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At session's end, education-funding questions remain

It's looking like the local school district will get about half the money from the state government that administrators had hoped for, at least if a preliminary budget deal legislators worked out on Sunday passes.

Reports on negotiations between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders indicate that all sides have agreed on spending $800 million in new funding for public schools, which includes a 4-percent increase in per-pupil funding in each of the next two years. About $86 million in incentive funding for merit-based teacher pay is also included in the deal.

The district had hoped for an 8-percent increase next year, followed by 2-percent increases in the years following. That funding level would have prevented the district from making additional budget cuts next year, said Ray Queener, the district's finance director.

"It looks like there's some increased revenue for us, but exactly what that net gain is I can't tell you," he said. "It appears that the formula increased by 4 percent, as reported in the papers, but that does not equate to 4-percent revenue growth." The district obtains about 60 percent of its revenue from per-pupil funding.

Once a final education bill is passed, district staff will spend about two weeks combing through its likely 100-page length before they fully understand its effects, Queener said.

"We see pieces played out in the headlines that indicate some things plus on one side or negative on the other," Queener said. "But there's always a lot of details and we don't know specifics for ... [and] that will take time."

An earlier-proposed Senate package would have increased the basic per-pupil state aid formula by 5 percent in 2006 and 4 percent in 2007, while increasing special-education funding and providing districts with new money for staff development. A House plan would have raised the basic per-pupil state aid formula by 3 percent in 2006 and 3.1 percent in 2007. Gov. Tim Pawlenty had proposed 2.5-percent annual increases to the basic formula.

This spring, the School Board approved a more than $70 million budget that included $4 million in cuts that included the loss of 13 tenured teachers and 51 paraprofessionals, a transition from a trimester to a semester system at the high school, and the elimination of free busing for students living within two miles of their schools. It was the fifth consecutive year the School Board had enacted cuts.

For more information about the district budget, see:

Mark Brouwer is at 651-439-4366 and at