The Minneapolis Public Schools launched a residency program three years ago largely to prepare people of color for the teaching profession. Three cohorts in, the district has allocated much-needed resources to diversify its workforce. And it’s working.

Concurrent efforts to hire more teachers of color are also paying off: For two school years, the number of new teacher hires who are people of color has neared 30 percent.

This shift responds to years of parent feedback. It’s also the right thing to do.

But news of the district’s forecast $33 million budget deficit, compounded by current teacher contract negotiations, gives us reason to pause (“Tight budgets fuel tensions as teacher contract talks start,” Oct. 23).

Most of the district’s new hires are in vulnerable positions in the event of a budget-forced layoff.

If ever there were a moment for district leaders, the teachers union, advocates and families to identify shared values and conditions during tough budget times, it’s now. Will those with power have the courage to surround teachers of color with support?

We must elevate critical questions: What’s an appropriate classroom size? How do we justify allocation of resources that differ from school to school? How do we honor the hard work of teachers and pay them accordingly?

Like the retention of teachers of color, these are the complex, tough challenges that district leaders and school board members face.

We’re committed to the success and longevity of the Minneapolis Public Schools and appreciate the Star Tribune’s coverage of the district’s deficit. While the news speaks to a rising trend of urban districts struggling to operate within their means, it also opens dialogue around what’s needed to ensure the district’s financial health for years to come.

We, too, faced budget constraints. And toward strong governance, we balanced budgets, grew reserves and codified board policy to stipulate “ … a minimum unassigned general fund balance of no less than eight percent of the estimated general fund expenditures for the following year.”

In 2010, the fund balance surpassed $120 million. Now, the district projects that it will drop below $25 million, roughly 4 percent of estimated fund expenditures.

Depleting the fund balance to support day-to-day operations puts the district in a precarious position.

We encourage our community to engage in these issues. Here are a few questions that come to mind:

What’s an effective staffing model that meets students’ needs? The district cites a staff-student ratio that nears 1:5. How do we ensure that kids continue to receive individualized, effective attention at critical moments of instruction while addressing budget concerns? How do we ensure that our most effective and diverse teachers remain in front of kids?

Can school-based budgeting and decisionmaking create conditions that better meet students’ needs? In 2015, the district reduced central-office head count at Davis Center and funneled resources to schools. The central office can support schools to ensure that resources accelerate student achievement.

What is the full compensation package for teachers? In the midst of contract negotiations, how much can the district afford? A first-year teacher with a master’s degree earns $50,000 in the district, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. And one-third of its teachers earn $75,000 in base pay, according to a 2016 Star Tribune analysis.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to teachers, especially those who demonstrate that all children can succeed. How do we retain and continue to reward them?

How can the district forecast — and get ahead of — “fixed” costs? What long-term implications do legacy costs, such as employee contracts and pensions, have on finances? Understanding such for years ahead can lend to more sound budgets.

While district enrollment has held flat in recent years, according to the Department of Education, it has underutilized facilities. How can we eliminate unnecessary costs, such as empty buildings, and think creatively about the use of our current facilities?

Where are parent voices? On budget cuts and contract negotiations, all parents should feel empowered to voice their needs, too. Are we listening?

Balancing a budget presents tough trade-offs, and our foundational values should guide us. That includes safeguarding quality and diversity, and ensuring that all students have a positive education experience where they learn and are positioned for success.

It’s on each and every one of us to think of solutions that are sustainable.

 

Alberto Monserrate, former chair of the Minneapolis school board, is co-founder and CEO of NewPublica, a communications firm. Bernadeia Johnson, former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, is an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato.