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District sends corrected budget splits to schools

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 26, 2014 - 9:26 PM

Minneapolis' public schools sent corrected budget figures to 69 district schools on Tuesday following a foulup in earlier figures that severely shorted what the district said was about a dozen southwest schools.

The district didn't announce that it had released the new allocations for next school year until late Wednesday, a day later. Spokeswoman Rachel Hicks called it "reasonable" to give principals a look first.

Officials said that 59 of 69 schools will get increases in their discretionary spending compared to the current school year. Ten schools will get less money.

The allocations were sent to schools, but the district didn't post them on its web site.  However, the district did release the revamped discretionary portions of school budgets Wednesday evening in response to a Star Tribune request.  Those numbers do not include portions of school budgets which must be spent for designated purposes.

The district said that the revised allocations provide almost $8 million more to schools than those released earlier this month. That will be welcome news for the schools where parents complained loudly that the figures they had earlier been given wouldn't cover basic needs.

The latest budget figures are still preliminary and subject to revision before the board adopts a budget in June for the 2014-2015 school year in June. Area superintendents will still be working with principals to determine if they need additional money for unfunded needs from a discretionary pot. One prime use for preliminary budgets is deciding whether a school will release or add teachers and other staff for the coming year.

"I acknowledge and apologize that this budget process has been challenging and confusing." Chief Operating Officer Robert Doty (pictured) said in a public letter.     

Among the sites projected to get less discretionary money overall are Olson and Anthony middle schools, and Transition Plus, a program for older special education students. All three are projected to enroll fewer students. Getting less on a per-pupil basis were Dowling, Emerson, Northrop, Waite Park, Edison and North's Arts and Communication Academy, all of which are projected to add students.

Budget foulup puts SW schools through wringer

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 24, 2014 - 9:01 PM

A budget foulup has snarled the annual process of divvying money for the next school year among Minneapolis schools, already a time fraught with difficult decisions over whether schools will have enough money to keep their current staffs.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson Monday apologized to families in the southwestern portion of the city, saying “we acknowledge that some mistakes occurred” in the initial allocations. The snafu significantly shorted about a dozen southwest schools.

Johnson’s letter came after parents at several southwest schools – Lake Harriet, Burroughs and Hale – complained vociferously on Friday and over the weekend that initial allocations left the schools unable to fund current staffs.

Parents at Hale elementary were told of a 12 percent budget cut after district finance officials earlier told school board members that money flowing to all schools would be up 5.8 percent. Burroughs elementary parents were warned of the school’s worst budget cut in memory by PTA leaders who said the school’s allotment would leave it without a full time secretary, a health assistant, remedial teachers, lunch and recess monitors and testing or web site coordinators.

District spokesman Stan Alleyne said Monday night that the mistakes involved about a dozen schools. He said it was unclear if the mistakes were caused by an incorrect formula, data-entry problems or another cause. The erroneous allocations were reminiscent of a 2011 mistake that the district blamed on a clerical error that underestimated the cost of a new teacher contract by $3.7 million.

 “We’re still looking into it. We know that some of the numbers are off,” Alleyne said. “In some cases, it was significant enough that it was obvious it was wrong,” he said.

District finance officials met Monday with area principals. One principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were told that the budgets were “full of glitches, errors and mistakes. Our response was that was not acceptable; staff and families had great angst last week.”

The allocations are preliminary figures that are used to develop school-level budgets that then guide personnel decisions. Principals then typically meet with area superintendents to make the case for more money; some $5 million was added atop early budgets a year ago. Some staff then are told they won’t have positions, which forces them to seek positions at other schools if they have sufficient seniority.

The district has been telling schools that they’ll have a significant increase in their budgets for next school year, which made the cuts experienced by the affected schools all the more puzzling to parents.  It also turns out that some of the increase is simply moving to the school level money for such things as a principal’s salary that doesn’t increase the discretionary money that schools have for positions, programs or supplies. The 2013 Legislature raised the basic per-pupil amount for the next school year by 9.5 percent.

The budgeting error comes atop a year that has featured an unusual degree of secretiveness over basic budget matters.  For example, more than two weeks after a two-page summary of the proposed budget

was presented to the board’s Finance Committee, the district has not responded substantively to a Star Tribune request to clarify the document.  Nor has the district released publicly a set of school-level allocations 10 days after they were given to principals; some parents were circulating sets of numbers obtained surreptitiously. Johnson Monday cited a figure of $336 million for spending by schools, up $4 million from the figure given to the board two weeks ago, without explanation.

School board Chairman Richard Mammen referred Star Tribune inquiries about budget issues to Finance Committee Chair Rebecca Gagnon, who did not respond to a request for further explanation. Gagnon is seeking re-election this year.

(Photos: above right--Bernadeia Johnson; below right--Rebecca Gagnon)

How does your MPS faculty rank for experience?

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 24, 2014 - 11:34 AM

So maybe you’re curious after Sunday’s article focused on the concentration of inexperience in high-poverty Minneapolis elementary schools about how the school that serves your children or neighborhood stacks up.

The entire list of schools used in the analysis appears below.  Average teacher experience in 2007-2008 and the current school year are shown, along with the percent of lower-income children in each year

eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The 2007-2008 year was the last before the district negotiated a new protocol for interviewing teachers for vacancies that undercut the dominance of seniority in determining which teachers were interviewed for vacancies.

The data used in the analysis is published by the Minnesota Department of Education and appears in the staffing demographics section of the data reports and analysis portion of the department’s web site.

The Star Tribune analysis excluded schools that had a major disruption during the period covered that could have artificially influenced staffing.  Those factors include the fresh-starting of schools, the introduction of new program types, or the reopening of a school. For example, Pierre Bottineau French Immersion school is only in its second year, which accounts for its two-year average for teacher experience. Ramsey switched from a K-8 to a middle school, and Folwell switched in the opposite direction.

Most of the low-seniority schools are high in poverty, and most of the high-seniority schools are below the district average for poverty. But there are exceptions. For example, Pillsbury in northeast Minneapolis is almost 89 percent poor, but its staff average is still 16 years, or three above the district average.  But Principal Laura Cavender said that her school’s population dominated by students learning English brings a different type of poverty – she calls it situational – than the generational poverty she encountered in stints at North Side schools.

District-wide, the biggest of the five-year brackets for teacher experience is teaching sin their first five years, at 30 percent of all district teachers. The next biggest is teachers with between 16 and 20 years on the job, at 20 percent.  The smaller brackets for teachers between 6 and 15 years represents the impacts of layoffs during the period when the district was shrinking between 1998 and 2010.  

Some schools have faculties much better balanced by experience levels than others.  Some examples include South High School, Seward, Folwell, Marcy, Armatage, Sullivan, Johnson and Anwatin.  

Hey, buddy, want to buy a bridge?

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 19, 2014 - 10:02 AM

It’s 89 years old, it’s decrepit and it’s fracture critical, but hey—you could be the lucky owner of the St. Anthony Parkway Bridge.

The city of Minneapolis is accepting proposals to buy the bridge through April 30, according to a notice published this week in the State Register.

But there are catches. You have to buy the whole bridge, not one of its five deteriorating trusses. And you have to reassemble it somewhere else for transportation purposes.

Still, the Minneapolis equivalent of selling the Brooklyn Bridge isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.  There are other examples of bridge reuse around the city.

For example, a century-old span of the old Broadway Avenue Bridge was floated down the river’s East Channel in 1987 to connect S.E. Main Street with Nicollet Island.  Portions of the deck of the old Lowry Avenue Bridge comprise part of the wall around the city’s public works complex on Hiawatha Avenue.

Some bridges get reused in place.  For example, the Stone Arch Bridge and Bridge 9 in the central riverfront were converted from rail to bike and pedestrian use in 1994 and 2000 respectively.

The St. Anthony Parkway bridge consists of five through trusses on concrete piers.  The trusses are

fracture critical, which means they’re constructed so that if one key component of a truss fails, the entire truss goes down. The bridge is already heavily restricted for the weight of loads that are allowed to cross it, and even its sidewalks are restricted. It’s rated two on a bridge inspection scale of 100, making it the worst bridge still in use in Hennepin County.

It needs to be removed because a new bridge is being planned for the site. Construction could begin this fall.  But taking it apart won’t be easy—the bridge spans an active railyard of 24 tracks. But that worked in the city’s favor when it came to getting state help for the new bridge. After trying unsuccessfully for several sessions to gain state aid, the city switched from calling it the St. Anthony Parkway Bridge to the Northtown Rail Bridge, which apparently swayed legislators.

Northtown rail bridge readied for construction

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: February 25, 2014 - 4:09 PM

It looks like northeast Minneapolis is on the verge of getting a long-awaited new bridge.

Here’s a look at the proposed design for the long-planned replacement of the St. Anthony Parkway Bridge over the Northtown Yard.

Construction is expected to start next fall or early 2015 on the new bridge, which has a $30 million project cost, all but $1 million of it funded.  It will be wider than the current span, and the project will include upgrading two nearby streets.

The city has been working since the late 1980s to replace the fracture-critical 1925 bridge that scores only two points on a bridge evaluation index of 100 possible. That’s the worst rating in Hennepin County.  It also has weight restrictions, and even the sidewalk that serves adjoining Park Board bike and walking paths has been restricted.

Public Works representatives described the bridge's engineering to the council as innovative but so far have not responded to further inquiries by the Star Tribune to explain why.

The project is complicated by crossing a railyard of 24 tracks, and the railroad's request that it be limited to two piers, according to Public Works staff.  One of the three spans will be a 305-foot truss that visually echoes the five-truss design that makes the old bridge distinctive.

The location of the bridge on the Grand Rounds parkway system and over the rail yard, both considered eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, complicated the design process.  There were lengthy consultations with federal and state agencies, which combine for about half of the project's funding, and a series of community meetings.   .

The parkway nearby carries several thousand vehicles per day. The new bridge will have a 14-foot traffic lane in each direction, a 14-foot trail space on the south side, and a 10-foot sidewalk on the north side.

The project also includes realignment where California and Main Streets SE connect with the bridge approaches to improve visibility for drivers.  Both streets are to be rebuilt, with California going from an oiled-dirt road without curb or gutter to a modern street.    

The proposed replacement was presented to the City Council in committee Tuesday.

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