While hundreds of teachers were walking out of St. Paul schools last month after being laid off, custodians were delivering $500,000 worth of new furniture for administrators.

It wasn't good for morale, union leaders said.

"It's very unsettling to know that this is how the funds are being used when we're fighting for our jobs," said Betty Thissen, president of St. Paul Schools' American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees, the union that represents clerical and technical workers for the district. "People are being cut in hours, reduced in titles and we're constantly having to prove our worth."

The district laid off 345 employees last month as part of a $25 million budget cut. About half of the employees laid off this year were paid with $58 million in federal stimulus funds the district received in 2009.

"We're not doing a big giant spending spree here," said Michael Baumann, the district's finance director. The new furniture, bought with money the district saved from its dental insurance plan, replaces furniture purchased in 1972.

The old furniture wasn't compatible with the district's technology and was difficult to move, Baumann said. Custodians were injuring themselves moving the furniture, he said, increasing the district's health insurance costs.

"It was a stress on our custodial staff," he said.

The new furniture is more technologically savvy, built for computers, and can be moved easily, Baumann said. It is being delivered in phases with the first shipment going to Harding, Central, Como and Johnson high schools.

Closed offices won't get any new furniture, Baumann said. The furniture, mostly desks, will be placed in large office spaces meant for several administrators.

The district office's first through third floors will receive new furniture by the end of the summer. The junior high schools will get their new furniture soon, Baumann said.

As part of other administrative changes, the district's transportation department will move from its offices on W. 7th Street to the administration building.

Baumann defended the furniture purchase as addressing needed improvements.

"The challenge for administrators is that we have to look at the whole district, and we have to look long-term," he said.

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib