Budget wrangling has begun in the St. Paul School District with Superintendent Joe Gothard scaling back a plan to hire dozens of new teacher coaches for the 2019-20 school year.

A proposal that six weeks ago had envisioned stationing “learning leads” at every school site instead would place them initially at the 28 schools identified by the state as needing improvement.

Each hire would cost the district about $110,000 in salary and benefits — the same amount that it budgets for a teacher — and would be covered by federal dollars, Gothard assured board members recently.

Critics had voiced concern about the potential tapping of the district’s general fund, which includes proceeds from a voter-approved tax levy. The district faces a general-fund deficit next year of $4.6 million, according to a budget update presented to the school board Tuesday night. A month ago, the deficit was projected to be about $2.9 million.

Gothard’s vision is to have the learning leads help train teachers to improve school climate and make classes more relevant to students of diverse backgrounds — both part of the first phase of his new strategic plan, SPPS Achieves. The district needs a more structured approach to such efforts for efficiency and accountability purposes, he said.

“My priorities may not be the same priorities as others,” Gothard told the board this month. “Mine are based on what you have asked me to do: Create a strategic plan to improve long-term student outcomes for the wonderful children and families in SPPS.”

Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, said that everyone can use a good coach, but that if “you’re swimming in two feet of water, a good coach only gets you so far.” Kids have medical needs, and schools are short on nurses, he said. More social workers are needed, too.

“We have to talk about filling up the pool,” Faber said.

Nancy Bitenc, a district parent and a founder of the No Cuts to Kids parent advocacy group, said earlier Tuesday that the district has dispatched teacher coaches for many years and there has been no easing of the achievement gap or the exodus of students from the state’s second largest district. The district is budgeting for the loss of 513 students in 2019-20, she noted, which translates into a $6.9 million budget hit.

“We need electives like science, phys-ed and instrumental music and the arts brought back to the elementary schools that have seen these programs gutted into oblivion for years,” Bitenc said.

Board Member Steve Marchese has asked if the federal funds could be used for counselors or social workers, instead.

Sherry Carlstrom, the district’s Title I director, said that the federal money is intended to supplement state and local dollars, and that the district — by agreeing to make nurse and counselor hires part of its contract negotiations — has established that the positions are part of its core operations, and no longer supplemental.

For the learning lead hires, the district will use districtwide Title I funds, and not money designated for individual schools, Gothard said.

While the district is projecting a deficit for 2018-19 — the fifth in a row if the state does not provide a large enough funding increase to erase it — the budget does include new investments in the middle schools as well as the hiring of 15 English language learners teachers.