In November, city voters decisively approved a referendum raising their property taxes to support $30 million a year in new funding for Minneapolis Public Schools. Three quarters of those who cast ballots said yes to additional dollars to educate children.
That vote indicated confidence in the district’s ability to improve — and a recent audit of MPS finances shows that at least some of that support was well placed. According to independent auditor BerganKDV’s examination of the year ending last June, MPS has raised revenue, controlled overspending and erased a multimillion-dollar shortfall.
Auditors also lauded the district for limiting the amount it pulled from reserves to eliminate a projected $33 million deficit for the current school year. District officials used only $4 million of the $16.5 million it had in rainy-day funds.
Past missteps such as poor oversight of expense reports, mishandled staff raises and off-target projections raised questions about district management. Additionally, like many core-city school systems, MPS struggles with raising academic achievement for its students. It’s encouraging that district leaders, according to the audit, adopted cost-saving methods including restricting travel, reducing contracts, slowing down hiring and leaving vacancies unfilled.
Still, the auditor also noted ongoing issues that could undermine or negate that progress — chief among them the district’s decreasing enrollment.
During most of the history of Minnesota independent school districts, MPS has been the largest. However, now with its 36,500 students, it has slipped to No. 3, behind Anoka-Hennepin (No. 1) and St. Paul (No. 2).
Dramatically increased numbers of Minneapolis families are opting out of MPS and instead sending their children to private schools, charter schools or other districts through open enrollment. About a third of Minneapolis children who are eligible to attend city schools choose to go elsewhere.
And when students leave a school system, the state per-pupil funding goes with them, thus reducing the budgets of their home districts.
“Our revenue is largely based on enrollment, and as the document shows, our market share has been steadily declining with no end in sight,” school board member Bob Walser said at a board meeting. “That’s not a positive view for Minneapolis Public Schools’ future.”
MPS Chief Finance Officer Ibrahima Diop told an editorial writer that the BerganKDV audit is the “cleanest” the district has had in several years. He has been with the district for two budget cycles — a period in which the administration has taken strong steps to rein in spending — including limiting travel and freezing hiring. Diop believes providing transparent, understandable and accurate budgets will prompt more families to choose the district to increase enrollment.
To increase enrollment and improve learning, officials say they are working on priorities such as enhancing the climate and culture of schools, strengthening literacy and creating more individualized learning opportunities.
In addition, district leaders could be more open to adopting innovative strategies that have proven successful locally and in other cities. Several metro-area schools, including a few charters, beat the odds on statewide tests and could be emulated. And different models in eight cities around the nation have improved student learning more rapidly, as described on the website eightcities.org.
The district’s efforts to become more financially stable are commendable. However, more must be done to ensure that the district uses the voter-approved investment wisely.