School budgets: back to basics

Southwest schools find creative solutions for the fifth year of budget cuts

When Minneapolis Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Marj Rolland presents her districtwide budget to the School Board, she typically sets it to music, according to a theme. Her first soundtrack was "I Can See Clearly Now" (the rain is gone).

This year, Rolland decided not to use "Chain, Chain, Chain" – meant to invoke a five-year string of district budget cuts totaling over $130 million. She figured that politicians might misinterpret to whom the "chain of fools" referred.

Instead, Rolland went music-free as she explained how Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) managed the deep cuts. This year’s total budget of $629.5 million, including a $416.9 million operating budget, is 4.3 percent smaller than last year, a reduction of $24 million.

The culprits include state appropriations that lag behind rising operating costs, unfunded mandates and slipping enrollment (see sidebar, page 29).

The district closed $14.5 million of the gap by raising class sizes by four students in every grade level. This year, kindergarten through 2nd grade classes will have 26 kids, 3rd-8th grade classes will have 32 students and high schools will have 34 kids per class.

Larger classes place a greater burden on teachers and compromise their one-on-one time with students. That’s the major problem Southwest schools have tried to minimize this summer as they applied district allocations to their individual budgets.

Like a giant game of Stratego, schools reconfigured programs, services and staff to concentrate on the basics. Some programs and positions were slashed, while they adapted others conceptually (or financially).

Teachers aren’t the only ones multi-tasking and expected to do more. Even principals – some of whom split their time among multiple schools – can be found accomplishing clerical tasks once relegated to now-absent office workers. Understaffed offices also add to teachers’ workloads.

Districtwide, MPS cut 499 teachers, which includes 219 tenured teachers, 280 non-tenured teachers. Another 71 teachers were moved to different schools, a process called realignment.

Additionally, MPS slimmed down its administration. The district’s central office at 807 Broadway Ave. NE was condensed and restructured for $2 million in savings.

At Whittier, principal-stretching

At Whittier School for the Arts, 2620 Grand Ave., there are 56 more kids this year (from 282 to 338) – but $140,000 less in the budget. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that we’d have more students and less money," Principal Armando Camacho declared.

After this year’s special legislative session, Whittier received $31,000 of the district’s $3 million windfall, reducing the K-5 school’s lost funding to $109,000, about a 5 percent budget cut. The late state funds meant Whittier could buy more assistant teacher hours, beef up educational assistant (EA) hours and hire a bilingual aide to support literacy and math, Camacho said.

At the same time, Whittier lost its Catalyst program that helps teach gifted-and-talented students – though it was a tradeoff for the school’s high-profile addition of an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, funded by a large grant. Camacho said IB’s arrival could compensate for Catalyst’s loss.

The school cut its full-time arts coordinator; another teacher picked up those duties less than half-time. Camacho fills in some of those duties, too, working with organizations that help with Whittier programming, such as MacPhail Center for Music, 1128 LaSalle Ave. and the Children’s Theatre, 2400 3rd Ave. S.

Because Camacho lost the intern principal he’s had for seven years, he must spend less time trying to build financial and program support with other community groups.

Camacho and his staff might be providing a perverse lesson in budget-cutting: despite funding drops, test scores were high enough that Whittier left state and federal "No Child Left Behind" watch lists this summer. Where the school once faced dwindling enrollment, it now has waiting lists for some classes, Camacho notes.

At Armatage/Kenny, staff jugglers

Camacho isn’t the only principal juggling a mish-mash of responsibilities. Joan Franks runs two Southwest schools – Armatage, 2501 W. 56th St. and Kenny, 5720 Emerson Ave. S. Franks previously had a secretary at each school. This year, a single secretary will hop between locations, just as she does.

Franks maintained, "The job still has to get done. Someone has to pick up those extra pieces."

Franks also cut transportation, social workers, EAs and other office workers. As a result, remaining staff works longer days and on the weekends for no more money. However, Franks was still optimistic about her and others’ jobs: "Our goal is to have kids never feel the impact of budget cuts. I think we’ve done that."

In Bryn Mawr, teachers first

One way some schools keep the cuts distant from the kids is by cutting support staff. Parkview Montessori and Bryn Mawr Community School, which share their 252 Upton Ave. S. building, do everything they can to keep licensed teachers in the classroom to counteract rising class size, Parkview/Bryn Mawr Principal Joy Blanchard said.

Blanchard, who added Bryn Mawr to her duties this summer, was only involved in Parkview’s budget process. However, she observed that Bryn Mawr’s budgeting goals centered on paying for as many licensed teachers as possible, both classroom teachers and curriculum resource teachers, as opposed to educational assisstants.

Resource workers in areas such as media are licensed teachers, while educational assistants aren’t (although some new EAs were hired). Blanchard said Parkview developed a similar plan with state and federal anti-poverty funds directed toward hiring and keeping classroom teachers.

However, since Bryn Mawr is a traditional public school and Parkview is a Montessori, the schools took a different approach to how they leveraged staff responsibilities and hours.

For example, Parkview teachers rotate on a three-day schedule (kids see a different teacher every third day). Its media worker helps students with research, reading and writing. In contrast, Bryn Mawr teachers keep their same class through the week, and resource specialists might work with kids with different needs, including students in special education or those who need help with math and reading.

At Lake Harriet, GT rules

At Lake Harriet Community School’s Lower Campus, 4030 Chowen Ave. S. and Upper Campus, 4912 Vincent Ave. S. Principal Marsha Seltz said school officials were concerned about maintaining a well-rounded program.

For example, "The GT [gifted and talented] program is very important to this community," Seltz said.

In the spring, the GT staffer didn’t have as much time to devote to GT because of extra standardized-testing coordinator responsibilities. With Lake Harriet’s legislative bonus, Seltz will increase the staffer’s GT time while putting dollars back into the test-scores position. The balancing act also allowed her to increase kids’ computer time.

Lake Harriet did take some cuts; the lower campus lost a couple of teachers due to low seniority, and Seltz also cut a part-time test coordinator to fund a classroom reduction position. A math and reading resource position was also cut to reduce another classroom’s student-teacher ratio.

At Burroughs, an opportunity

Burroughs Community School, 1601 W. 50th St. cut its GT program because of budget constraints. But it was also an excuse to revamp the program, Principal Tim Cadotte said.

In GT’s place, Burroughs will offer daily advanced placement (AP) classes in reading and math. GT ran weekly, pulling out a small group of kids to learn higher-level, abstract concepts. In AP, kids stay in their regular class, but get higher-level lessons that are less abstract. For example, a 4th-grader may learn 6th-grade material.

Cadotte said AP transitions more smoothly to the counterpart program at Burroughs’ middle-school partner, Anthony, 5757 Irving Ave. S. "We made a big paradigm shift based on the budget and the need to serve the community. We’re really excited about this. I don’t think this is happening anywhere else in the district," Cadotte said.

That’s not the only thing that separates Burroughs from the rest. While enrollment plummets district-wide, Burroughs’ enrollment keeps going up.

The school moved into a new, larger building two years ago, and Cadotte said Burroughs has a planned growth pattern. If the district hadn’t increased class size, Burroughs would’ve hired more teachers this year, he noted.

Although the Burroughs’ quality has lured some Southwest students back from private schools, the main issue isn’t to beef up programs, just maintain them.

Cadotte said that the community – centered on the well-heeled Lynnhurst neighborhood – plays a significant role in subsidizing the budget.

"No longer are parents fund-raising for playground equipment; they’re paying for staff positions and textbooks," he noted. "If it weren’t for the generosity of parents, we wouldn’t be able to maintain current programs."

At Washburn and Ramsey, arts under the gun

Washburn High School parents rallied when they heard rumors that the music program might be on the chopping block.

A community fund-raising group called Millers Raising Dough started work over the summer. They still need to generate $80,000.

Principal Steve Couture said the school cut electives. Washburn, 201 W. 49th St., lost some sections and cut back in the vocational technical area. Washburn used federal Title 1 dollars to institute "skill-building" classes.

Ultimately, he said, staff size is similar to last year’s, but teachers’ emphasis was reorganized. For example, a former English teacher now teaches kids tools to pass Minnesota Basic Skills Test. Previously, Washburn hosted after-school intervention classes, but now, those are offered during the school day.

Students who might’ve taken an art elective are now signed up for a math intervention class, Couture said.

Also, "small learning communities" – designed to keep kids in smaller groups as they go through big high schools – became bigger.

Arts funding is even at risk at arts magnets. Ramsey International Fine Arts Principal Steve Norlin-Weaver said the 1 W. 49th St. school prioritized arts-program funding, reducing its strings program. Norlin-Weaver said that it’s a common misconception that an arts magnet received funding specifically for the arts. Like any other school, Ramsey continually reevaluates how much money to invest into basics such as reading.

Norlin-Weaver said the school also cut English-Language Learner hours and those of educational assistants.

At Southwest High, shifting electives

Southwest High School Principal Bill Smith said his school followed changes in the student body. Since there are more kids in grades 11-12 and fewer in grades 9-10, there are more electives in the upper grades. A declining English-Language Learner program that once had 500 kids now has 240.

Most departments at the 3414 W. 47th St. school lost a section. Southwest dropped two physical education and health classes and one science and math class.

Other programs shifted. Waning interest in industrial technology business courses paved the way for new industrial technology graphics classes. On the graphics track, computer-assisted design classes and photography were introduced.

Students who want the business or financial component can instead find it within the business program. Enrollment-driven decisions include more Japanese classes, but less Spanish.

Said Smith, "It’s been an emotionally draining summer. That doesn’t mean that bad decisions were made. That means that real decisions were made. That doesn’t make them good, either. We know we’ve made some real compromises to get here."

Smith said the larger story is about the quality of life people are willing to pay for, which he said extends to parks, safety and health, "Just fighting over limited dollars is not the issue. We can’t continue cuts. There was never fat in the system. We’re past fat. We’re giving away hearts and lungs."