Minneapolis school budgets — and a parent's passionate plea

Minneapolis Public Schools community engagement session (Photo by Sarah Lahm)

When community members showed up for a "community engagement session" on the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) budget, ready with lots of input for the district, MPS officials said that allocations for the 2014-2015 budget have already been made. Apparently, the MPS community engagement was planned as telling community members what the budget was, not asking for their input.

Amid a rocky rollout of its 2014-2015 budget, the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has planned community engagement sessions throughout the month of April in order to ensure a budget process that is “disciplined, predictable, and transparent,” according to its website. The April 22 community engagement session was held at the district’s Davis Center headquarters, around the theme of “school board engagement.” This meant school board members were in attendance, listening to questions and concerns from community members, while the district’s Chief Operating Officer Robert Doty, finance staff member Tammy Frederickson, and Chief Academic Officer Susanne Griffin-Ziebart walked the audience through the district’s budget PowerPoint presentation and fielded questions.

While Doty, Frederickson, and Griffin-Zeibart were there to explain the district’s budget allocation process and how it would support the district’s priorities, many staff, parents, and site council members from north Minneapolis’ Lucy Craft Laney School were there to question the process and advocate for their school and its students.

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Of particular concern was the school’s request for more dollars to expand what they say has been a successful co-teaching model. Lucy Laney principal Mauri Melander says the school has been using additional staff for math instruction since the 2011-2012 school year, and that the effects have been positive. Now, the school has asked that the district allocate more funding to Lucy Laney so that they can also implement a co-teaching model for literacy instruction.

 

One parent's passionate plea for Lucy Laney school

April 22, 2014

To all it may concern:

As a parent of two elementary students enrolled at Lucy Craft Laney, I am deeply concerned about the decision not to fund the literacy co-teaching model next year. If it is not continued, I will strongly consider removing my children from MPS public schools, and enrolling them at Ascension. This is not my preference. However, it is important to me to have my children attend a school in their community that meets and exceeds their educational needs. Thus far I have been very pleased with the dedication and hard work that I see from Laney teachers and administration. I trust them, because I am involved in the school. I have seen their deep dedication that goes well beyond the “paycheck”. If they are fighting for a co-teaching model, then I believe it is the best chance Laney has for long term success.

It is no secret that Laney is facing some of the greatest academic challenges in the district, and has a student population that face significant barriers to a successful education. This highly concentrated area of need requires innovative methods towards achieving success, and based on my observation the co-teaching model is refreshing approach at dealing with the challenge. I am not a trained educator, but I have seen the impact of having more than one teacher in a classroom. It reduces teacher fatigue, helps immensely with behavior, and provides a much more personal approach to instructing students with specific learning needs. The co-teaching model helps alleviate teacher burnout (thus creating greater chance of keeping the elite ones), and it addresses lack of experience at the same time.

Recently I read the Star Tribune article about the disparity in teacher’s level of professional experience that exists in MPS district wide, and noticed that Laney is very much on the losing end of this reality. This article was shocking and disheartening to me on many levels. It has caused me to think much deeper on the issue.

  1. How does MPS expect one of the schools with the greatest academic needs to be successful if it continually employs a model that yields teachers with the least experience? I know some of the best teachers are young, but as they gain experience they move on (sometimes recruited by higher performing schools) to easier jobs in the district.

  2. Teachers with more experience obviously make a higher salary. Logically this should mean that Laney has money left over in their budget given the fact that their teachers cost less on the salary scale. (If this were true, the excess could be used to fund the co-teaching model or other academic enrichment initiatives. This is not the case. I am told that all teachers cost the same regardless of experience level. What??? That leads to my next concern.

  3. If there is not excess money in Laney’s individual budget given the concentration of relatively “cheaper” teachers, isn’t it then also true that Laney is inadvertently subsidizing the schools with high concentrations of well-seasoned teachers much higher on the pay scale? Under this reality schools like Laney start with the same funding but their money doesn’t buy the same product. Apply this over several years and the results are easily documentable. The product is a very unstable learning environment where young teachers continually put their careers and personal lives on the line fighting to be successful against very long odds. Great teachers continually emerge in the struggle, only to move on (often recruited) to easier placements. And the churn goes on for Laney.

If what I stated in point #3 is true, then it certainly appears that students with highest needs are being taken advantage of by the system, and are doomed to fail by poor leadership on a very high level. (Likely even a much higher level than the district) Regardless of how this reality came to be, it hardly seems like an equitable opportunity to learn from my perspective. Now layer in the fact that the vast majority of Laney students are minority, and you have a situation that looks a lot like institutional racism. I know that’s a very big statement, but I don’t see a way around it.

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my concerns. The issues are surely more complex than I know. I will assume positive intent, and that people in MPS want what is best for all students. It doesn’t change my deep concern that my children get the best education that can be provided to them. I am one parent, but I believe my voice can speak for all parents at Laney. Our kids don’t get these years back. Our time is now, and must be met with urgency. Innovative methods must be taken to meet the needs of right now at Laney. One of those pivotal factors is the co-teaching model. It may not address all the challenges that schools like Laney face, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Sincerely,

Stephen Walden

Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, however, said that allocations for the 2014-2015 budget have already been made, and that the next step in the budget timeline would be to finalize these allocations and present the budget to the school board in June for final approval. Robert Doty echoed this, telling Lucy Laney community members that putting more money into their school would mean taking the money from somewhere else. Griffin-Ziebart did agree to meet with Lucy Laney staff and listen further to their concerns.

Lucy Laney parent Steve Walden was on hand to express his support for the co-teaching model, and to pressure the district to somehow find the money to further implement it. Walden said that, in his daughter’s class of 27 students, at least five of the students have very high needs, and that having an extra person in the classroom, even for part of the day, means that more children are learning and getting the support they need. In his view, the co-teaching model, where a math support person comes to assist the classroom teacher for part of the day, seems to be working.

Other Lucy Laney staff and community members echoed Walden’s statement, with parent Norma Booker saying “everything at Laney changes every year.” Because of this, she said, the school is looking for “continuity and consistency” as the district “flips through programs every year.”

Lucy Laney principal Melander said later, in an email interview, that co-teaching has had a positive effect on her school’s student behavior, as preliminary data is showing that fewer students are leaving the classroom for disciplinary reasons. She also noted that, since 80-90 percent of the student body is not performing at grade level, co-teaching makes the implementation of the district’s standards-based Focused Instruction initiative less “overwhelming.”

Melander and other school community members also spoke of the high concentration of new teachers at Lucy Laney. Extra funding for additional classroom support, they said, would help new teachers improve their craft, and could possibly be an important way to retain experienced teachers, in light of what they said was the school’s high staff turnover rate.

For community member and MPS parent Ariah Fine, the high concentration of inexperienced teachers at Laney leads to a question of whether or not schools are equitably funded. Because all schools in Minneapolis pay an average cost of approximately $87,000 for all of their teachers, schools with a lot of experienced staff, whose actual salary would be higher than the district average, are getting a break on staffing costs. Schools like Lucy Laney, then, with a lot of less experienced and therefore less costly teachers, could be said to be “subsidizing” the more experienced staff at other schools.

Fine’s contention is that Lucy Laney essentially loses approximately $500,000 of its budget, because its average teacher cost is lower than the district average. Returning this $500,000 to the school, he said, would pay for the additional staff Lucy Laney is requesting, and would put the money where it is needed most.

There did not appear to be a clear response to this proposal at the budget meeting, but Fine is hopeful that, moving forward, both the school board and the school district will further consider adjusting how schools pay for teachers.

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  • Parent's letter well stated and worth reading. - by Yvonne Salley Walden on Wed, 04/23/2014 - 10:02pm
  • Great article and parent letter. I find it very disturbing that the mpls school board is doing budgeting this way. They the should have an answer to the inequalities in staff costs. The school needs to get this figured out! - by Tanden Brekke on Tue, 04/29/2014 - 10:34pm
  • excellent - by Jane Burnett on Thu, 04/24/2014 - 7:31pm
  • Well written story. Thanks. - by Joe Nathan on Fri, 04/25/2014 - 12:22am

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sarahlahm's picture
Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm (sarah dot lahm at gmail dot com) is a writer, blogger, and former English Instructor, and has children in the Minneapolis Public Schools.