Coming up short

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I’m not quite sure how the Saint Paul Public School District managed to have two years where there were 20 million dollar shortfalls in the four and a half years that I worked there but somehow it did. That’s greater than 40 percent of the time that I was employed by the district.

The district likes to point out that paying staff is its biggest cost-the district says salaries account for 81 percent of its operating budget. Not too many districts cut more jobs between 2005 and 2010 than SPPS did and nearly all of those jobs were never reactivated. The jobs are gone forever. Somehow, though, even after all those cuts, in 2011 the district faced a 20 million dollar shortfall. This year its facing another $20 million shortfall.

Is the district’s operating budget not enough to cover overworked and understaffed duly earned teachers’ salaries? Is it not enough to cover the generally modest wages of its always shrinking support staff? Shouldn’t a school district’s budget ensure the important services its school based employees provide is adequately funded?

When discussing salaries wouldn’t it make more economic sense to cut at the top tiers of district leadership? The superintendent makes around $210,000 a year with a bonus option. The district’s top leadership isn’t too far behind when you’re talking in relative terms. Can’t any of these positions be cut? Does a school district really need five assistant superintendents, a CEO, a COO, and a cabinet level technology services position (which was just reinstated last year after being unfilled for more than a decade)?

If the district maintains the costs aren’t out of control due to too many large salaries and compensation packages for its top administration officials where is the waste coming from? Federal tax dollars pay for the free breakfast and free and reduced lunches provided for students from low income families. Teachers are forced to pay for so many of their classroom supplies out of pocket. Except for iPads (which, of course, have “dedicated” funding) there are too many district computers (think student computer labs and computer carts) that are between five and ten years old. The average printer is ten years old. So it’s evident that computer equipment purchases shouldn’t have contributed to the shortfalls, especially when most computer purchases (all with the exception of testing labs before this last school year) are paid for by the schools themselves.

There’s really no good reason the district should find itself in this position. There’s no reason the superintendent and other top district officials need to make significantly more than the governor. There’s no reason the district shouldn’t be able to pay for its employees salaries and wages under its normal operating budget. The reason for the district’s wasteful spending should be investigated by the MN Department of Education.