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Minnesota school funding needs overhaul, official says

Duluth is far from the only school district in Minnesota facing hard financial times. According to a recent analysis conducted by Education Minnesota, at least 68 other districts are in a similar boat.

Duluth is far from the only school district in Minnesota facing hard financial times. According to a recent analysis conducted by Education Minnesota, at least 68 other districts are in a similar boat.

Tom Dooher, the president of the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota, discussed the problem at a news conference in Duluth on Thursday and urged community members to call their state representatives and advocate for school funding reform.

"The funding problem [in Minnesota] has dangled in the wind for years," Dooher said. "State funding simply has not kept up with inflation and the growing demands placed on K-12 education."

To highlight the scope of the issue, the organization contacted districts across the state and found a combined budget shortfall of at least$123 million for next year, Dooher said. Duluth is responsible for about $6 million of that number, leading the way for the highest deficit in Northeastern Minnesota; the regional shortfall is about $6.5 million.

Duluth's deficit trails only the Osseo, Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts.

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The Duluth School Board recently approved deep cuts to render the district's budget shortfall, including increasing class size by one student. Unless the state steps in, Dooher said those kinds of harsh realities will continue in Minnesota.

The solution needs to combine both short-term and long-term thinking, Dooher said. The Legislature already is working on implementing a one-time increase to the school funding formula for next year to bail out ailing districts. Dooher said the state should proceed with that initiative, but go a step further in the next legislative session and restructure the entire education formula. The initiative is being called the New Minnesota Miracle.

Ron Soberg, the legislative lobbyist for the Duluth school district, said making those kinds of changes in the near future probably will be an uphill battle, particularly when it comes to changing the school funding formula.

"I think that the concern is that there is no source of funding for the New Minnesota Miracle, which makes it kind of difficult to be confident that it will take place in the next session," Soberg said. He added that the one-time bump in funding for next year would require Gov. Tim Pawlenty to sign over leftover money from a teacher incentive program that he started a few years ago.

"That is the governor's favorite program, so it will be a hard sell," Soberg said.

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at shorner@duluthnews.com .

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