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N.D. Lawmakers Put Dibs on Leftover School Funds

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A state budget surplus is usually good news. But in North Dakota, where lawmakers are debating how to spend $3.8 million of leftover education funds, no one is celebrating yet.

The money came from overestimates of student enrollment, which did not meet the forecasts set by state officials. In fact, enrollment this year dropped throughout the state, creating a much larger surplus than normal.

While the Republican-controlled House education committee originally recommended that the money be distributed to schools right away in form of per-student aid, others are pushing to hold on to it until the next two-year budget cycle, which begins July 1.

And some legislators are also leaning toward using the funds to upgrade school technology instead of allocating it to districts through the state's school funding formula.

"A lot of the schools are crying for that," Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, the chairwoman of the House education committee, said of technology aid. "While we may have the computers for our kids, they are not updated."

Ms. Kelsch added that it's now highly unlikely that the money could be spent by schools before the current budget year ends.

"Some superintendents are calling us and saying, 'That was our money,'" she said. "But everybody got the money they were supposed to get."

Rich Ott, the executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, sees the situation differently. "Those of us close to the front lines feel we need this money this year. We want it now."

Increase Proposed

As part of his budget proposal for fiscal 1998 and fiscal 1999, Republican Gov. Edward T. Schafer has asked the legislature for a $40 million increase in education spending, which includes an additional $15 million in basic aid.

It's most likely, Ms. Kelsch said, that this year's $3.8 million surplus will be added on top of the governor's recommended education budget.

Even though state education officials would prefer the money to be sent to schools immediately, they would be glad to see it if it materializes in the next budget. But they are now arguing that it needs to remain an addition to Mr. Schafer's requested increase--not part of it.

"As long as it's earmarked for education, and there is a guarantee that it's added to the governor's budget, then we're OK with that," said Sandy Paulson, the director of fiscal management for the state education department. "My biggest fear is that they will see it as funds that will replace some of those in the governor's budget."

Ms. Kelsch predicted that a vote in the House probably would not be scheduled for several weeks. But she said that lawmakers are not seriously tempted to absorb the money into the state budget.

"Give it back to the kids," Ms. Kelsch said. "Let them have the money."

In the meantime, at least a slice of the surplus--$425,000--will definitely go to schools. It will be used to reimburse districts that didn't receive their anticipated state aid when enrollment dipped.

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