Insight News talks with Dr. Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of St. Paul Schools, about the leadership and funding needs of public schools.
Minnesota should provide much more aggressive leadership to create a long term, stable funding strategy for all public school districts in the state, according to Dr. Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district.
In St. Paul,” she said, “the conversation about the budget started almost a year ago, before I even came to the district. We had conversations about what it would take to get as close as possible to a stable funding strategy through what was in our control, and what we could do to offset the instability that was happening at the state.”
“St. Paul is not alone in the ups and downs of funding while trying to hold together high quality programs. It starts with the state and federal funding programs and trickles down into our communities,” Carstarphen said last month in a broadcast interview for the Conversations with Al McFarlane public policy program.
St. Paul Public Schools for the last several yeas has experienced about a $68 million budget cut. “It’s been incredibly demoralizing,” she said, “and over time that really takes a toll on staff morale and on our ability as executive leaders to do a good job.”
Carstarphen said before she came on board, the district launched a very aggressive multi-year referendum strategy. That strategy was part of a long-term formula for setting in place a funding strategy that would work for students, families and district employees.
“I hit the ground running on July 21st of last year. So I haven’t even been here a year yet. I feel like we’ve done seven years of work in seven months, and I’m being honest about that. I don’t think I have a single staff member, from custodians to my senior leadership team, that hasn’t felt the burn. We’ve been sprinting up hill. Hats off to my staff and the community, for taking this challenge, putting it underneath their wing, running up that mountain! We passed that referendum with a passage rate that was higher than any district in the state, definitely in the history of St. Paul. Over 62% of our voting population said ‘yes.'”
Carstarphen praised St. Paul as a community that understands and values quality education. “We have a community that has said they value, in a world of choices in education, charter schools, home schools, private schools, St. Paul Public Schools — that St. Paul Public School is a real choice for our families and communities. That is great news for us. And they voted. They went to the polls and told us so. So I am taking that on as a vote of confidence that we are going to do the right thing in St. Paul,” she said
The legislature and governor recently approved an education bill that was good news for many districts across the state because it provided funding for the 2007-08 federal mandates for special education.
“They did one thing that we have needed for the last seven years. It is still not enough. It is not enough. We cannot stop now. But we did get some relief, which means no hardcore budget cuts for St. Paul this year. That is a huge win. A huge win. And from that we are able to do things that we have never done before,” she said.
“We are restoring about $2 million of funding directly back to schools to make up for some past wrongs put on them during those seven years of budget cuts. We’re restoring special education funding to our schools.”
“I am a former accountability officer. I take money and data very seriously. I want the public to know that we are not going to short change them,” she said.
St. Paul Public Schools is one of 66 districts across the nation that are known as Great City Schools. The designation reflects size, budget, challenges, and the number of students. The Great City Schools network leaders get together throughout the school year and track what’s happening in these 66 districts. Great City Schools include large systems like New York City’s public schools and get as small as a district serving as few as 30,000 students. St. Paul is on the lower end in size and capacity of these 66 districts, with New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, being largest, St. Paul is about the 50th largest, she said.
The district has 42,000 students, 6,000 employees in 120 buildings and programs. There are about 74 traditional school facilities, actual buildings and a teaching staff topping over 4,000. In Minnesota, St. Paul Public Schools is second in size to Anoka County Public Schools. “I have all intentions of changing that. I want to see St. Paul be the largest school district,” Carstarphen said.
While the district is number two in size, it ranks first in percent of kids in poverty, in percent of kids identified as needing special education, and in percent of students who do not speak English as their first language at home. No single ethnic group is the majority. Each major ethnic group is around 20-25%, up to about 30% of the student body.
“That makes us incredibly unique,” Carstarphen said. “We have a special set of challenges, but it is also our strength. If we play to that strength and say that we welcome, respect and want not only this diverse population of our kids to continue to work and learn together, because we’re trying to prepare our kids for a global economy, this will serve them in ways that when you were in school, when I was in school, we didn’t get to experience.”
“So I think in St. Paul we are preparing the future in real, tangible terms. As you can see, that’s very exciting to me. I’ve never worked in a district like this. And I think that we can build on that as our strength that is going to make us number one in the state. Not just for enrollment and diversity but for achievement, and closing achievement gaps, and engaging our community in a way that says, despite what might be happening across the large educational landscape for urban districts, St. Paul Public Schools will be, and we are, head and shoulders above the rest — and we’re going to stand tall for this next round and be number one for excellence. And I think I heard that from our voters when I interviewed for this job. I heard it from our constituencies. I know that’s something we can deliver,” she said.
The district annual budget is $623 million. Only one percent of that funding comes from the federal government and for that reason a lot of education administrators don’t like the federal “No Child Left Behind” mandates. “We all love the mandates and requirements, but these unfunded mandates and requirements break the backs of school systems across the nation. So we love the high standards, but we really want the federal authorities to put the money where their mouth is,” she said.
Some suggest “breaking the back of public schools” is precisely the agenda and goal of conservative ideologues who use unfunded mandates as a tool to cripple and destroy public education. Like goading the U.S.S.R. into an arms race that ultimately led to the Soviet Union spending itself into bankruptcy, then dissolution. You create noble high standards and requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act, but don’t provide federal money to pay for the requirements and eventually public schools. Advocates for public schools say that may be the real and insidious intent of conservatives who want to eliminate public education as we know it.
“I absolutely agree. The last superintendent, Pat Harvey, did a really outstanding job of putting St. Paul as a school district up in front of the nation, having us as part of a national conversation that could influence legislation. This year alone, we sent our English language learner staff to testify with Senators Kennedy and Clinton on the work that we’ve done and why it’s so important that the federal government get funding for No Child Left Behind,” she said. “We also get 84% of our dollars from the legislature of the State of Minnesota, and then fifteen percent comes from our local tax base.
We put 77% of our monies into our classroom and 12% of our dollars in our buildings and facilities. And 8% goes to transportation and meals. Transportations is a big, big, big conversation within St. Paul, because we’re a district where we value choice within the school system. We’ve said to families, ‘your experience in education should not have to be determined by your zip code. You can live anywhere you want. If you want Spanish Immersion, you got it. You don’t have to be zoned into a school. We will bus your child to the program of your choice,’ and that is very expensive for us,” she said.
Carstarphen said St. Paul Public Schools spends only three percent of its budget on central administration, a figure lower than state or national averages. “In my reorganization, I have been very careful and thoughtful about not expanding the administration. I want to be respectful of those things that people in St. Paul say they value. They don’t want a big, robust administration. And at the same time, as the executive officer of a school system, I am going to say that we need to do more investment there. So it’s a conversation that we’re going to be negotiating over the years, but one that when we have the right people in the right place with the right bus going in the right direction, they’ll see how that will pay off for them in the long run.”
Education watchers say a principal challenge of urban school districts is creating a unity of purpose between stakeholders in the education apparatus. Does to school system owe its highest allegiance to organized labor, teachers represented by their collective bargaining agreements? Or do taxpayer interests and priorities come first? What about the interests of students and families?
“My whole training has been fairly controversial, considering the traditional training that most superintendents experienced. I was raised, professionally, in the era of accountability. So conversations about No Child Left Behind and closing the achievement gap and rethinking our relationships to unions and teachers is a norm for me. I have found in my time here that because there are so many people who are used to doing business in the old way, my professional training, sooner or later, comes in conflict with what they are used to,” she said. “If there is one thing I am, I am always very consistent about my message: I want to better support schools. I want more transparency. I want us to be accountable for our work. I want to talk more about achievement. I want less low-level thinking. I want more high-level thinking, preparing kids for the future. And I just keep saying it over and over again, and that just keeps building while, you might see some of the old guard conversation about ‘What about us? What about us?'”
Carstarphen said the relationship between the district and the teacher’s union here is so different from any she has seen anywhere else in the country. “I am encouraged by our union president and her vision for accountability in the classroom,” she said.
“If I had no other choice but to invest in one thing, hands down, I would put money into developing the highest quality teacher that money could buy so that our kids are getting taught by the most competent, the most interested, the most dedicated, the most embracing and welcoming and loving teachers in this country. So I want to do what is typically the opposite of what most urban districts are seeing: I want to invest in my teachers. I want to put more money into materials and resources for them. I want them to be happy and engaged in their jobs. I want them to apply consistency in the rigor of their instruction, for every child. I want all expectations high, for every baby, regardless of their ethnicity, or their socioeconomic status or their language or their special need,” she said.
“So that’s a different kind of conversation my union president, Mary Katherine Wicker and the administration under my executive leadership are starting. A high quality teacher is the premier indicator for a higher achieving student. So if I could get my arms around what it would take to get every teacher in St. Paul to be the best teacher, we don’t have to worry about achievement gaps, we don’t have to worry about enrollment, we don’t have to worry about money, because ‘if you build it, they will come.’ They will come back again and again and again,” she said.