Budget balancing at the district level left most St. Paul schools with fewer dollars for the school year that began July 1.

But a late infusion of state aid allowed the district to invest in an area in which it has faced challenges: the education of its English language learners (ELL).

Critics say improvements are needed, and recent findings by the state and the city of St. Paul’s human rights department back them up.

Two weeks ago, the school board agreed to add 10 full-time-equivalent English language teachers — a rare lift in a 2017-18 budget that was $27.3 million in the red when planning began in the spring. The new hires were proposed late in the budget process by interim Superintendent John Thein, who said that ELL programming was dear to him.

Thein acknowledged, too, the concerns raised in a turbulent 2016-17 school year during which the program was stung by a state audit and pressured for changes in a petition drive led by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

And at school year’s end, the city’s human rights department found probable cause to believe the district discriminated against a Karen high school student by failing to provide him and other Karen immigrants with “effective instruction.”

The department laid out its findings in a detailed 39-page report.

Como Park High complaint

The investigation came in response to a complaint filed against the district on behalf of a Como Park High School student who moved to the U.S. in 2012. As a 10th-grader in 2014-15, he was reading at a second-grade level.

The human rights department backed claims that the district was slow to address what the student’s parents suspected was a need for special-education services. It also brought to light a seemingly abrupt move by the district to mainstream more ELL students in general-education classrooms.

Complaints arose because of the inconsistency with which English language co-teachers were being deployed in general-education classes, the investigation found.

The changes occurred during the 2013-14 school year — the same year during which then-Superintendent Valeria Silva and her administrative team were criticized for the mainstreaming of students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

The district has said in its defense that it did not discriminate against the student or make mainstreaming policy changes. It also has denied claims that it has a “three-year wait time” to evaluate immigrants or ELL students for special-education services.

The process does take some time, however.

“With students who are new to the country and have limited levels of English, schools need to differentiate the extent to which a student is struggling to learn because of their limited English vs. possibly having a disability,” the district said.

Rough road ahead

On Monday, the district said that after the audit, which was conducted by the state Department of Education, it decided to train more general-education teachers in ELL strategies over the next three years. The new ELL teachers will assist in the transition, the district said.

It is not yet known where the teachers will work. The district said the new hires will bump the number of full-time-equivalent positions from 176 to 186, but that may not match the total teacher count. If some candidates are open to working part time, the district said it could place more teachers in more schools.

The district was able to add ELL teachers and restore some classroom assistant positions after receiving an additional $3.2 million in state aid.

Thein, who since has handed the reins to new Superintendent Joe Gothard, said last month that the district’s budget had been stretched to the limit.

“A word of caution to our board: There are going to be tough decisions to be made in the future,” he said. “Keep that in mind.”