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Too much money for pre-K?

This was the year when the political stars were supposed to align for Minnesota schools.

A $2 billion surplus. A education-friendly governor. The legislative session had all the makings of a robust funding year for K-12 education.

But it hasn't turned out that way so far — at least in the eyes of area superintendents. Deep into the session, area school leaders and legislators are expressing frustration and dismay at the two-year funding packages being proposed in St. Paul. The GOP-led House is proposing 0.6 increase on the general education education formula in each year, the DFL-controlled Senate a pair of 1 percent increases.

"To me, it's just shocking," said Rep. Kim Norton, a Rochester Democrat. "People believe in a strong education system. It's what's kept Minnesota ahead of the pack for years. To have this kind of thing happen is inexplicable."

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has budgeted $700 million for K-12 education, twice the amount proposed by the Senate. Half of that amount would be spent on a school-based universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

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But area superintendents question making such a sizable investment in pre-K, especially with so many other pressing needs. After a decade of funding that failed to keep up with inflation, of budget cuts and reserve fund drawdowns, area leaders say they are looking to maintain what they have. The proposals coming out of the House and Senate wouldn't come close to doing that, they say.

"Both of them fall short of what we need to continue current programming," said Byron Superintendent Jeff Elstad. "With a $2 billion surplus, there's not a way for them to help us a little more?"

That leaves districts with limited options, superintendents say: Cut programs or turn to local taxpayers to keep the programs running.

"I think a fundamental part of the frustration is that it isn't really the job of the superintendent of schools to keep looking their taxpayers in the face and say, '(We) need to raise your taxes so we can address inflation,'" said Dover-Eyota Superintendent Bruce Klaehn.

Rochester Public Schools is a case in point. If the Senate's 1 percent-a-year funding proposal were to be adopted, Rochester schools still would be looking at an $8 million budget shortfall in 2016-17. With that bleak prospect before them, the Rochester School Board voted Tuesday to hold a levy referendum in November.

Superintendents prefer more dollars to be put in the general education funding formula because it allows districts to decide how best to spend those dollars. But too often state dollars come with strings attached, telling schools how to spend those dollars, local leaders say.

Elstad describes himself as a "firm believer" in early learning, but he questions making preschool universal or that "every district needs funding for preschool." Byron already has a preschool program in place that serves the community's needs.

One thing "no one is talking about," Elstad said, are the ancillary costs associated with Dayton's preschool program: Schools would need to buy more buses, create more bus routes, hire more teachers and find the space to house the program. When Dayton succeeded in funding all-day kindergarten in 2013, Rochester, for example, spent millions building additions to its elementary schools.

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"The biggest crunch for us is really space," Elstad said. "We're building a brand-new building, but nowhere in the planning was universal preschool ever discussed."

In a phone interview Thursday, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius vigorously defended Dayton's education budget and priorities. Rather than robbing Peter to pay Paul, as some critics allege, Cassellius said the governor's budget makes a critical investment in preschool while supporting current programs.

She noted his budget includes $40 million in special education funding in the second year. That investment will help districts, such as Rochester, whose special education programs have been chronically underfunded, forcing them to tap their general fund budgets to support special ed. And while it wouldn't eliminate that "cross subsidy," it would alleviate pressure on district budgets.

Dayton also proposes increases on the general education formula of 1.5 percent each year. Add in Dayton's dollars for special education, and districts like Rochester would see a 2.3 percent hike in funding the second year.

Cassellius also refuted the notion that universal preschool wouldn't be right for every school district. Research supports the claim that pre-K is good for children, she said. Eighty-one percent of students who go through preschool will arrive at school ready for kindergarten. That compares with 60 percent of children, including those from more affluent families, who don't have the benefit of pre-K.

Cassellius said she thinks superintendents critical of Dayton's plan are succumbing to a "false choice." When they saw the funding levels proposed by the House and Senate, they assumed they couldn't get behind Dayton's budget "because they wanted to see the targets raised."

Cassellius predicted district leaders will seize the opportunity to offer universal preschool under the right conditions, and Dayton was seeking to create those conditions.

"The reason that they've been coming up with these, 'Oh, I don't have the building. Oh, we're not ready to do it' is because they want the formula to be 3 percent. That's the argument," Cassellius said. "So everything else is off the table to them until they get 3 percent. But if you give them a reasonable increase in their bottom line, they are going to jump on pre-kindergarten."

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State Sen. Carla Nelson, a Rochester Republican, thinks Dayton's pre-K program will have troubles getting through the DFL-led Senate because even DFLers "are not really crazy about universal preschool." Some children are already in high quality pre-K, so the focus should be on those who can't attend because of cost.

She said she supported the governor's proposal last year to spend $90 million on early learning scholarships "because it works."

"One thing I've learned is that we are an incredibly diverse state in every sense of the word. Every school district is incredibly diverse, has different needs, different students," Nelson said. "So do I think that universal pre-K is an answer for everyone? That's just not accurate."

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