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School heads confused, relieved it's over

Kelliher School Supt. Tim Lutz1 / 3
Northome School Supt. Jerry Struss2 / 3
Blackduck School Supt. Bob Doetsch3 / 3

Superintendents of the three school districts in the Blackduck-Kelliher-Northome area appeared relieved that the legislative impasse had ended with schools emerging in relatively good shape.

"It doesn't seem catastrophic" said Dr. Jerry Struss, Northome's school head, as he summed up the legislature's final actions. Similar feelings were voiced by Kelliher's Tim Lutz and Blackduck's Bob Doetsch.

Earlier, as the legislature acted to solve a major chunk of the state government's budget shortfall by "borrowing" from school districts, district officials had expressed concern over what it might do to district budgets. The borrowing would have taken place by the state deferring aid payments to districts. Many districts would, as a result, have to borrow themselves to keep schools operating throughout the year.

School districts have been getting 70 percent of their aid payments in the fall and the remaining 30 percent at the end of the school year. Now the division will be 60-40.

In the 2010-11 school year, districts deemed not to need the portion due in the fall had the entire amount withheld till spring. Kelliher was in that category, but Lutz said the district was able to get by without borrowing. "Now with the change, it will be tight, but we won't know for sure (about borrowing) because we don't know what will happen with fuel prices, or even what kind of weather we'll have this winter."

The legislators and the governor reached agreement on an increase in the per pupil state support for students. The increase is based on factors including ages of students to reach the average payment. In Kelliher, Lutz expects an increase of between $12,000 to $13,000. Struss says the change in Northome could be between $18-20,000 this year. The biggest amount would be the $30,000 or so which Doetsch said Blackduck might get.

Each of the men pointed out that if districts have to borrow funds, that increase might just help pay the increased interest costs. "It won't all be gravy," one noted.

The three school officials were in agreement about another facet of what the legislature has done or, more accurately, how long it took for the stalemate to end.

"There are some good things in that bill," Doetsch said, to which Struss added "there are always some surprises, too." All agreed the full implications won't be known until they're had a chance "to read the fine print."

Doetsch, for example, noted that there's a change in the requirement about hiring a community education director where that program exists, as it does in Blackduck, and where his successor will have a different requirement.

Struss said a change removes a Jan. 15 penalty on hiring, another change alters rules on the use of staff development funds, while still other changes have been made in small schools programs. All three men voiced frustration with the delays schools face in decisions mandated by existing regulations, as well as new ones under the legislation signed by Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday.

"We're already running on a bare bones budget," said Lutz. "We've all stopped doing things we know we should be doing and been forced to cut programs we know we should have. My real worry is that having done that, can we ever get them back?"

Struss had another worry.

"The state is piling up debt. They're not just using that money from the schools, they're going to borrow another half-million or more by selling tobacco bonds. I wonder not when they'll pay back the schools, but if they'll decide in the future that they can't afford to at all. Then what will the schools do?"

Doetsch was optimistic; he felt the Blackduck schools shouldn't be too affected by what happened in St. Paul. Then he was informed of Struss's comment.

"There might be some good things in that bill," he said, adding though that if Jerry (Struss) has some worries, Doetsch does, too.