Counselors, social workers and other Minneapolis school staff are bracing for hundreds of possible layoffs this year to help address the school district’s projected $33 million deficit.
Preliminary numbers from the district show that the potential layoffs could affect an estimated 350 to 400 full-time equivalent jobs.
Some teachers, parents and students are outraged over the proposed loss of staff and class size increases to help close the shortfall. About a dozen people showed up at Tuesday’s school board meeting to protest the cuts and even more plan to pack an April 10 meeting as the district revises its budget before final approval in June.
“Don’t put it on the backs of the classrooms ... that’s unacceptable,” said Jeanne Massey, a parent of a Washburn High School student. “This is the biggest blow to the schools in anybody’s memory.”
Over the years, Minneapolis Public Schools, the state’s third largest district, has faced declining enrollment, revenue that hasn’t kept pace with inflation and rising operating expenses. To help balance the budget, the district has dipped into reserves, drawing it down to its lowest level in more than 25 years.
Then last fall, in an unusually early move, district leaders announced that the 36,000-student district would face a projected $33 million deficit for the 2018-2019 school year. That comes after this school year’s projected $16.5 million deficit.
While the district has dealt with budget gaps for most of the past decade — some of which were even higher deficits — this budget cycle could hit schools harder because the district isn’t tapping its reserves to solve the shortfall.
“It’s really hard. Every school is feeling the impact on this,” district spokesman Dirk Tedmon said. “These are the steps we have to take ... we’re looking to solve it through programmatic changes to get to a structurally balanced budget.”
The district isn’t alone in budget woes. In St. Paul, the second-largest school district in the state, officials are projecting a $17.2 million budget gap for 2018-19.
In Minneapolis, the school district announced last fall it would limit hiring and decrease travel to shave costs. Districtwide changes are now being pitched, such as reducing the number of cellphones for staff. The central office is preparing to take cuts such as rolling back IT by more than $1 million. And another $2 million will be saved next school year by making school day start and end times more uniform, trimming the number of buses and drivers needed.
But it’s still not enough.
On average, the school district is doling out 3 percent less in funding to schools than last year, which means they have to whittle their budgets, affecting staff. Last week, schools submitted their individual budgets. Like most school systems, the bulk of the district’s budget — 85 percent — goes to paying for its nearly 7,000 employees. Earlier this month, the district and teachers reached a tentative contract agreement, which will be up for a vote by the teachers union members later this week and is factored into budget projections.
‘Gutting the school’
While some schools may get more money, others such as Patrick Henry and Washburn high schools are facing major losses.
Patrick Henry is expected to cut $1.9 million, putting Japanese, English, math and physical education teachers’ jobs on the chopping block. At Washburn, $1.6 million in cuts, or 13 percent of the budget, will mean losing jobs such as social workers and security staff. The number of counselors will drop from six to two for the 1,600-student high school.
“It’s completely gutting the school,” Massey said. “In an era when kids are at risk for gun safety, there’s no protection in the school.”
She and other Washburn parents, staff and students are pressing the district to bridge the deficit with reserve funds and hope that next fall’s planned referendum passes, adding $30 million in new revenue.
By cutting schools now, Massey said, the district will lose community support and the referendum will fail.
“The superintendent seems tone-deaf, throwing up his hands and says ‘we’ve got to do it,’ ” Massey said of cuts.
Can’t wait for November
District leaders counter that they can’t wait for November, and continuing to pull from reserves isn’t an option.
Tedmon added that the referendum is “banking on money we don’t currently have” and pulling from the reserves has contributed to dropping the district’s credit rating, which means it now costs more to borrow money.
The district has about $42 million in the reserves, also known as the fund balance, but that’s expected to drop to $25 million by the end of this school year. That means, Tedmon said, that in an emergency, such as a government shutdown, the district could operate for two weeks before running out of money.
“There’s nothing left for an emergency,” Tedmon said, adding that the district will continue to take feedback on options to lessen the impact on schools. “We have to work with what we have.”