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Stimulus money may have drawbacks for area schools

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The federal stimulus package passed last month by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama looked to be a boon to area school districts on looking at the numbers alone.

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However, the money that schools may get could be significantly lower than initially estimated, because of the strings attached.

Construction money was cut off the final stimulus package, but school districts received a bump in Title I, which goes towards educating low-income students, and special education programs.

Detroit Lakes is slated to get $908,000, Frazee-Vergas's share could be $356,000, Lake Park-Audubon's is $205,000 and Waubun-Ogema-White Earth's take could be $321,000. Those numbers are estimates based on formulas for existing funding.

The catch to the money, especially with special education funding, is a requirement called maintenance of effort. In layman's terms, it means that schools have to spend at least as much on special education as they had in past years.

LP-A Superintendent Dale Hogie said that the stimulus process is frustrating.

"When they first talked about it, it would appear it would go in the way of construction," Hogie said. "Government facilities and schools were mentioned."

Now with the strings attached, schools will be stretched to spend all of the money that could be available.

Frazee-Vergas Superintendent Deron Stender said that there are some exceptions to maintenance of effort. Exceptions can be made for one-time spending for computers and other items. "We can't spend all of it on supplies and technology to get around the maintenance of effort issue," Stender added.

For Frazee-Vergas, the estimate for special education is $260,000. Stender said that's more than the annual special education budget for the district.

LP-A would run into those same maintenance of effort issues, Hogie said.

"You couldn't use it for current programs because it would establish a base for new expenditures," Hogie said.

Hogie said some his frustration is due to the fact that the stimulus grants are based on the size of the district and don't take individual needs into account.

He was hoping for some money to go to construction. It was his understanding that the construction money would go toward renovating buildings to save money on utility expenses down the line.

"It was for improving efficiencies and the coined phrase 'going green'," Hogie said.

Not wanting to criticize everything about education spending and how it relates to the stimulus, Hogie said he understands why the federal government decided to deliver stimulus dollars through Title I and education funding.

Those programs are already in place, and aren't blanket grants where there aren't conditions in place to make sure that stimulus money goes toward its intended purpose.

"They've don't want to just hand out money without any accountability," Hogie said. "They're stuck also."

Hogie said that what's being left out of the stimulus discussion is the funding that the state provides for education.

"The State Legislature and the governor of Minnesota couldn't even allow for inflationary increases," he said.

In Gov. Tim Pawlenty's original proposed budget, K-12 education spending would stay at this year's levels. But Hogie said that the new budget deficit figures released by the state last week that showed a drop in the deficit masked real problems.

Without the stimulus money factored in, the deficit would have soared to $6.4 billion. The deficit is now pegged at $4.57 billion, down from the predicted $4.85 billion that was released in November 2008.

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