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Budget foulup puts SW schools through wringer

Posted by: Steve Brandt under People and neighborhoods, Politics and government 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)

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