The St. Paul school district is heading into a new school year with fewer teachers and a leaner general-fund budget under spending plans approved this week.
But as officials pointed again to enrollment woes as a major factor in the trims, two first-year board members stepped up to ask: What are we going to do about it?
Board Member Uriah Ward said he was concerned next year's budget appeared to have no money dedicated to boosting student numbers. Colleague Halla Henderson said the board and administration must try to find a way out of the annual slide.
Not stated then, but revealed later by Leah VanDassor, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), is that the district plans next week to take what could be the first steps in tackling student recruitment and retention.
For now, it is just an introductory Zoom call, and expected to run just an hour, but VanDassor, who like Ward and Henderson has been seeking some kind of enrollment plan, said: "I am trying to assume positive intent."
The work is to be done by a committee, she said, and she accepted the invite to participate.
The district, however, gave few details.
"There is a meeting to start discussing that topic, but that's as far as it's gone at this point," schools spokeswoman Erica Wacker said Wednesday.
Public school enrollment was down statewide this year, but for St. Paul and Minneapolis, the drops have led to some serious budget bloodletting. Last week, Minneapolis approved a 2022-23 budget that included harsh cuts to the arts.
St. Paul is projecting the loss of 1,877 students in the coming school year, resulting in $8.3 million in lost revenue. Inflationary costs are hitting the district hard, too. Hopes that the state's elected officials could dedicate surplus funds have gone for naught.
"This perfect storm will not be over anytime soon without substantial changes and support for public education," Superintendent Joe Gothard said Tuesday.
The state's second-largest district was able to tap $23.6 million in federal pandemic relief funding to help fill its budget gap. The district had 31,923 students this year.
But the enrollment loss, coupled with scheduling changes in the high schools, will bring about a reduction of 128 full-time-equivalent teaching positions.
The district plans to continue to rely on Metro Transit and parents to help kids get to school, saving $2.5 million in transportation costs.
Five librarians and six clerical positions are being cut in the schools.
On June 30, the federal government is ending a pandemic-era practice of providing free meals to all students. But St. Paul has decided to continue giving free lunches to students at 36 schools at a cost of $1.7 million.
Altogether, general fund expenditures are expected to total $563.3 million next year, down from $571.6 million in 2021-22. The bulk of the lost revenue is being attributed to the projected enrollment losses.
VanDassor faults the district for not taking on the proliferation of charter schools now pulling students from the district. Last fall, administrators produced a list of 31 charter schools that opened or expanded in the city during the past 10 years.
Educators want to help attract families to St. Paul Public Schools, she said, "But where is the funding? Where is the focus?"
She hopes to learn more starting next week.