After a particularly intense week at work recently, Ibrahima Diop retreated to the garage of his Minneapolis home and started painting a scene from his childhood in Senegal.

He paints to ease his stress. And his job, as the chief financial officer for Minneapolis Public Schools, is extremely stressful, he says. He is responsible for managing a $945 million budget that covers the needs of more than 36,000 students and more than 3,500 teachers at a time when the district, like so many others, is grappling with falling enrollment and fewer resources. Despite these challenges, Diop has managed to help the Minneapolis school district dig itself out of a deep budget rut and start to stabilize its finances.

Having erased a whopping $33 million deficit last spring — the largest gap in recent history — his 2019-20 proposed budget is balanced without having to lay off staff or dip into the district's rainy-day fund.

"I have to manage the district's funds well because if I don't, the kids will suffer, teachers will suffer and parents will be angry," Diop said.

In contrast, several metro school districts, including St. Paul, face budget shortfalls for the coming school year even after voter-approved property tax increases, according to a survey by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff said Diop has turned things around. He persuaded school board members to stop tapping district reserve funds to cover operating expenses. And he has reined in district spending, ensuring that the budget projections stay on track.

It's because of Diop's expertise in school financing, Graff said, that the district is getting closer to being financially stable.

"Educational financing is very complicated and complex," Graff said. "In my time in education and in leadership positions, I have worked with five chief finance officers and he is by far one of the best."

School aide to finance chief

Diop was born and raised in Senegal, where he studied constitutional law at a university named after his uncle, Cheikh Anta Diop. His father was a veteran of World War II in Europe and fought for the independence of Senegal. Diop said his father's attitude has shaped his own outlook on life. His father taught him the importance of education, honesty and doing work with moral courage, he said.

Diop, the middle of seven children, came to the United States in 1992. He received a bachelor's degree in business finance investment and banking from the University of Nebraska. He began working in education as a classroom aide in the Omaha Public Schools. Along the way, he earned a master's degree in international economics from Creighton University. When an accounting position opened up at the school district, Diop applied and was the youngest in the finance department. There, he worked his way up to director of finance, accounting, budget compensation and benefits. He spent 20 years with Omaha Public Schools, leaving after he realized he would never lead the department.

"It's difficult to be necessarily a team player when somebody has to be the leader," said Dennis Pool, Diop's longtime mentor and former supervisor at the Omaha Public Schools. "Ibrahima is certainly a team leader."

In 2015, he found the leadership opportunity he wanted in Minneapolis, where he was surprised to learn that he had to close a $27 million budget gap at a time when the district's rainy-day fund was being exhausted. He also discovered that district credit cards were being misused by some for unauthorized purchases and for personal use, and that the finance department was severely short-staffed.

Two months into his job, Diop hired a former colleague, a forensic accountant from Omaha, to probe how the financial health of a district, once the largest school system in the state, had so badly deteriorated, leaving the district with back-to-back budget deficits.

"With the challenges that kept coming, I kept reminding myself what my mentor told me that there is nothing in finance that I haven't seen that I cannot surmount," Diop said.

Diop moved quickly to tighten the district's finances. He announced looming deficits early, shuttered unpopular programs that didn't yield results, cracked down on employees who were misusing district money and pulled in $22 million that had been invested elsewhere.

His second budget required even deeper and more painful cuts, including layoffs. He and other district leaders slashed $18.4 million from the district's headquarters and cut nearly $15 million from school buildings. They changed start times, restricted travel, reduced contracts, slowed down hiring and left vacancies unfilled, among other things.

"We were operating like we had 50,000 students, and our systems were structured to do that," he said. "That's not a reality."

Making do with less

In his 2019-20 proposed budget, Diop paints a much rosier picture.

The budget adds $4 million to the district's rainy-day fund, ensures predictable staffing in schools, prevents layoffs and for the first time in recent memory, the district is self-insured. Diop says he is working to meet the board's goal of having 8 percent in reserves by 2022. That means adding another $12 million to be fiscally stable.

The district, however, faces persistent enrollment losses that have significantly reduced Diop's budget.

Minneapolis expects to lose about 800 students in the coming school year alone. Meanwhile, about a third of Minneapolis school-age kids opt for charter schools or schools in neighboring districts. Diop said the best thing he can do is accurately account for student losses and build resiliency into the district's finances.

"I'm operating from a place of scarcity," Diop said. "I cannot go out and generate more revenue, but one thing I can do is to make sure our limited resources are well managed."

Even though Diop's job requires making business decisions, he says he understands the consequences of his work. He has three children in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and a fourth will start preschool in the coming year. He said seeing kids waiting by the school bus stop reminds him of his responsibilities and helps him make wise decisions. Those responsibilities also include getting along with school board members who have limited knowledge about education finance and keeping tabs on other departments' budgets.

School board members say they value his expertise.

"He presents the complex picture to guide us in a way that allows us to simultaneously move forward with our goals," said Jenny Arneson, the school board's finance chairwoman.

Board chairman Nelson Inz said Diop is strategic in the way he presents the district's budget and explains the reasons for his decisions.

"He made an effort when he came in to change the culture of [the] finance department," Inz said, adding "He presents the budget in a way that we're able to understand it."

Diop recently launched a new budget software system and created a comprehensive budget book. This school year, his team — consisting of nine departments and more than 50 employees — received accolades from the Minnesota Department of Education and from the Association of School Business Officials International, a nonprofit that represents 30,000 school business professionals worldwide. The awards were for accuracy in financial reporting, timely submission and for meeting compliance, among other things. Some districts have reached out to Diop to learn how they can emulate the Minneapolis school district's budget practices.

Independent auditor Matt Mayer of BerganKDV lauded Diop's commitment and responsiveness to the audit process. Under Diop's leadership, Mayer said, the district has implemented plans to fix some of the concerns raised in the audit. They include vendors not being paid on time, tardiness with balancing monthly checks and under-budgeting meal expenses. The most recent audit also revealed that the district curbed spending and raised revenue.

Board Member Bob Walser, who's an outspoken critic of Diop's reporting practices, said he wants more done to make the district's financial information clearer. He said he's worried enrollment losses in the district will reduce the newly approved $30 million property tax increases by half. But like many, Walser gives Diop credit for cutting through the noise to improve the embattled district's finances.

"When he got here, it was a mess. There were various problems he uncovered very soon after arriving," Walser said. But, he added, "I'm not yet satisfied."

On a recent afternoon, Diop prepared for a school board finance committee meeting, where he was to release details of the upcoming school year budget for the first time. For Diop, the springtime school budget season also means long hours of oil painting on the weekend.

"I'm always stressed at this time of the year," he said. "Painting nature relaxes me."