Minneapolis Public Schools officials are switching to a new way of budgeting to ensure that the most education money follows students with the greatest need.
The new funding model will assign dollar amounts for various student needs, such as special education or English language instruction. Schools with the largest concentrations of students with those needs are likely to receive bigger budgets than schools with fewer students in need of special resources.
Minneapolis is the first in the state to shift to this model and will join about 15 large, urban districts that retooled their budgeting in similar ways. The new system will roll out to a select few schools in September. The outgoing system "was pitting schools against each other," Minneapolis Public Schools CFO Robert Doty said.
But the change is causing deep concern and uncertainty among parents in a district struggling with a decadeslong economic and achievement gap between white and minority students.
Parents, particularly those in more affluent southwest Minneapolis schools, are concerned that the student-based allocation will slash their school's budget and cause programs like art or band to be lost or lead to larger class sizes.
The change is bringing the enormously divisive issue of funding equity to the forefront, but in a new way.
Many parents say they support giving more resources to schools with more low-income students, but they do not want it to come at the expense of their schools. That is creating friction for a district wrestling with how to balance funding needs.
At a recent forum to discuss school budgets, a parent at Kenwood elementary told district officials that parents were worried the school was going to make cuts. He said he does fundraising for the school and wanted to know if they were going to have to raise money to save band or art. A parent from Lucy Laney, which has more low-income students and lower test scores, stood up and said that she sympathizes with the Kenwood community, but that Laney doesn't even have band or art class.
"That's one of our biggest challenges right now, trying to ascertain, as a community, are we really committed to equity," Doty said.
Move to equity
District officials began exploring the new funding model about two years ago as a way to make the budgeting process more transparent and accountable. The district has an operating budget of $577 million, with 89 percent going directly to schools.
The current budget process leaves too much ambiguity in how money is allocated, Doty said. Students who have special needs are entitled to more dollars, but currently those dollars do not necessarily follow the child to his or her school.
For example, the district has a certain amount of discretionary money for schools. Principals and their school communities often lobby central office administrators for those dollars.
"It's really about who makes the most compelling case, and it's subjective," Doty said.
With the new model, schools will get funding based on the number of students in their schools and the needs of those specific students. Schools with more students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, or who need special education services or who have students in gifted and talented programs may get more money.
School officials created a draft budget to see how it would look if the system was implemented now. They selected a handful of schools and they came up with some assumptions about what student qualities would receive additional funding.
In the drafts given to principals in March, the more affluent Lake Harriet Upper Elementary School would lose $302,000, or 10 percent of its 2015 budget. By comparison, Pillsbury Elementary School would gain up to $223,000, or 7 percent of its budget. The school has nearly 84 percent of its population living in poverty.
District officials realize these kind of swings could be jarring for local school budgets. In the first few years of the new model, the district is considering a provision to ensure that no school gains or loses more than 5 percent.
Gwen Spurgat, a southwest Minneapolis parent, has attended numerous school and community meetings to press district officials to give her the exact dollar amounts under the new model.
District officials say the numbers are still too in flux to be widely distributed, which is why they have not released the draft budgets to the public. They say those budgets already look dramatically different from what was first presented to principals, but would not give specific numbers. They say that in other possible scenarios, some schools see their financial situations reverse; previous winners end up losing money, while some losers come out ahead.
That's unsettling for parents who want to ensure programs and class sizes are not harmed at their local schools.
"Their idea that we don't want to tell people [the dollar amounts] because they don't want to freak people out is ridiculous," Spurgat said. "That means that the facts freak people out and that in it of itself is a statement about where we are headed."
Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, has studied student-based allocation rollouts at other districts across the country for at least a decade.
She said every community goes through a phase where affluent schools are upset they are losing funding. Eventually, she said, schools are able to adapt and cuts are not as drastic as they feared.
"The flexibility that comes with student-based allocation means they can make trade-offs and protect the things that community values the most," Roza said.
Michael Thomas, the district's chief of schools, said this funding model is causing communities to have honest conversations about funding equity. Parents in all corners of the city should relish a system that is more fair, he said.
"We can sit here and talk numbers and get mad about winners and losers, but at the end of the day for me this isn't about numbers," Thomas said. "This is about what we are called to do for our kids every single day."