Minneapolis Public Schools begins tough talk about next year's budget gap. Cuts in programs and staff seem almost certain.
Staring at a projected $13 million budget gap next year, Minneapolis schools are bracing for yet another round of multimillion-dollar cost-cutting.
No school closings this time around, but with the anticipated loss of some 1,500 students due to declining enrollment, teacher layoffs -- possibly as many as 50 -- and other district staff cuts seem almost certain.
Free all-day kindergarten also is at risk. The district is considering whether to charge a sliding fee for the popular program to help offset costs.
As budget talks commence, the district is not only trying to solve its immediate financial problems, but it's hoping to use the budget shortfall to persuade voters this fall to renew a property tax increase last approved in 2000.
"There's no question the district and the public will have some key decisions to make in the next few months," finance chief Peggy Ingison said this week. "Get ready."
This week, the district announced a preliminary budget of $696 million for next year, an increase of about $44 million.
But the increase is already spoken for, Ingison said. It will be used to pay down debt for buildings constructed in the late 1990s, such as now-closed Jordan Park elementary, and debt from ongoing building improvements. That essentially makes the projected budget comparable to this year's $652 million, she said.
Less money next year also is expected in the general fund budget, around $419 million, down from $430.6 million this year because of falling enrollment. That means there will be less money spent in classrooms. Enrollment now stands at about 34,570 students, almost 2,000 less than this time a year ago.
Ignison this week detailed how the district intends to fill the gap, but two school board members were skeptical.
The district expects to save $5 million from a change in how it reimburses neighboring school districts where Minneapolis students go under various desegregation programs. This will primarily affect special education reimbursement costs, Ingison said.
The district will use $2 million from compensatory funds from the state -- money based on the number of students in poverty -- to help maintain lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade at North Side schools.
At Tuesday's school board meeting, Board Member Chris Stewart categorized that strategy as a "clever accounting shift," and questioned whether it was ethical.
Ingison said the move is an option that should be given consideration.
The district also hopes to save money by leasing unused buildings, most likely to charter schools; changing the start times at Lake Harriet and Whittier elementary schools to reduce transportation spending; and downsizing district departments and trimming administrative positions. Teachers could be notified about layoffs as early as May.
"We're cutting where needed in order to minimize the impact," Ingison said.But Board Member Tom Madden said Tuesday the district is well past taking "bits and pieces here and there," and deeper cuts have to be made. He says Minneapolis arguably spends more on transportation than other districts, for example.
After seven straight years of budget cuts due to falling enrollment and decreasing state aid, Madden said it's now time to raise questions about what exactly the district can currently afford to deliver without sacrificing achievement.
"If we have 800 choices and we can afford only 200, then what are we doing trying to offer the other 600?" Madden said.
"Give the students and parents viable options, it just doesn't need to be as many," he continued. "We can't afford all of it right now.
"We all know that."The referendum currently supplies about $27 million of the district's general fund. If voters fail to pass a replacement this fall, the district could see losses of about $30 million within three years.
"We certainly have been forced to rely on referendum funding and it makes the renewal all the more critical," Ingison said.
Terry Collins • 612-673-1790