As lawmakers haggle, faces behind education budget speak out in St. Paul


As Minnesota lawmakers announced a breakthrough in negotiations over the state’s E-12 education budget yesterday, the faces behind the financial figures – students, parents and teachers – rallied against staff and programming cuts in St. Paul.

“We cannot nickle and dime our kids’ future,” school board candidate Zuki Ellis, the parent of a first-grader in the St. Paul Public Schools, said. “There is no excuse for that when we’re talking about a $2 billion state budget surplus.”

St. Paul Federation of Teachers Local 28 organized the rally at St. Paul Central High School after the school district, like many across Minnesota, sent out pink slips to some teachers and paraprofessionals. Districts are stuck in the difficult position of planning for 2015-16 with limited information, as lawmakers continue to haggle over the education budget.

“Budget cuts mean less people to do the work, but it doesn’t reduce the work,” Obama Elementary Principal Adrain Pendleton said. “Already, budget cuts have resulted in difficult discussions with staff.”

Parents and students at the rally worried cuts would fall mostly on support staff who “help make learning easier and who love kids,” Central freshman Kadeane Smith said. “Teachers can’t be everywhere at once.”

Kirinda Anderson talked about the progress her child, a student at Wellstone Elementary, made after working with reading and math coaches – positions that are on potentially on the chopping block. “Why are programs being taken away that are proven to work for our children?” she asked.

Rep. John Lesch (speaking) was among the St. Paul DFLers who attended SPFT's rally. Seated are Reps. Carlos Mariani, Sheldon Johnson and Rena Moran.

Rep. John Lesch (speaking) was among the St. Paul DFLers who attended SPFT’s rally. Seated are Reps. Carlos Mariani, Sheldon Johnson and Rena Moran.

Anger-intervention counselors, English Language Learners teachers and other specialists also received pink slips, speakers at the rally said, and administrators warned that class sizes could go up without a meaningful increase in the school-funding formula. That news didn’t sit well with parents like Neha Lang.

“We wouldn’t ask a baker to make a cake without providing her with the necessary ingredients,” Lang said. “Yet every year public schools are asked to do more with less funding.”

With a $2 billion surplus, Lang added, “this is the moment we do not have to compromise on public school funding. We can invest in our kids.”

Several state lawmakers from St. Paul enjoyed a front-row seat at the rally inside Central’s auditorium. All pledged to sign onto a letter urging Gov. Mark Dayton to stand strong in his fight to fund universal pre-kindergarten programming and provide adequate funding for the state’s school districts.

“Not only do I stand with the governor,” Rep. Rena Moran told parents, teachers and students, “I stand with you.”

The tentative agreement reached by Gov. Dayton and legislative leaders – which likely will result in a special session in the coming days – will not fully fund statewide pre-K programming, Dayton’s top priority in 2015. The agreement does boost new E-12 spending by about $370 million, allowing for a 2 percent increase in the state’s per-pupil funding formula in each of the next two school years.

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