Back to school: Area schools weather tight budgets


The Bugle visits schools in our circulation area to find out how a tight budget year will affect their students. 

Depending on whom you ask, Minnesota schools are either teetering on the brink of financial disaster and educational ruin, or, like a fat man pushing back from the dinner table, they’re finally beginning to exert self-restraint. Threats of four-day school weeks, on the one hand, are balanced by ugly rumors of outsized pay raises for teachers on the other.The situation is complicated by the state’s arcane general education funding formula, which guarantees school districts additional state aid according to complex calculations designed to promote equal access to education for all Minnesota children. Again, depending on how you look at it, Minnesota either balanced its current budget and delivered on its promises to fund education without raising taxes, or it resorted to shameless accounting tricks to deliver too little, too late on its pledge to the state’s schools.

The Bugle visited schools in our circulation area to find out what the financial picture is at the schools and what funding-based changes parents and students can expect to encounter when school re-opens in a few days.


A revolving door

Dan Mesick, Como Park Senior High principal for the last five years, acknowledges that, district wide, some programs have been cut in St. Paul Public Schools and class size at Como Park may inch up by a student or two this year. Nevertheless, he hopes that “nothing will be noticed” by returning students, because “the high school was able to mitigate some budget cuts.” An increase in the total number of students enrolled at Como High has led to a “smidge more money,” he says.

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been layoffs. Although the total number of teachers at Como will remain the same, he explains, “We lost some young, bright, energetic teachers who were bumped out of their positions” at Como by teachers with more seniority.

“It’s hard to build continuity from year to year,” says Mesick. “There’s a revolving door aspect to some programs.” Mesick fears that budgetary problems for his school will only increase in the coming year. Without continued support from Washington, “the federal stimulus funding will go away at the end of the coming year. At the same time we’re in a double bind, because we’re facing a district-wide enrollment decline,” he says.

Nonetheless, Mesick is an optimist by nature. “Nobody can predict the future,” he says. Meanwhile, he is looking forward to several innovations at Como High this fall. “There’s a renewed emphasis on getting real-time test data that we need to help students succeed,” he says. He’s also excited about a program called Advancement via Individual Determination [AVID] “which focuses on kids in the middle and pushes them to take higher level classes.” To help foster academic success in AVID and other programs, Mesick is counting on the expansion of adult volunteer programs. “It takes a lot of work to get a volunteer in the right spot,” he says, but he relishes the effort. “I still get excited to go back to school. It’s still worth fighting the fight.”


Community resources help

Christine Vang, principal of Como Park Elementary, also recognizes the importance of volunteers to make up for budgetary shortfalls. “We work with multiple resources from the community,” she says, but she is especially pleased about the six Minnesota Reading Corps volunteers who will join her staff this fall. Reading Corps volunteers make a one-year full-time commitment to a school in return for a modest stipend. The specially screened and trained volunteers work as literacy tutors in pre-school through third grade classrooms.

Vang says that Como Park may have been shielded somewhat from the brunt of system-wide cutbacks, because their building also houses programs for special education and for English Language Learner training for newcomers to the United States. The Language Academy, as it’s called, welcomes students from a broad variety of linguistic backgrounds, but for the last five years many of the students are from the Karen (pronounced kah-REN)-speaking population of Myanmar (formerly Burma.)

“Budget cuts are always difficult,” says Vang, “but we are working very hard to make sure that the critical components are intact.”

Ann Johnson, principal of St. Anthony Park Elementary School, says the biggest change her kids will notice this fall involves the band program. Band class will no longer be part of the school day, but lessons will be available in an after-school program. Johnson says that community parents are currently at work applying for grants to help with funding. “It’s a priority to do it right,” says Johnson. “Fortunately the St. Anthony Park Foundation and the parents are very dedicated. We get a lot of support from the community.”

Business and community partnerships are key to coping with revenue challenges, according to Jill Gebeke, principal of Chelsea Heights Elementary School. Gebeke, who fears the next fiscal year may be much tougher than this one, cites the Park Midway Bank as a model for the kind of partnership building she envisions. Over the course of the coming school year, the bank will sponsor drives for school supplies, hats and mittens, and books to benefit her school. She also notes the help offered by reading volunteers from nearby Como Lutheran Church.

“I believe the worst is yet to come [fiscally],” says Gebeke, “and we’ll need to be more creative with business partnerships.”


Tutoring program restored

At Murray Junior High, it’s safe to say that the biggest change students will notice is the arrival of a new principal, Timothy Williams [see accompanying story].

Assistant Principal Dan Sagar notes that there will be other new faces at Murray this fall, but, overall, only one half-time teaching position in social studies was cut. One last-minute restoration was the Murray Pilot One-on-One tutoring program. The program-which pairs adult tutors with struggling students who have not yet passed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests-was slated to end, but achieved a last-minute reprieve when additional temporary funds became available.


‘All schools are struggling’

While Principal Paul Charest of the Falcon Heights Elementary School in the Roseville District has a slightly different perspective that comes from working in a suburban school system, he notes, “All schools are struggling.” At Falcon Heights, class size will increase by “half a student per class” and the school’s media specialist will move from full-time to half-time status.

Charest is more dismayed by what he sees as fraying compromises in school funding than by the actual cuts that his school has absorbed. “State payments [under the funding formula] were delayed by the governor … so the school districts must borrow money [in the meantime] and pay interest on it. … [It] helps the state, but school districts must figure out what they’re going to do.”

Charest attributes the funding problems to “the constant pressure to balance budgets without raising taxes.”

If Charest’s students don’t notice too many changes this fall it’s partly because Barb Anderson is doing her job well. Anderson, assistant director for finance and budget for the Roseville Area School District, says, “We tried to keep cuts away from the classroom.” Anderson notes that “incremental reductions” are felt behind the scenes in areas like reduced prep time for teachers’ assistants and a reduction in the number of literacy coaches that were hired to improve the teaching of reading. As for cutbacks in buildings and grounds, Anderson says, “We’re already thin on maintenance. We cut that fat long ago.”

Anderson explains that about two-thirds of the district’s funding comes from sources other than local property taxes. The impact of the delays and shortfalls in expected state money has been softened over the last two years by the infusion of about $6 million in federal stimulus money. But this period may be coming to an end. “There’s no carryover from this stimulus package,” says Anderson, and she adds that it’s too early to determine what the effect will be of the new stimulus package signed into law by President Obama in mid-August. “We don’t know how much money there will be and how it will be distributed,” she adds.

When asked to forecast the future, Anderson is somber. Whatever happens, she says, “It will be a public process [with] input from the community.” Although she’s not much given to making sweeping generalizations, she acknowledges, “I’ve been in my position for 20 years now, and I don’t recall that there’s ever been this great a projected deficit. And nobody knows what to do with it.”


When Judy Woodward’isn’t writing articles, she is a reference librarian at the Roseville Library. She has lived in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood for 25 years.