Minneapolis school budget back to drawing board

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2014 - 5:32 AM

District studying what metrics to use to divide funds between needy and more well-off schools.

The Minneapolis School District is moving toward a shift in how it divvies up at least $200 million of its budget, giving even more to struggling schools and less to those better off.

The effort to create equity among students would put more of the district’s dollars behind those learning English or fighting poverty. Unless the district finds additional dollars, that could mean funding cuts for some schools that lack sizable populations of students needing extra help.

The proposal poses some tough political choices. Several key board members say they’re committed to moving ahead with some form of the strategy, even though the schools hardest hit by any change would likely fall in southwest Minneapolis. That’s the area of the city that traditionally votes heaviest in school elections — and this is a school election year.

“Each year it gets tighter and tighter and there’s only so much you can do to tighten your belt,” Caroline Cochran, past co-chair of the site council at Lake Harriet Community School in the southwest area, said of the school’s budget. She’s concerned her school would be among the budgetary losers.

One recent funding scenario resulted in almost two-thirds of the district schools losing money. That scenario would have cost a school 18 percent in the most extreme case, while adding 20 percent at the most needy school. That scenario is likely to change in coming months as the district begins to discuss the approach more widely with parents.

Initially, the district is discussing buffering the hardest-hit schools by limiting their gain or loss to 5 percent, but then phasing that cap out after three to five years.

But school board Chair Richard Mammen called the strategy — known as weighted student funding — the best he’s aware of that “can actually bring equity to the district by focusing on students and having the money follow the students.”

The effort began in part as an attempt to bring greater transparency to how budgets for individual schools are set.

“Our system is not very predictable,” said Robert Doty, the district’s chief operating officer. “It’s based on a lot of interplay and inputs that are not very tangible.” For example, a principal facing a budget shortfall can be aggressive and pursue added resources.

Although the goal may be transparency, the process has lacked that quality. District officials have been meeting in private work-group sessions since last October with no general public involvement. Mammen and board members Carla Bates, Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon have been most involved. The groups have focused on such areas as special education, English learners, subsidized lunch and grade level, all potential areas for weighting.

For example, there are four levels of proficiency among English learners, and a school’s budget could be weighted according to whether it has a greater share of higher-cost, low-proficiency immigrants or whether more of its students are almost proficient in literacy and require less specialized help.

Gaining nationally

This weighting approach was pioneered in San Francisco, and Gagnon attended a conference this month in Chicago where about a dozen schools at various stages of moving toward weighted budgeting compared notes. Minneapolis already weights its spending to some degree, in part because the state puts substantial portions of school aid into specific programs rather than general aid. The district devotes substantial federal and state anti-poverty dollars to schools with more such students.

Gagnon, one of two board members up for re-election this year, defended the lack of public involvement to date in shaping the weighting of student funding.

“It was more about do we even know what we’re talking about, and do we understand the implications,” she said of the closed-door meetings at a time when the district touts community involvement.

Another question before the district is whether it sticks with its current practice for how to account for teacher costs when budgeting. Now, schools are assessed the average cost of a teacher districtwide in salary and benefits, rather the cost of the teachers who actually make up their staffs, who may be younger and cheaper or older and costlier than the district average. Because the gap between the highest and lowest-cost staffs in the district is more than $20,000 per teacher, using average costs tends to subsidize schools with senior staffs over those with younger faculty.

Could boost class sizes

Although weighted funding would work with either teacher-costing approach, the possibility of assessing schools for the actual costs of their teachers alarms people such as Cochran, who said it could add $300,000 to her school’s costs when it already is hard-pressed to keep current staffing. Parents there fear the only way to absorb such a cost would be to increase class sizes.

“We’re not arguing at all that the money should come to us at the expense of schools that have needs,” she said. But parents might send students elsewhere if class sizes rise too far. “I do think that families are going to be paying close attention,” she said. “I think that if class sizes increase dramatically, there would be some choices to be made.”

Losing families could also undercut support for voter renewal of the district’s excess levy referendum in 2016. But Bates asked why the district’s southwest schools can’t do well if the formula costs them money, suggesting that schools in nearby suburbs get good results with less money per student than Minneapolis.

Mammen said he thinks tighter budgets could create incentives for greater efficiency at some schools, and expressed dislike for comparisons of southwest against North Side schools under weighted funding.

“Pitting people against each other doesn’t help,” he said.

 

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtstrib

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