Washburn community rallies against budget cuts

Washburn High School
Washburn High School. File photo

Members of the Washburn High School community are rallying to increase the school’s funding for 2018-19, after Minneapolis Public Schools reduced the school’s budget by 13 percent as part of districtwide budget cuts.

Washburn parents and students are advocating to restore more than $1 million that the school has used to fund support-staff positions and a seven-period school day. They note how school eliminated the equivalent of more than two dozen positions, including one-third of its support-staff positions, in response to the budget cuts.

“The proposed cuts to Washburn don’t just compromise our classrooms, they put our kids at enormous risk,” Diana Benjaafar, a Washburn parent and site council co-chair, said in a press release. “The physical, mental, and emotional well-being of our kids is being threatened.”

The community action comes nearly a month after the Minneapolis district released its plan for addressing a projected $33 million deficit in its general operating fund for 2018-19. The district cut funding for both schools and departments and also implemented hiring restrictions for this year, bell-time changes and cellphone reductions, among other changes.

Its goal was to limit cuts to all school budgets combined to between 2.5 to 3 percent, though cuts varied from building to building.

Superintendent Ed Graff said at the School Board Finance Committee meeting this past Thursday that the district wants to ensure the deficit does not continue to carry forward. He also said the district wants to refocus its resources on its neediest schools while addressing learning environments in all schools.

“Trying to do what’s best for all students sometimes means that individuals are not going to get what they want,” Graff said. “It means that sometimes one or two school communities are more acutely impacted.”

He added that hearing from the public about concerns has allowed district leaders to reflect on their recommendations and the process they used to create them.

“The challenge is that you’re always learn from these situations, but it does not change where we are financially,” he said.

Members of the Washburn community packed the Finance Committee meeting along with students from Patrick Henry High School, which is also seeing a sizable budget cut. Several Washburn community members also spoke against the cuts in public comments to the School Board on March 13.

“No set of decisions that results in one school suffering a 13 percent cut, $1.6 million in one year, should be acceptable to this board or to the district even if each cut on its own can be defended, which these cannot,” Washburn site council member and parent David Genrich said.

Time adjustment, Title I changes

According to the district, Washburn lost some of its funding because of a projected decline in enrollment. But the school lost a majority of its funding, more than $1 million, because of the district’s decision to cut one source of funding for middle and high schools and reallocate another of Washburn’s funding sources.

Washburn lost about $787,000 in time-adjustment funding, which MPS distributes to all district middle and high schools to help cover the costs of a seven-period schedule. The district eliminated this funding to all middle and high schools for next year as part of its budget cuts, reducing expenses by $6.4 million.

Washburn also lost about $410,000 in federal Title I funding, which the district has provided to schools where at least 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. The district increased the threshold for Title I funding to 40 percent for next year, while Washburn’s projected free or reduced-priced lunch population remained around 37.5 percent.

In the press release, Washburn parent and site council co-chair Jeanne Massey said the elimination of the school’s Title I funding came without warning or engagement. She noted that Washburn was the only school to lose the funding.

Massey added that Washburn still will have over 600 kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch next year and noted that the school cut multiple support-staff positions because of the shift.

In an interview, Benjaafar said Washburn will have just 2.5 counselor positions for 1,635 students next year, adding the the school cut behavioral dean and social work and security staff positions, among others, in response to the budget cuts.

Benjaafar said staff members in those positions have relationships with students, noting as an example one staff member who works with Latino and East African families. She said that the work done in many of the support-staff positions cannot be transferred to somebody else, meaning it won’t get done.

“At this time, we’re losing staff that directly impact (students’) physical safety and their social and emotional well-being,” she said.

In an email, media relations coordinator Dirk Tedmon said the district has heard the concerns of the Washburn community and is looking at options to see what can be done to lessen the impact of budget cuts.

“Where we haven’t met our goals of transparency and limiting impacts to students as much as possible, we will explore ways to correct that,” he said.

Tedmon said the district reallocated Title I funding as part of its effort to direct its limited resources to schools with higher concentrations of poverty. Research shows that once a school population is composed of 50 percent or more of families in poverty, there is an impact on schoolwide achievement, Tedmon said.

He added that the district recognizes that the reallocation isn’t an easy change, especially when all students would benefit from the resources.

“However, we recognize the needs are different in a school population where the median family income is $15,000 versus one where it is $30,000 — even though both are well below the federal standard for poverty,” he wrote.

Tedmon said there are no discussions of restoring time-adjustment funding at this time, adding that it would be unfair to only restore this funding at one school.

Resolution on time adjustment

In addition to speaking out, Washburn parents sent a resolution to School Board members recommending the district restore the $6.4 million in time-adjustment funding and not make any additional cuts to school budgets. Board Member Rebecca Gagnon introduced the resolution at the board meeting on March 13, suggesting the district use its reserves, also known as fund balance, to alleviate some of the cuts.

Gagnon recognized that the board has said it’s not interested in dipping further into the fund balance, as recommended by Graff and his team. The district’s fund balance has dropped below the level allowed by board policy, after the district used some reserves to cover a budget deficit last year.

But Gagnon said she thinks the budget cuts could drive families away from MPS and jeopardize its chances of passing a pair of referendums this November. The district would receive $30 million annually from the referendums starting in 2019-20 if the voters approve them.

Board members Kim Ellison, KerryJo Felder and Ira Jourdain said they would also be willing to use reserves to alleviate some of the cuts.

Board members Jenny Arneson and Don Samuels spoke against the use of reserves, stressing a need for the district to spend within its means. Arneson, the board treasurer, noted that district leaders have been clear about a need to decrease expenses and added that the district needs to be fiscally responsible. 

“It feels like we’re reacting here, and I think that that’s just not something I want to stand for,” Arneson said.

Arneson added that she’s troubled when she gets emails from people threatening to work to defeat the referendum because they don’t like the allocations, a sentiment Samuels and board chairman Nelson Inz also voiced.

“We have to resist the urge to say, ‘I need mine, I need mine, I need mine,'” Inz said. “… We have to make an effort to work collaboratively together to solve these problems when it’s the hardest for us to do it.”

Chief Financial Officer Ibrahima Diop cautioned the School Board against using fund balance, noting his department’s work to rebuild the reserves several years ago. Tapping reserves to balance the budget “means that we’re going back to business as usual,” he said.

Fund balance explanation

The School Board did not take action on the Washburn resolution on March 13. This past Thursday, Diop provided the School Board Finance Committee with more information on fund balance. He said that fund balance should allow a district to cover six weeks of salary payments in the case of a government shutdown but that MPS currently has enough to cover payments for about two weeks.

“As the chief financial officer of the district, I cannot take that lightly,” he said.

Diop also noted that fund balance factors into the district’s ability to sell bonds to finance capital projects, the debts for which it pays off with property tax revenue. A low fund balance would force the district to pay a premium to sell its bonds, leading to a higher property tax levy.

Diop also ran through projections showing that the district would likely go into statutory operating debt by 2020-21 if it does not reduce its expenses. He added that he’s confident that the proposed 2018-19 budget is an accurate reflection of the district’s revenue and expenses after Inz asked about previous mid-year shortfalls and budgets that failed to account for expenses.

Graff later noted the district’s work on a comprehensive assessment of its programs and services when Board Member Bob Walser asked what the district is doing to increase enrollment. He said the district will be looking at its vision for MPS graduates as part of the assessment, adding that he would encourage the community to think about a strategic plan.

Graff and Diop also outlined allocations to the district’s central office, which received $5.2 million less in funding and also had to absorb about $6 million in salary and benefits increases.

Arneson closed the meeting by saying that education is underfunded at the state level, noting how the district spends $56 million a year out of its operating fund to cover special education costs. That includes $22 million on students not attending school in the district.

“It is really important that we come together as a city, because we should be outraged as a city,” she said of special education underfunding.

To correct that, “it will take not just us in this room, not just even people elected from Minneapolis, but it will take people elected from throughout the state,” she said.