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Published September 12 2010

School districts planning for federal funds

Local school districts are scrambling to plan for the influx of hundreds of thousands in federal dollars.

They are poised to get the money courtesy of the $11 billion Education Jobs Fund, a package Congress approved last month to help keep, restore or create jobs for teachers and other school employees.

Figuring out how to spend it sounds like an enjoyable mission, but some school leaders are holding back. Hiring new teachers now that the school year is under way can be a hassle. There’s also the question of what would happen with the new hires next year when the funding runs out.

The Moorhead School District, however, sprang to action and restored several positions wiped out by the budget cuts of 2009.

“We were able to pull it off,” Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said, but cautioned, “This is one-time money that does little to address the long-term financial predicament we are facing.”

Minnesota will get $167 million out of the fund; North Dakota will receive about $11 million. Districts can spend the money to retain existing employees, recall workers they’ve laid off or create new positions. The Obama administration predicts the fund will save 160,000 jobs nationally.

In North Dakota, districts are calling the Department of Public Instruction with two questions – “How much money?” and “When?” – said spokeswoman Kathy Dorgan.

“We don’t have any information about how much money we’ll be getting and what we can do with it,” said Heather Leas, executive assistant at the West Fargo School District.

Rick Buresh, the Fargo superintendent, said he’d be reluctant to undertake new hiring weeks into the school year. He hopes his district can tap the money for pension benefit obligations, which last year cost more than $4.5 million.

“In Minnesota, there’ve been a lot of jobs at stake,” he said. “North Dakota hasn’t had that kind of experience.”

Minnesota has already tentatively allocated the money, which districts should start receiving within a month. But school officials are sheepish about committing the funds yet.

“When we see it, and it’s here, and we actually have it, we’ll believe it,” said Tamara Uselman, the Perham-Dent superintendent, who worries the state’s gaping budget deficit could swallow some of the funds.

Other leaders have lingering questions about what strings are attached.

“Until we know exactly what we can do with it, we don’t want to do anything,” said Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Superintendent Randy Bruer.

And, with class schedules in place, says Pelican Rapids Superintendent Deb Wanek, “To go through the hiring process in November just puts everything in such havoc.”

Most importantly, for many districts, budget cuts are looming in the next school year, and officials hope they can hang on to the funds to ward those off.

Tom Dooher, head of Education Minnesota, the teachers union, urges districts to act now.

“It’s not too late to hire teachers this year and help students get more individual attention in the classroom,” said Dooher, who estimated more than 2,000 Minnesota teachers have lost their jobs in the past two years.

Kazmierczak said Moorhead acted swiftly to restore the equivalent of 5.25 teaching positions in the weeks after Congress passed the fund legislation. The district is using about $325,000 of more than $1.1 million for a fourth-grade teacher, a middle school math teacher, and math, science and English teachers at the high school.

If a November levy referendum passes, the district, which has grappled with high class sizes since the 2009 cuts, might hire more teachers. If it doesn’t pass, the district will let the new hires go at the end of the year and use the remainder of the money to forestall layoffs.

Jeff Offutt, president of the Moorhead teachers union, welcomed the hires: “We’re really in favor of more people being able to work with the kids.”

In Perham, Uselman would like to restore the 3.5 full-time positions the district cut this year, driving some high school classes to more than 40 students. Still, saving the money is tempting, she said: “We have another long, hard year ahead.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529