Schools ready for budget blows

Extracurricular busing, school choice among cuts

When the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) school board voted Feb. 26 to approve more than $30 million in budget cuts for the upcoming school year, district budget director Marj Rolland said she began panting.

"I was having this horrible asthma attack," Rolland said. "I kept using my inhaler, and I couldn’t get it under control."

Two weeks after the board vote, Rolland and many others in the district – staff, parents and students alike – are still trying to catch their collective breath.

Rising expenses, insufficient state funding and declining enrollment projections mean that MPS must reduce its nearly $700-million general operating budget by almost five percent for the 2002-2003 school year.

The cuts, which include at least 70 district staff positions and 203 teaching positions, significantly reduce the level of school choice and transportation options offered by the district.

Class sizes will not be increased by one student, a controversial option that would have reversed a 2001 referendum promise to keep class sizes small; however, the district will save $3.2 million by increasing 3rd-grade class sizes, currently averaging 15 students per teacher, to the referendum level of 25 students per teacher.

Perhaps most important for Southwest Minneapolis schools, the board voted to reduce school per capita funding by at least $2.5 million (and up to $4 million, if necessary), which means that schools will have fewer flexible dollars to fill in and round out their curricula.

Superintendent Carol Johnson, who recently announced that she would not accept the $30,000 raise the school board approved in December, said that there were no easy choices.

"Every single student and staff member will be touched by these cuts," she said.

The school board will finalize the budget in late June. And, although principals and school site councils do not begin working on their individual budgets until later this month when they receive their school allocations, many are already bracing themselves for the negative impacts of the budget cuts.

On the heels of last year’s $25-million shortfall in state educational funding, Rolland added, this year’s reductions will be especially painful.

Fewer flexible dollars Barton parent Frank Hornstein knows the school board did its best under trying circumstances, but he said the decrease in per capita funding would have a disproportionately negative effect on Southwest-area schools.

"We had to go through a very wrenching process last spring with budget cuts, and there’s nothing left to cut," Hornstein said. "Does this mean that we don’t have a social worker, does it mean we don’t have a bands and strings program, does it mean that kids won’t be supervised effectively because we’re cutting educational assistants?"

Because Southwest Minneapolis schools do not have as many students who live in poverty, they receive fewer Title I and compensatory education dollars than other city schools. Schools like Barton and Kenny rely more heavily on per capita funding for their discretionary, or flexible, dollars than schools like Lyndale and Whittier, which have a higher number of students who receive free and reduced lunches. Flexible dollars can be used for any number of things, from supplies to school counselors to educational assistants.

Hornstein, a member of the Barton site council and Southwest Minneapolis’ representative to the Met Council, said he and several concerned parents on site councils of various other Southwest schools, including Armatage, Kenny and Windom, have formed an ad-hoc group to ask the board to increase the flexible dollars available to schools.

Instead of reducing individual school budgets, Hornstein said, why not decrease the amount of money spent on testing and evaluation?

"Our kindergarteners are tested three times a year," he said. "It is the pedagogic value of such frequent testing and the political agenda behind it that we are questioning.

"Any budgeting process – whether it’s a family sitting around the table or a public body like the School Board or even the Met Council for that matter – is a statement of policy. This isn’t simply a budget question. It is a statement of priorities."

Fewer buses, more walking To offset rising transportation costs, the board voted to cut the amount of

district-wide transportation available to families by eliminating after-school nonacademic buses, increasing the walking distance for high school students from 1.5 miles to 2 miles and significantly reducing school choice.

The loss of high school athletic practice buses is particularly hard for Southwest-area high schools like Washburn, South and Southwest because they offer so many sports that practice off-site, said Washburn athletic director Dan Pratt.

At Washburn alone, hockey is practiced at Victory Memorial Ice Arena and Parade Ice Garden, cross-country skiing at Wirth Park and 9th-grade football at McCrae Park.

"And sports like soccer, softball and baseball are off-site not just for Washburn but for all schools," Pratt said. "We don’t have the facilities like they do in the suburbs – the 18 fields and all that stuff coming out of our ears."

Washburn principal Steve Couture said he is afraid that the elimination of athletic buses will drive students away from city schools.

"My fear is that with open enrollment, you can lose kids who want to participate in sports to the suburban schools," Couture said. "You might save $450,000 on the buses, but how much do you lose in terms of revenue?"

Liability may also an issue, Couture added. "Being an administrator, the other piece of it for me is I worry about the

liability of kids safely getting to practice on their own."

Pratt said he fears the worst. "I’m not a lawyer," he said. "But, if they’re going to save $450,000 for buses and you have one multi-million-dollar lawsuit, we’re going to look like idiots."

Currently, district officials are trying to find a way to reinstate the buses, said district athletic director John Washington.

"We’re just trying to find out other means by which we can generate funds or some way for the schools to still have buses for their practices," Washington said.

Pratt said he hopes the buses are reinstated, but not at the expense of school athletic budgets.

"Now if the board’s intention is to

pass that cost on to us with our measly little budgets – and that was kind of the sense I got last year – well, it puts us in a real bad spot because now we have to choose between uniforms, paying game workers and covering ourselves liability-wise," Pratt said.

Less school choices

In addition to cutting after-school buses to help decrease transportation costs, the district is also taking steps to reduce school choice. More than 4,000 students currently attending school outside their designated attendance area, except for those attending citywide magnets, will be reassigned to their area community or magnet school.

Students whose parents can provide transportation will not have to change schools – a fact that is causing consternation among some district observers who say that poorer students, whose families do not have the time or the means to provide rides to and from school or to and from athletic practice, are being disproportionately affected by the transportation cuts.

East Area Superintendent Birch Jones said the district works hard to level the playing field among all the city schools, but he acknowledged that some of the "budget cuts might disproportionately affect

poor families."

"One could argue that increasing

the distance two miles might have an adverse affect on poorer students, especially when the weather is inclement," Jones said. "Families with resources might have a better opportunity to get their kids to school than those poorer families."

Along the same lines, Jones said that remanding students back to their community schools, save those whose families can provide transportation, "might have an adverse affect on students of color."

District officials say they are currently studying the full impact of reducing school choice.

"The district, working with limited resources, is going to have to make some hard decisions about choice and community schools," Jones said. "We just can’t continue to be all things to all people and that’s part of what choice tries to do."

It could get worse…

…before it gets better. The state budget bill recently passed by the Legislature to address an almost $2-billion shortfall included significant cuts for K-12 education, and with last month’s revenue forecast predicting an additional $439-million deficit in the current biennium, additional cuts in education are possible.

Rolland said that the district is looking at ways to trim an additional $5 million from its budget and that there might be more cuts before the budget is finalized by the school board in June.

"It’s really depressing because you think you have the most noble cause of mankind here, you know?" Rolland said. "Sometimes, I wish we could just put on rose-colored glasses for just the day and pretend like we’ve solved everything."