Budget concerns draw a crowd
School officials: Rochester schools in good positionto weather state'seconomic downturn
By Matthew Stolle
A standing-room-only crowd of educators and residents gathered Thursday night to hear Rochester-area legislators discuss Minnesota's fiscal problems and how they might affect public schools.
State Sens. Sheila Kiscaden and Kenric Scheevel and Reps. Fran Bradley and Bill Kuisle attended.
Gov. Jesse Ventura has proposed a mixture of budget-cutting measures to deal with the state's projected $1.9 billion shortfall, including eliminating the sales-tax exemption that school districts now have.
Ventura has said his measures would have minimal impact on K-12 education. But during the forum, Kiscaden said that's debatable. A sales tax on school purchases would translate into $50 per student in reduced state aid. That's on top of a loss of $20 per pupil for Rochester from other cuts proposed by Ventura.
Kuisle said the current political climate favors public schools.
"People don't want to touch K-12 education," he said, although he thinks there will be some nicks to school budgets.
Legislators praised the Rochester district and teachers union for reaching a structurally balanced settlement last fall, setting a pattern for the rest of the state.
School officials say the agreement, combined with $9.2 million in budget cuts enacted last year, puts the district in a good position to weather the state's fiscal downturn.
Indeed, Rochester would remain structurally balanced through the current biennium even if Ventura's plan takes effect. Rochester would lose about $300,000 in state aid this year and next, officials say. But those losses would be absorbed by a $1.4 million reserve fund established by the district.
Scheevel said he will take a two-tiered approached to the budget deficit. Districts that havehonored the structural balance law should be rewarded by the state, he said.
If there have to be cuts, "then I think they have to be directed toward districts that have not shown that commitment to the state's desire," he said.
He said the Legislature needs to act "judiciously," given the possibility the state's fiscal forecast could be off. He said he's already hearing that the recession is cycling through faster than once thought.
Scheevel also suggested a state hiring freeze would be preferable to cuts and that legislators should consider tapping into the $1.3 billion tobacco-settlement fund to deal with the deficit.
Kuisle said balancing the budget in the current biennium is a fairly easy task.
Kuisle also said budget projections the Legislature gets from economic advisers tend to be wrong.