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West central Minn. school officials pleased with court ruling, waiting to see what next state budget brings

Area school officials were pleased Wednesday when a judge ordered the state to continue funding public schools, even in the event of a state government shutdown.

Before the ruling, schools had thought they may need to borrow money to meet their obligations this summer.

With the payments assured for now, they are waiting to see how a final budget agreement might affect education funding for the next two years.

After ending the legislative session without a workable budget agreement, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders continued negotiating into the evening Thursday. They met off and on all day in an effort to cut a deal to continue funding state government when the new fiscal year began at midnight.

Schools received their reprieve from District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin, who ruled that public schools are a core state function and must continue to receive funding at current levels.

Gearin looked to the Minnesota Constitution in her ruling. It requires the state to provide "a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state" and to provide adequate funding.

"I think all of us are certainly celebrating that decision," said MACCRAY Superintendent Greg Schmidt on Thursday.

MACCRAY probably won't have to borrow money this summer, he added. "We just want to make sure the money that's owed us is paid to us."

The district has been able to control its expenses in recent years and has enough reserves to maintain cash flow, he said.

"My hope was that was how they would rule, but you never know," said Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. "We were all set to borrow."

Still, the delay in settling a new two-year state budget has made it difficult to prepare for the fall levy vote planned in Willmar. The district plans to ask voters to replace an operating levy that will expire at the end of the year.

The School Board can still set the amount of the levy and develop the wording for the fall ballot at its July meeting, "even though we may not know what the financial impact will be," Kjergaard said. It could be longer before voters receive the usual information about how a new levy would affect property taxes. Those calculations use information from the state.

While the delays have been frustrating, "I don't think it will help us or hurt us," Kjergaard added.

Montevideo Schools should be able to get through the summer and fall without having to borrow, too, said Superintendent Luther Heller.

While he is still waiting to see what impact a final budget deal will have, "things aren't quite as dire as they could have been," he said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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