The public stepped up to provide new funding for St. Paul Public Schools, but district leaders still were looking anxiously to the State Capitol for help in solving its budget problems.
The deal announced by state officials Sunday hit one important target: a 2% increase in the state’s bedrock per-pupil funding formula.
That is the identical amount that Marie Schrul, the St. Paul district’s chief financial officer, had been banking on when she offered a 2019-20 budget estimate that still left the district facing a $3.1 million deficit for the coming school year.
District leaders have been in a tough spot politically, as evidenced by School Board Member John Brodrick’s recent sharing of a question from a constituent: “We passed a referendum. We still have a deficit. What’s up?” Brodrick said in an April meeting.
Assembling a school district budget can be tricky in the best of times. There are changes in state, federal and local funding to consider, and enrollment projections, too, the latter of which have not been kind to the state’s second-largest district. It expects to lose another 513 students in 2019-20.
This year, being an odd-numbered one, made this spring’s budget planning even more of a work in progress, as state leaders set about crafting a two-year statewide school funding package that included the all-important setting of the per-pupil funding formula.
Part of the reason for St. Paul’s projected shortfall — the district’s fifth straight, if it comes to fruition — is that it also is investing in a new strategic plan overseen last year by Superintendent Joe Gothard.
One initiative calls for the middle schools to add one period to the school day. That would allow students access to more electives, as well as an advisory class that helps ease the transition from elementary to middle school. Counselors would be added in the middle schools, and teachers could take advantage of the extra period to examine how they are teaching and how students are learning — a practice now in place at Washington Technology Magnet School.
Other strategic plan investments include the hiring of more counselors elsewhere to help students plan for life after high school, a beefing up of preschool special-education resources and another 6.5 full-time-equivalent dual language immersion teachers.
Proposed budget allocations sent to the schools in March show some buildings losing and some schools gaining teachers and/or special-education teaching assistants. The total number of employees in the two categories was growing, although only slightly for the teaching assistants.
Thirty-seven schools were projected to lose students, with drops ranging from two students at American Indian Magnet School on the East Side to 137 at Humboldt High, a grades 6-12 school on the West Side. The district also is opening a new E-STEM middle school at the former Crosswinds building in Woodbury near the East Side border and has 183 students enrolled.
The district must complete a new budget for the coming year by the end of June.
Last week, in an effort to get public input, the district held a budget information session at AGAPE High School. Only four citizens were there at the start. One was Greg Copeland, who has headed the city’s Republican Party and is a longtime critic of school district spending.
He shook his head over the prospect of the district facing a deficit after a successful levy vote, and about its continued enrollment losses.
The second and final budget information session takes place at 6 p.m. Thursday at Harding High.