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Commentary: Students deserve access to topnotch education

Little more than six weeks into the 2008 legislative session, it's clear that we're on track to have one of the most productive sessions in years. We've already passed a comprehensive transportation bill and a new tax conformity bill that lets Mi...

Little more than six weeks into the 2008 legislative session, it's clear that we're on track to have one of the most productive sessions in years. We've already passed a comprehensive transportation bill and a new tax conformity bill that lets Minnesotans take advantage of recent changes to the federal tax code.

We've introduced initiatives to create and stimulate a "green economy" that could bring hundreds of good jobs to northern Minnesota, and we're working proposals to stem the tide of home foreclosures across Minnesota.

As we reconvened after the traditional Easter recess, we'll be turning our attention to finalizing the bonding bill and solving the state's $1 billion budget deficit.

One of the first things that nearly every one, including the governor, agreed to when the scope of the deficit became clear is that despite being the primary area of the state budget, Minnesota can't afford to take classroom money away from schools as part of any budget fix.

The governor and House Republicans tried that in 2003, and schools are still trying to get out of that hole. Last year, the Legislature provided an additional $800 million to help schools start to dig out of that hole, but still, years of under-funding, budget cuts, declining enrollment, unfunded mandates and an increased reliance on voter approved levies has left a looming funding gap not fully met by last year's increase.

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In fact, the House has introduced an innovative plan that would actually give a small boost to schools by shoring up school funding for the coming year. The proposal would provide every school district in the state with additional one-time state education aid for 2009.

The money -- which doesn't rely on any tax increases -- would make use of unused Q-Comp funds, state budget reserves and would use the governor's recommendation to cut 4 percent from the agency budget at the state Department of Education. Districts would get a $51 increase per student, distributed equally and across the board to every district in the state. Districts would also have the opportunity to transfer an additional $51 per student from their capital budget reserve account to their general operating fund to address critical needs.

If this new supplemental budget initiative becomes law, Park Rapids schools would gain nearly $95,000 in additional state aid; Bemidji schools would get over $272,000; Bagley over $60,000; Kelliher over $14,000; Red Lake more than $77,000; Goodridge over $11,500 and Blackduck over $38,000.

All together, schools in House 2B would receive over a half million dollars in additional state aid and have the opportunity to do a one-time only transfer.

By no means is this a comprehensive education-funding bill. Rather it's short-term relief to help schools keep their heads above water -- because clearly we can't keep relying on escalating property taxes to carry the main load.

In the midst of a budget deficit, the Legislature faces difficult decisions, and budget cuts will certainly have to be made in some areas. But even in times of economic downturn, children still come to school to learn. Northern Minnesota students deserve access to a top-notch education no matter the economic forecast, because they only get one shot at a good academic foundation.

By protecting the gains we made to dig schools out of the hole last year and shoring up funding for the coming year, we can lay a foundation to move forward with real education funding reform next year.

Creating a fair system of education funding will take hard work, creativity and a solid commitment to progress. But the results will be worth it if we're serious about creating world-class students for the 21st century workforce and retaining Minnesota's status an a national leader in education.

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Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, is a member of the Minnesota House.

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