What’s making news in Minneapolis, reported by the Star Tribune’s team of city reporters. Send news tips to baird.helgeson@startribune.com.

District focuses spending on academic needs

Posted by: Steve Brandt under People and neighborhoods, Politics and government Updated: June 10, 2014 - 8:25 PM

Minneapolis schools will increase spending by 6.3 percent in the budget year starting July 1, with major chunks going for lower class sizes in the district’s worst-performing schools, to expand specialized classrooms for recent immigrants and to build the district’s math and reading teaching.

The district plans to spend $775 million overall, or $46.5 million more than this year.  Much of that increase will go toward a building program aimed at kickstarting the district’s five-year plan to expand  or remodel buildings to hand more than 3,000 expected additional students.

In the core general fund that most directly affects classrooms and students, spending is up by $8.8 million or 3.1 percent, to $543 million. The board approved the budget unanimously, but for one absence.

One $2 million chunk is designed to lower K-3 class sizes in seven low-performing schools to 18 students per classroom. That’s a goal set in recent union negotiations but research suggests it’s not low enough to nudge student achievement upward on its own. The affected schools are Bethune, Lind, Laney, Hall, Hmong International, Green Central and Sheridan. There’s another $3 million reserved for putting out fires on class size bulges that often arise when students actually show up in August.  

Another $1.5 million will go toward added classrooms at Andersen and Sullivan schools to teach recent-arrival Somali immigrants, $3.5 million is to make sure all schools have at least a minimal program for students learning English, while another onetime sum of up to $5 million was added from budget reserves at the last minute for redesigned programs for students learning English.

That latter addition provoked some board discussion about how transparent such last-minute spending pushes are. The money will be used for such purposes as changes in assessing the skill levels of newcomer enrollees, and potentially to encourage teachers to add training in working with such students to their current teaching licenses.

“There were some issues we needed to address immediately; we couldn’t wait,” said board member Alberto Monserrate. But board member Josh Reimnitz said he’s concerned about how the last-minute addition occurred, and Tracine Asberry raised similar questions.  But Rebecca Gagnon said the change moves the district can respond quickly to community concerns.  Robert Doty, who heads district finances, said he’ll work to manage spending to attempt to offset what otherwise throws the district into an unbalanced budget.

The district is also committing more money to places where previous investments have paid off.  Those include the AVID program that attempts to prepare students on the cusp of being able to go to college to have a better chance to succeed, the Check & Connect program to reduce dropouts, and more money for engineering, math and science promotion programs.

There’s $9.2 million for specialists in math and reading who will both teach in classrooms alongside teachers, demonstrate added techniques and help schools raise their performance in these areas. That’s an approach the district used previously but let drop for several years in the case of reading.

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