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Star Tribune writers tracking education issues

Mpls. superintendent's letter pinpoints $28 million budget gap for coming academic year

Minneapolis Public Schools is facing a $28 million budget gap for the coming academic year, said Superintendent Ed Graff in a letter to school board members.

He has a plan to fix the shortfall, which includes a 10 percent trim to Central Services and a 2.5 percent reduction to school allocations, plus a "one-time" dip into reserves. But he continued in the letter that he hopes for a "structurally balanced budget" by the 2019-2020 school year — something the district hasn't had since 2010-2011.

"I want to share with you a simple reality: for the past five years, MPS has routinely spent significantly more money than it has – resulting in mid-year budget shortfalls that jeopardize the stability of our schools and their management," Graff said in the letter.

The district pinpointed the budget gap by doing things differently, he said — finding the gap at the "front end of the budget cycle," rather than rushing to fix it when it comes up.

Reasons for the gap include larger special education compliance costs, salary increases from last year's contract negotiations, more transportation costs and inflationary raises, Graff said.

To meet the 2019-2020 school year's goal for a "structurally balanced budget," Graff said he wants to talk about "how we can innovate to deliver services differently and drive improved outcomes."

He said in the letter that he plans to talk more about this at Thursday's finance committee meeting.

Legislation inspired by pocket knife case riles anti-suspensions crowd

Months after the state Supreme Court ruled that a student was wrongly expelled after she accidentally brought a pocket knife to school, a state legislator has proposed making it easier for school officials to dismiss students in such cases.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, cautioned at the start of a House committee hearing Thursday that he was not yet sold on his legislation. But that did not stop critics, including the attorney who represented the student in the knife case, from branding it as unconstitutional and a threat to efforts to ease racial disparities in school discipline matters.

Last summer, the Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeals decision stating that a southern Minnesota school district was wrong to expel a high school honor student for having a knife in her purse in her locker because it failed to show she had willfully violated school policy or willfully endangered others.

The student, Alyssa Drescher, who is white, told the principal at United South Central High that she used the pocket knife to cut twine on hay bales at her boyfriend's farm and "totally forgot" it still was in her purse.

Kresha's bill would eliminate the requirement that an act be "willful" in order for a student to be dismissed from school.

Michael Waldspurger, whose firm represented the school district in the pocket knife case, told members of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee that districts now face a tough challenge removing students for weapons violations. Violators simply can assert an "I forgot" defense, he said, "a very strong defense to overcome."

Peter Shaw, an attorney for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, said the "willful requirement" was a higher standard than criminal prosecutors face.

But Andrea Jepsen, the attorney who represented Drescher, said she spoke with a former legislator who was in office when the Pupil Fair Dismissal Act was passed in 1974 and that he assured her that lawmakers were clear that a student's actions had to be intentional to warrant dismissal.

Kresha's proposal also drew criticism from activists associated with Students for Education Reform (SFER Minnesota) and Black Lives Matter St. Paul.

John Thompson, a friend and coworker of Philando Castile, the black St. Paul school cafeteria supervisor shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, said black students are being suspended "at an all-time high rate." He worries that the legislation would perpetuate or worsen disparities.

"You guys have to get this right," he told the panel. "Stop coming after our babies."

No action was taken.

Kresha said that he will try to craft a compromise with people on both sides of the issue, and if that fails, he pledged to discontinue work on the bill.