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Schools cutting teacher jobs as debate over funding increase continues

The Minnesota Legislature is working out differences in the school funding bill in a conference committee.

Schools around the state have been forced to cut millions from their budgets due to reduced revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Public school districts have faced decreases in enrollment, funding losses and uncertainty about enrollment for the fall as they plan their budget this spring. 

And this week the state's teachers' union is publicizing the cuts districts have been forced to make as the Minnesota Legislature works to come to an agreement on the omnibus education finance bill. 

Education Minnesota said 92% of districts that responded to is survey will face deficits next year if the Minnesota Legislature doesn't approve an increase in the state's funding formula. 

Education funding bills

The Minnesota Legislature is working to iron out the differences in its school spending bills, which make up nearly half of the state's two-year budget. 

On Monday, the DFL-controlled House passed its version of $20.6 billion omnibus education bill, which includes a 2% increase to the school funding formula (an equation that sets the minimum level of state funding for school districts). 

According to the Minnesota Reformer, schools received $6,567 per student from the funding formula. With this bill, they would get $6,698 per student next year and $6,832 per student in 2021.

Democrats say the House bill will help schools address racial disparities and build back from the pandemic, while Republicans argue some of the provisions are too expensive and force too many regulations on schools struggling amid the pandemic.

“This is exactly why people hate bureaucracy, and they hate what we do down here,” Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said while arguing in favor of loosening substitute licensing requirements, according to the Reformer. “This is coming to us from local officials in the schools who know exactly what they’re asking for.”

The GOP-controlled Senate on Thursday passed its version of the bill. Republicans say it "fully funds K-12 schools and transforms the way the state delivers education." 

“Senate Republicans have made sure schools are fully funded every year we’ve had the majority, and this year will be no different,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes

“Between the huge influx of federal funding and state resources, total education spending will once again surpass record levels.”

The  GOP says the bill provides $54 million for safe school funding over the next two budget cycles, provides $23 million in 2022 for referendum equalization and prohibits "lunch shaming" and penalities when payment for school meals is overdue. 

But Senate Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said in a statement the bill "falls far short" and doesn't actually fully fund schools.

"The bill takes hundreds of millions of dollars out of public schools and shifts them towards private vouchers, and does nothing to help address the learning loss from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic," Wiger said.

Education Minnesota says the Senate's version of the bill will lead to additional budget cuts and teacher layoffs. 

One of the teachers who was recently laid off shared in a thread on Twitter the need to fully fund schools. 

Mark J. Westpfahl, a three-time Minnesota Teacher of the Year semifinalist, said a zero percent increase hurts education, noting in a thread that teachers throughout the pandemic have shown and told what learning has been like the past year have but have been "chided" for not doing enough for society. 

"By providing education with 0% increase in the budget — not even a cost of living/inflationary increase is more than a slap in the face. It is effectively saying, 'Screw you. We don't find you valuable enough, even though we claim that your school being in session is valuable,'" Westpfahl tweeted.

Westpfahl, who has served on the Board of Education, is asking lawmakers to have a conversation with teachers and education professionals by inviting them to share what is working and why in their experience, and what isn't working.

He notes he's tried to have these conversations with some Republican lawmakers but claims he's been "ignored."

Because the Senate and House have passed differing bills, a conference committee will convene in an attempt to work out the differences.

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