Tough questions and high emotions have been at the center of budget talks in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, but other school systems also share an unpopular assignment: They’ve got shortfalls to erase.

A survey released Friday by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts shows that 27 of its 40 member districts face budget deficits totaling $97 million for 2017-18.

That is nearly double the $50 million-plus shortfall projected a year ago for 2016-17 in what for many school districts has been an annual budget-balancing rite of spring. The deficits reported Friday could swell, too, because they reflect estimates based on Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to raise the bedrock per-pupil funding formula by 2 percent in 2017-18 — not the 1.5 percent increase proposed by a House-Senate conference committee.

For districts like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which each have reported potential shortfalls of more than $20 million, board members and district leaders now are fighting to keep cuts from classrooms while knowing many trims come with names attached.

“Ultimately, budget reductions in the education enterprise are always about people and services,” Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff said in a statement last week. “Painful cuts are inevitable.”

The Bloomington and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school districts, like St. Paul, are facing shortfalls for a third consecutive year. Shakopee has found itself in a $4 million-plus hole due to human error. A third-party consulting firm now is investigating that district’s fiscal health.

The budget outlook is brighter in growing districts like Anoka-Hennepin and in those like North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale that recently won voter approval of new operating levies to be funded by local taxpayers.

With two weeks left in the legislative session, John Vento, a Robbinsdale school board member who serves as chairman of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, is imploring supporters to make calls and send e-mails to legislators.

The conference committee’s proposal “is inadequate and would result in significant reductions and staff layoffs for many AMSD school districts,” Vento said.

Balancing act

Citizens and educators have achieved some success at easing pain at the local level in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

St. Paul began the current budget season with a projected $27.3 million deficit due in part to declining enrollment. Last spring, the loss of students was a factor, too, in a projected $15.1 million shortfall for 2016-17 that gave rise to a No Cuts To Kids movement headed by a self-described “ragtag group” of parents and advocates dedicated to preserving arts and music programs.

The No Cuts group staged a rally with violinists outside district headquarters. In the end, it failed to rescue an acclaimed program at L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School, but Nancy Bitenc, a group leader, said Friday that its efforts to focus the district’s attention on its enrollment woes has paid off this spring — even in the face of hits to individual school budgets.

Inspired by the group’s research, parents at Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School began asking why one of the district’s most popular schools couldn’t move more kids off its waiting list and into classrooms when it had the space available to do so. Steve Marchese, a second-year school board member, also took up the cause during the board’s monthly meeting in April.

“I don’t understand how we would want to tell anyone, ‘No,’ ” Marchese told Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operating officer, during her annual presentation on school-choice lottery results. “Why not max out the enrollment as much as we can?”

That same day, Patrick Bryan, the school’s principal, notified Capitol Hill parents that Turner and interim Superintendent John Thein approved the opening of about 30 slots. Along with those students come additional per-pupil revenue — “just enough to shield us from a large budget cut,” Bryan said.

But what’s good for Capitol Hill can hurt other schools. In a recent interview, Turner said that about 80 percent of students on Capitol Hill’s waiting list attend other district schools, meaning the funds they generate follow them to Capitol Hill.

Districtwide, St. Paul expects to have about 25 fewer teachers and 69 fewer support staffers in 2017-18.

In Minneapolis, budget tensions have roiled a chain of public meetings in recent weeks.

Roughly 100 protesters flooded an April 18 board meeting, angry about lost jobs — especially for educators of color who they say were “pushed out for advocating for students.” The school board then passed a motion to rehire — or give formal recommendation to rehire — seven educators.

That sparked opposition from principals responsible for making staffing decisions. They, too, appeared before the board the following week. All of which has added up to an emotional time for Graff. He wiped away tears as he ended a board meeting in April.

It is not yet known how many district employees face job losses, but the district released early numbers last week showing nearly 300 full-time positions being cut.

The board is expected to take up the issue again on Tuesday.

 

Staff writer Beatrice Dupuy contributed to this report.

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