When Generic Saint Paul Public Schools Student Lisa goes back to school in September, her school may look quite different. The new St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) budget for 2008-2009 includes $7 million in cuts. An additional million dollars will come from the reserves to make up an $8 million budget shortfall.
Individual school budgets were due at the district office May 1. Each St Paul public school decides how to allocate its slice of the budget pie, within federal, state and district requirements for programs. Their responses to the cuts might be very different, but generally, former principal and SPPS official Nancy Stachel said, schools might cut field trips, or reduce hours for teacher’s assistants, or shelve plans to replace needed technology.
In some classrooms, she said, “The sad thing is, nothing might change because a teacher just increases his or her out-of-pocket expenses.”
Continuing budget cuts will be the near-term financial future for SPPS. The district’s – and the nation’s – population is getting older, children are growing older, and adults are having fewer children. For a district that essentially built itself to educate the baby boom and its copious progeny, the drop in numbers of children is a shock to the system that will only dissipate after the decline in students bottoms out.
SPPS is not under any illusions that they can ride out this trend without changes. In interviews, Nancy Stachel (the Deputy Chief Academic Officer) and Tom Goldstein and Keith Hardy from the school board did not beat about the bush: some staffing cuts, however gradual, will have to be made. Other cuts also will have to be made, although all agreed the cuts would be kept away from classrooms as much as possible. Those are the realities of a budget where most of the funding comes from the state, on a per-student basis, but where the state does not – or cannot – meet all its funding commitments.
“There really is no fat left to cut,” Stachel, an SPPS principal until last year, said. The only things left to cut are support staff, she said, as well as paraprofessionals, or guidance counselors.
“It would be nice if the state fully funded Special Education,” said Stachel. The state is technically obligated to fund this and other major programs, in part or in whole. State underfunding, she said, is the other major force cutting the SPPS budget, after decline in student enrollment.
This time around, 9 of St. Paul’s 65 elementary, middle, and high schools will lose more than 10 percent of the funding they had last year, and a further six will lose between 6 and 10 percent of their funding. In addition to enrollment decline at individual schools, changing numbers of poor children are a major factor in changing individual school budgets. Additional state aid is designated for students who qualify for free or reduced price lunches.
But don’t hyperventilate yet, say SPPS officials, insisting that schools are a long way from any catastrophic tailspin. SPPS has a few tricks up its sleeve to slow the student decline and keep delivering quality education as the district population stabilizes over the next three or four years.
Goldstein and Hardy both say the goal is to simultaneously maintain a high quality of teachers and teaching while introducing new programs, like Phalen Lake Elementary’s Hmong studies focus. These new programs offer choices previously found mainly at charter schools. To do this, SPPS official Shirley Heitzman says, the school district has to turn to grants from the federal government or private foundations, building on the district’s long-standing use of grants to fuel pilot programs.
A quirk of grant requirements means that five new programs are highlighted on page 14 in this year’s budget book. The programs – two federal, three privately-funded – together are worth $2.7 million. While the amount is around one-third of the budget shortfall, the grants are restricted to specific projects, and cannot be used to make up the shortfall. The most prominent is the federal grant used to turn Arlington High School into a biotech magnet school, but other grants fund programs such as a restructuring of the early kindergarten program and improving guidance counseling.
Heitzman, the Director of the Office of Fund Development for SPPS, describes grants like these as “funds that expand capability to try best practices.” Without this money, the district would not have the funds to try out improvements on a small scale, risking costly failures in what she agreed was an essential part of SPPS’s strategy for weathering the demographic storm.
Even funding for the AP and IB programs depends on grant money. These programs are highly popular with parents and critical to ensuring SPPS graduates are prepared for the best colleges and universities. They require extra teacher training, which could not be paid for from the normal budget.
At any one time, Heitzman said, St Paul schools have around $18 million in 117 grant projects, closely managed by more than 50 district staff. As important as grant money is in initiating changes and improvements, Heitzman said it could never replace state funding as a real source of income, if only because the district’s enormous need far exceeds all education dollars given by private foundations in the metro area.
James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern at the Daily Planet.