Schools notebook // Wage freeze

District budget counts on wage freeze

Minneapolis Public Schools will cut about 4 percent of positions and use a district-wide salary freeze to help close a budget shortfall of about $28 million for the 2009–2010 school year.

The School Board approved the budget at its meeting June 30, but the district still had to negotiate the salary freeze with its employee unions. And that was just one of the concerns highlighted by Peggy Ingison, the district’s chief financial officer, in presentation to the board a week earlier.

Ingison warned of a “lack of sustainability” in the budget, in part because federal economic stimulus dollars were used make up for what otherwise could have been a 9 percent cut in state education funding. The district is walking toward a funding “cliff” when federal stimulus dollars run out after two years, she said.

A delay in state funding created more uncertainty for the district. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed a shift in state payments to schools, so that nearly a third of the state funds due to schools over two years will not be released until the second year.

Ingison said the district likely would have to borrow “at least $10 million” sometime next spring to cover operating expenses while waiting for its state aid.

“When you’re borrowing money and paying interest just to make your payroll, that’s not a good thing from a financial perspective,” she said.

For several School Board members, Ingison’s presentation reinforced the importance of a district downsizing effort, known as Changing School Options.

“We have to get it exactly right with the Changing School Options, and we might need to think even a little bit deeper about how we right-size the platform we’re going to rest the new academic program on,” Board Member Chris Stewart said.

Added Board Chairman Tom Madden: “Anything that is unsustainable has to go away, in my opinion.”

Here’s a closer look at how the district cut $28 million:

— Salary and benefit freeze: $8 million
A pay freeze for the 2009–2010 school year still must be negotiated with various district unions. Superintendent Bill Green and his cabinet agreed in February to a 2 percent reduction in their salaries.

— 2008–2009 savings: $5.5 million
In December, the district stopped filling most positions outside of the classroom and managers were told to limit spending. The savings will be applied to the 2009–2010 budget.

— Use of funds designated for North Side Initiative: $2 million
Funds already earmarked to hold down class sizes in North Side schools will be used for that purpose.

— Various cuts: $13 million
Increases in funding to some departments and cuts to others — notably the Policy and Operations Division and special education programs — netted the district $13 million in savings for next school year.

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District makes small gains on state tests

Several Southwest schools were among the best performers in the district on the most recent round of state-mandated math and reading tests, the district reported July 1.

Still, data released by the Minnesota Department of Education showed the district, like the state as a whole, made only modest gains on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment–II (MCA-II) tests administered last school year.

In Minneapolis, the percentage of students deemed proficient in reading increased to 51 percent from 49 percent. The percentage of students deemed proficient in math increased to 43 percent from 41 percent.

“I’m using the word ‘incremental,’” David Heistad, the district’s director of research, evaluation and assessment, said. “It’s headed in the right direction, but it’s too slow.”

While the district inched toward improvement last year, Whittier International Elementary School sprinted. It posted a 14-point gain in reading proficiency (to 44 percent) and a 10-point gain in math proficiency (to 38 percent).

Southwest and Washburn high schools also made significant gains in reading proficiency, as did Windom Spanish Dual Immersion and Open School. Southwest showed above-average improvement in math proficiency along with Kenny and Bryn Mawr community schools.

Heistad said further analysis of the test results would give a better idea of just why those schools did so well on the latest tests. While the quality of teacher instruction is one major factor, so are changes in school demographics.

In Minneapolis, white students continually outperform students of color on state tests. Students who are poor or still learning English also tend to post lower scores.

“The trends, unfortunately, continue in terms of achievement gaps,” Heistad said. “Most of the gains were made by white, middle-class students, especially in math.”

After a few more weeks with the data, Heistad said he would be able to pinpoint the schools that were doing the best job at raising the test scores of demographic groups that typically struggle.

MCA–II results are used to determine which schools are making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The Department of Education was scheduled to release AYP information in August.