With another round of budget cuts in the books, St. Paul Public Schools officials began to look to the future Tuesday with updates on a new strategic plan for the district as well as results of a referendum survey pointing to a fresh request of voters in the fall.
School board members were asked to sign off on moves to erase a $17.2 million budget shortfall for 2018-19.
About 107 full-time positions will be cut, but most employees are expected to find jobs elsewhere in the district as people retire or exit for other reasons. In the end, only about three teachers are expected to be out of work.
The board heard about Superintendent Joe Gothard’s initial priorities for a strategic plan that steers clear of dramatic structural changes. He spoke, instead, of boosting positive approaches to behavior and an in-depth look at the district’s middle schools, among other initiatives.
Helping to bring the plan to fruition will be Cedrick Baker, the district’s new chief of staff, who began work about a week ago at a starting salary of $140,000 a year. Baker was one of 40 candidates for the job, and comes to it via his work with the school board — he was board administrator for a year.
Gothard wrote in a recent e-mail to employees that Baker “brings a fresh perspective to my leadership team.” He added that Baker would help him create a “culture of collaboration among the school board and district leaders,” and share responsibility for seeing that the strategic plan is “implemented faithfully.”
Unlike former Superintendent Valeria Silva, whose strategic plan amounted to a sweeping reorganization of the state’s second-largest district, Gothard has signaled a back-to-basics approach. His update Tuesday outlined first-phase “strategic initiatives” that included finding ways to expand the use of positive approaches to behavior through a system known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
In 2013-14, the district replaced two-year junior highs with three-year middle schools and saw a sharp rise in student suspensions — in part because of corresponding moves to put more English language learners and students with emotional and behavioral disorders in general-education classrooms.
Since then, many families have moved their children to charter schools and other school systems after they finish fifth grade in St. Paul.
The district now is planning an evaluation in hopes of defining and implementing a “districtwide middle school model.”
After Gothard’s presentation, three board members noted that the plan still seemed “general” in nature, with Steve Marchese saying he has yet to hear the district say: “This is how the world is going to look different.”
Efforts to improve the middle schools scored high in a recent survey that sought to gauge voter support for a district request for more operating money. The size of that request will be decided in July. Three-quarters of respondents were more likely to back a tax-levy increase if the new money addressed the needs of middle school students and helped the district “work toward middle school best practices.”
District leaders have stressed the need to stabilize finances after cutting annual budgets for four consecutive years.
While St. Paul tries to avoid dipping into rainy day funds to cover shortfalls, the size of that account dropped over the 2017-18 school year. Marie Schrul, the district’s chief financial officer, said the district expects to have an unassigned fund balance of about $31.4 million when the budget year ends on June 30 — a figure that represents 5.4 percent of current year expenditures.
The board’s policy is to maintain a fund balance of at least 5 percent.