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Paynesville Press - November 30, 2005

Board discusses issues with legislators

By Michael Jacobson

The Paynesville Area School Board held a half-hour long discussion of school-related issues that could come before the next legislative session with Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) and Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph) on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

Starting with a recap of last year's session - concentrating on the result for schools (a four percent funding increase for 2005-06 and another four percent for 2006-07) rather than the contentious process and special session - the discussion ranged from the state's current budget situation to the possibility of emergency funding for fuel costs and more specific issues like Q comp and statewide insurance.

District #741 did approve a deficit budget last June before the session concluded and the additional funding for schools was secured, said superintendent Todd Burlingame, who noted that the district, now that it has most of its contracts settled, is now working on revising its budget.

While next year's session - which begins in March - is traditionally for bonding, the legislature usually has to approve a supplemental budget, too, noted Fischbach.

Right now, added Hosch, the state has received $800 million more than budgeted in tax revenue, mostly from corporate taxes, but this is offset by a ruling where the state owes a corporation $800 million for past taxes. If the economy remains strong, explained Hosch, subsequent budget forecasts could indicate a surplus.

Board chairman Allen Schmidt asked about funding with fuel costs so high and hitting all schools.

This has been done before, noted Fischbach.

In meetings with legislators, this has already gotten much discussion, added Hosch. He said he would like to link any aid to transportation sparsity. That is, the distance a district needs to cover to transport its students to school. This would benefit rural districts who have higher transportation costs, he explained.

Paynesville, like several other districts, tried to get special legislation last session to use a balance in its debt retirement fund for capital projects. Paynesville wanted to use this money to start replacing roofs, which are being patched but will eventually need to be replaced.

Fischbach said she thought these "fund transfers" had a better chance last session, but none were approved except for where the district sold property or buildings.

Currently, when the debt retirement fund has enough of a surplus, the next year's levy is reduced.

Fischbach said that for some reason these "fund transfers" appear as a budget expense to the state, which is why there is so much opposition to them. She said they did pass a change for new debt levies that will allow these "fund transfers," but these new levies won't have surpluses for years.

Hosch suggested that schools keep coming back as the committee and and legislature would eventually tire of hearing their requests.

Paynesville was interested in using these funds for roof replacement because their balance for capital expenditures is decreasing, in part due to declining enrollment.

The board and the legislators also discussed the possibility of statewide insurance for teachers and possible federal education cuts briefly.

Finally, they discussed Q comp, after being asked about it by Hosch.

Burlingame said they had looked at it during the recent teacher negotiations but had decided against it.

With only two years of funding for Q comp, said teacher Bill Brinkman, the chair of the teacher's negotiating committee, who was at the school board meeting, its future was too uncertain. If state funding for it ends in two years, who would pay the additional contract incentives?

Hosch noted that the sustainability of the program was still in question but said it was a significant incentive to districts. Currently, more schools than budgeted have signed up for the compensation package, meant to reward teachers for performance rather than the traditional years of service and education level. If the legislature spends more than the current $80 million on Q comp during the next session, that would be a strong message, said Hosch.

Board member Deb Glenz noted that she was surprised to see districts accomplishing Q comp in vastly different ways. One kept their current payscale and added Q comp basically as bonuses, and another basically rewrote their payscale.

Hosch agreed that the language is ambiguous, allowing districts to accomplish Q comp in different ways. Next year's session should give another clue to its longevity.

Next year, there are legislative elections, too, noted Fischbach.

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