Schools notebook: District weighs options for budget deficit

Updated: March 22, 2017 - 3:00 pm

Minneapolis Public Schools administrators are grappling with a projected $28-million budget deficit for the 2017–2018 school year.

The district is projecting enrollment and revenue will remain flat while the costs of operations increase. Education is consistently underfunded at the state and federal levels, leaders say, forcing the district to subsidize its special education and English language learner programs.

“We definitely understand these are difficult conversations that we’re having right now,” Superintendent Ed Graff said, noting that the parents and community members have shown a lot of passion for district schools.

“These are people who care deeply about their children’s education, and any time you have that, that’s a good thing,” Graff said.

Graff and district leaders have prioritized keeping class sizes down after committing to using referendum funds for that purpose. That has forced them to propose cuts to discretionary funds that schools receive and cuts to the district’s central services such as food service, finance and accounting and human resources.

The proposed 2017–2018 budget includes a 2.5-percent reduction to the discretionary funds schools receive per student, although those schools with enrollments of less than 250 received will receive subsidies. The district has also proposed a 10-percent cut to its central-services budget.

Graff said at a March 15 School Board Finance Committee meeting that the 10-percent cut could include a reduction of human resources specialists and potential cuts to middle and high school athletics. The district is also considering merging offices and adjusting bell times, a change that would create more efficiency with busing.

The district is looking to use $21 million of its reserves to help pay for the deficit. Leaders are projecting that would lower district reserves to about $26 million from $47 million — which would result in a decrease to the district’s bond rating, according to Chief Financial Officer Ibrahima Diop.

School Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon praised the budget process at the March 15 meeting for being more transparent than it’s been in a long time. But Gagnon expressed concerns about the district’s enrollment projections, noting some schools have consistently had projections lower than reality.

School leaders across the district have been grappling with proposed cuts since the initial budgets came out March 1. For principals, it’s been a process that has included getting feedback from site councils and teachers as they prepared to submit their budgets later this month.

At Clara Barton Open School, a budget task force had been meeting every night 
in the week after the district sent the initial budget allocation. Barton’s proposed allocation for 2017–2018 was about $5.1 million, an increase of $121,000 over 2016–2017, but higher salary averages meant the school was facing a reduction in discretionary funds.

Barton and schools across Minneapolis will no longer receive allocations from the district for a math or literacy specialist. Barton’s leaders were deciding between funding band and orchestra to the same level they had this year, funding math support and funding an academic interventionist.

Schools across the district were facing similar dilemmas. Kenney Community School, for example, was preparing to lose about $105,000 in discretionary funding.

Principal Bill Gibbs said band comes up as a budget dilemma, since it would take about $19,000 to fund the teaching position at this school year’s level.

Gibbs said earlier this month he still hadn’t figured out how he would pull off the school’s Reading Corps program, which places AmeriCorps members in schools as literacy tutors. He said the school didn’t have the money to fund an internal coach, something that’s required of schools with the program.

Lake Harriet Lower School Principal Merry Tilleson was facing similar cuts to discretionary positions, including to a full-time social worker and associate educators who worked with individual grades. She said safety becomes a concern when staffing is pared down this much, adding that the school’s budget is as skinny as it can get.

The district’s finance and human resources departments are scheduled
 to review the school budgets from March 24 through the latter half of April. The district will complete final budget work over the next two months, including the process of interviewing and selecting teachers.

The district budget will be presented to the School Board on May 23, and the board will vote on the budget on June 6.

Integration budget, three-year integration plan passes

The Minneapolis School Board on March 14 approved a three-year plan for the district’s achievement and integration program. It also approved the program’s budget for the 2017–2018 school year.

The board voted 5-2 with one abstention to approve the plan and the $15.6 million budget for the state-funded program, which aims to pursue integration, increase student achievement and create equitable educational opportunities.

State rules require the program to work toward goals such as ensuring improving graduation rates, kindergarten readiness and racial and economic achievement
gaps. Districts must use 80 percent of the funds for direct student services, and they cannot use funds to supplant positions and programs, such as classroom teachers or special education services.

The money in MPS will help fund more than 20 programs and services next school year, including AVID, the district’s teacher-residency program and magnet school transportation. The plan also includes
 $2 million for direct support at racially identifiable schools, or buildings where the percentage of students of color is 20 percentage points higher than the district average.

The budget makes several reductions, including cuts of $600,000 for AVID and $350,000 for a program to re-engage students in their education, called Check & Connect.

The district had planned to cut $1.6 million for AVID next year but added $1 million back to the program. Multiple students testified in support of AVID at the March 14 School Board meeting.

The budget also cuts funding for Urban Debate League and a program called Jobs for America’s Graduates that tries to prevent student dropouts.

Magnet school transportation received the biggest funding boost, going to more than $3.8 million in 2017–2018 from $1.5 million this year. The budget also included more than $1 million for “multi-tiered systems of support” and multi-cultural curriculum and materials as well as more than $600,000 for the Office of Integration & Innovation.

Superintendent Ed Graff said March 14 that the district gave stronger support for programs that have shown success through data. Graff said the district is working
to balance its capacity for supporting students without moving too quickly.

Board Member Kerry Jo Felder, who represents North Minneapolis, voted against the budget. She advocated for more funds going toward North Side schools, adding that she feels like North Minneapolis kids are being left behind.

Board Member Ira Jourdain, who represents most of Southwest, also voted against the budget. He said he felt like the integration budget was getting rid of safety-net programs such as School Within a School, which provides support to students before they fail a course.

The integration budget provided $200,000 for School Within a School this school year but does not allocate any funding
for the program in 2017–2018. Chief of Schools Michael Thomas said on March 14 that the $200,000 was for a one-time technology purchase and that the funding for the program will still exist at the high school level.

Board Member Bob Walser, who represents Southwest neighborhoods such as Bryn Mawr, Lowry Hill and Kenwood as well as Downtown, said he did not get his questions about the budget answered until a few days before the March 14 meeting.

“That does not put me in a positions where I feel I can honorably do the job I was elected to do,” said Walser, who abstained from the vote.

Graff said the district is looking to and other organizations that could help support programs such as Urban Debate League as MPS grapples with its budget deficit.