District modifying budget cuts after board vote

Minneapolis Public Schools

Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff and his team are working to modify their proposed $33 million in budget cuts for 2018–2019, after the School Board voted April 10 to restore $6.4 million in funding for middle and high schools.

Graff wrote in a letter to staff on April 11 that his senior leadership team was working to make $6.4 million in cuts to programs and services funded out of the district’s central office. He wrote that the district would have to review spending decisions for at least 16 schools and potentially undo staffing decisions made at school sites.

“This will be a difficult process, as I firmly believe the budgets submitted to the Board were intentional, equity-focused and built to maintain maximum supports to schools and students,” he wrote.

The district will need to make and communicate all decisions by April 20, Graff wrote.

The letter came a day after the School Board voted 5-4 to restore the time-adjustment funding, which the district gives to middle and high schools on a per pupil basis to add time to the school day. Supporters of the resolution said before its passage that middle and high schools faced disproportionate budget cuts that would leave some schools unable to operate. Opponents said it would be a continuance of poor budgeting practices and jeopardize other district programs and services, such as athletics and the Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

“To me, we’re basically saying this line item is the most important thing in the budget,” board treasurer Jenny Arneson said at the April 10 meeting. “I don’t think that’s really a good way to budget or govern.”

The board took up the resolution in March after advocacy from several high school communities who were set to see large budget cuts, notably that of Washburn High School. The district cut Washburn’s total 2018-19 budget about 13.3 percent, or $1.7 million, driven largely by a $787,000 cut in time-adjustment funding and a $410,000 cut in federal Title I money. The school’s allocation also dropped because of enrollment projections and a district decision to withhold compensatory funding to pay for English learning programming, among other reasons.

Because of the budget cuts, Washburn eliminated the equivalent of about nine full-time teaching and 18 full-time non-classroom staff positions, including multiple counselor, dean and security positions. Staff and parents said they worried how Principal Rhonda Dean would be able to run her school.

“No other school is suffering anything like this impact,” Washburn site council member and parent David Genrich told the School Board on March 13.

The district restored $241,800 in Washburn’s Title I funding in early April, bringing the school’s total budget cut down to about $1.45 million. But Washburn community members continued to advocate for restoring the time-adjustment funding at the School Board meeting on April 10. They said the loss of the support-staff positions would hurt the school and would be too much for it to handle.

“These staff are the backbone of our school, and we cannot survive as a school if these cuts happen,” one student said.

Members of other high school communities also advocated for increasing their funding during the meeting. Students and teachers at Patrick Henry, which faced a $1.9 million cut, said their school stood to have increased class sizes, fewer course offerings and fewer counselors. Students at Roosevelt said their school stood to lose its Spanish language heritage program.

“We want a balanced budget just as much as you do, but not at the expense of student opportunities,” said Alison Criss, an English teacher at FAIR High School, which was set to see a 21.1 percent budget cut. “Just because you can end this debt in one year doesn’t mean that you should.”

Graff said he recognized the challenge that schools face with the budget cuts and took note of what the district’s budget does provide, such as fully funded English language services and literacy support. He said the cuts were the beginning of significant and important changes the way MPS conducts business.

“We are attempting to make progress and head in a direction that will better serve our students and our community for many years to come,” he said.

The board voted to restore the time-adjustment funding, despite concerns from Graff and multiple board members about paying for it. The resolution does not allow the district to make additional cuts to schools or lower its reserve funds beyond current levels, which means the cuts have to come out of the district’s central office.

Graff wrote that the district might reduce funding for centrally funded services such as transportation, athletics, custodial support, placement, payroll, curriculum and instruction and safety and security. He added that the resolution would delay the district’s ability to finalize the budget.

The resolution could also complicate contract negotiations between the bargaining units with which the district has not finalized a contract agreement. The district came to an agreement with the teacher’s union in March, which will increase total teacher pay by about 2 percent.

Shaun Laden, president of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Local 59 Educational Support Professionals, said in a letter that the resolution would put “downward pressure” on his union’s negotiations with the district.

In a letter to her members, teachers union president Michelle Wiese said she hoped the district was willing to listen to some of the money saving proposals her union offered during its negotiations. Those could include reductions in testing, a reduction in instructional specialist positions or, as a last resort, reducing the number of school days, she wrote.

Visit mpls.k12.mn.us/mps_budget to learn more about the district’s budget recommendations and budgeting process.