01/08/2010 - 09:12 am.

    I understand that in today’s crisis environment, the best we can hope for is bailing water. But isn’t today’s “discussion” exactly the problem on education and other issues? One side comes to the table locked into its tax-cutting constituency and says the problem is wasteful public schools and the other side, beholded to Education Minnesota, says the schools are starving for funds so do more of the same at a higher cost. The reality is that those arguments miss the point — more or less funding won’t fix a school structure that is outdated. We have students ill-prepared for school when they enter kindergarten and ill-prepared for life when they leave 12th grade. Minnesota needs to throw out the entire system and start investing in an early childhood – grade 14 system; pay the best teachers professional wages, but don’t be forced to pay bad teachers a cent; and, look beyond the four walls of the schools to elevate the importance of education and family participation in all communities.

  11. Submitted by dan buechler on 01/08/2010 - 03:52 pm.

    Thank you commentators I will have to give out at least 5 extra credit points but not one politically doable idea in the bunch (at least in regards to St. Paul’s $27 million in the hole).

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