YOUR TURN: St. Paul Public Schools Budget Forum


St. Paul Public Schools face a budget deficit of $25 million for the 2009-2010 school year. The school board has held public discussion sessions, and encouraged public input in a variety of settings. We want to encourage TC Daily Planet readers to use this forum as another opportunity for public discussion. The sidebar (yellow background, below) lists proposed budget cuts.

We have asked for, and received, some thoughtful and thought-provoking responses, published below. Marita Bujold, a St. Paul resident and education advocate, asks: “What if the pain of sacrificing important programs and increasing class sizes became intolerable? What if the impact of the broken healthcare system on our schools became the rallying cry for finally fixing the system? ” Scroll down or click here for the rest of her response.

Anne Holzman, a former teacher, current parent of children enrolled (or about to be) in St. Paul public schools, and journalist who has covered education and taken apart budgets before, also weighs in” “At this moment in the history of St. Paul schools, we need some really creative solutions. It’s too hard for all of us to fight over cuts – someone’s going to get hurt, and we’ll wind up with a wounded community.” Scroll down or click here for the rest of her response.

We also invite your input here, contributing to the public discussion of priorities.

For other articles about the SPPS budget, see:

Teachers call on board, administrators to hear their budget solutions
St. Paul parents, teachers talk to the Board
On his knees, band director pleading to stop SPPS music cuts .

According to the SPPS website:

Principals and site councils prepare their budgets and return them to the district office in May to be assembled into the final budget. The board is expected to vote on approval of the 2009-10 budget at its June 16 meeting. By law, the district must have a board-approved, balanced budget by June 30.

Budget Reduction Survey

The SPPS survey lists various areas where cuts might be made, and the amount that could be saved by each cut, and asks for input on each:

Propose no Cost Of Living Allowance (COLA) increase on all eligible employee contracts for 2009-10. This would have to be negotiated with employee bargaining units, including: ASAP, Nutrition Services, Educational Assistants, Principals, School & Community Service, Teachers, Machinists, SPSO, PEA, MMSA, Superintendency. = $5,018,736

Reduce central administration, eliminating positions and other expenses from several departments and programs. In 2007-08, the SPPS district-level administration costs made up about 3.4% of the total budget, which is below the 2006-07 state average of 4.2% (most recent data available). = $2,311,724

Propose no increase in district health insurance contribution on all eligible employee contracts for 2009-10. This would have to be negotiated with employee bargaining units, including: ASAP, Nutrition Services, Educational Assistants, Principals, School & Community Service, Teachers, Machinists, SPSO, PEA, MMSA, Superintendency. = $1,488,670

Use fund balance but stay in compliance with board policy of 5% of the total budget in fund balance, sometimes called a “rainy day” fund. = $1,000,000

Reduce schools’ allocations. Schools would determine specific cuts to their own budgets through a site-based process. This reflects 40% of the $25 million total reduction for 2009-10, which leaves 60% ($15 million) to be cut at the centrally-funded district level (the rest of this survey, including the items above). = $10,000,000

Reduce allocation to English Language Learner (ELL) program, resulting in a 3.6% cut to the department that makes up about 5% of the total budget and serves 40% of our students. = $800,000

Reduce allocation to Special Education program, resulting in a 1.9% cut to the department that makes up 18% of the total budget and serves 17% of our students. = $800,000

Reduce transportation costs. This would be a 2.5% cut in the transportation budget, which makes up 5.8% of the total budget. About 90% of our students ride buses, almost all of which are provided through contracts with private vendors. = $700,000

Reduce the centrally-funded General Fund support for the itinerant Instrumental Music Teachers program, which serve students in grades 4, 5, and 6 by providing them with small and large group band and orchestra instruction. = $700,000

Reduce expenditures on consultants from several departments and programs. These might include services such as security, legal services or professional development. = $650,000

Reduce allocation to Operations programs, which includes building operations and maintenance, technology infrastructure, security, storehouse and delivery, and print/copy/mail services. = $580,000

Reduce athletics programs in line with the decline in enrollment at the secondary level. = $450,000

Eliminate the budget for leadership transition, which currently pays for replacement staff to fill positions during transition (retirement, leave, etc.) = $200,000

Eliminate the Behavior Management implementation program, a 2008-09 effort to standardize a set of classroom management practices across the district. = $100,000

Reduce food costs for family, community and staff development activities. This would not affect food service for students. = $100,000

Implement on-line pay advice for employees. This would save staff time, paper and printing costs. = $100,000

Reduce travel expenditures. Change to a vendor that offers corporate discount rates.= $60,000

Eliminate planning for Ideal Day, a 2008-09 effort to balance continued staff development, school calendar, student instructional day, teacher work day and work load. = $50,000

“Not recommended” alternatives are:

Step and lane freeze, which would stop progression of salary raises (based on education and years of service) for affected staff. This would be subject to negotiation through employee contracts. = $3,763,718

Two-day closure of the district. This would also be subject to negotiation through employee contracts. = $2,700,000

Add a 4th tier of busing, which would mean that some schools/programs would start between 10 and 10:20, and end between 4:30 and 4:50 (all times approximate). As a result, transportation for after-school ALC programs would essentially be eliminated. = $2,250,000

Reduce district-funded content coaches , who provide teachers with on-site professional development in curriculum and instructional best practices. = $1,400,000

Reduce transportation for secondary students This would change current practice (which does not provide busing within a 1-mile distance from school) to state law, which requires busing beyond a 2-mile distance from the school. This proposal would only apply to middle and senior high students. = $750,000

Reduce money for school program changes. Changes to school programs, as part of school improvement and Large-Scale System Changes, would have to be done within existing budgets. = $500,000

Estimated per school closing. Actual reduction depends on the school/program being closed, but this is an estimate based on the staff and operational costs for an average elementary school. No school closings are planned for 2009-10. = $400,000

Additional athletics reduction = $350,000

Eliminate Career in Education, a professional development program related to the Achievement of Tenure process. = $240,161

Save salary costs through early retirements, which could increase with incentives. = $200,000

Additional Special Education reduction (net of revenue loss) = $200,000

Additional ELL (English Language Learner) program reduction = $200,000

Reduce professional development for current principals = $50,000

What do you think? Daily Planet readers are invited to add their comments and ideas right here in our SPPS Budget Forum. We strongly encourage St. Paul residents to fill out the SPPS official budget survey.

The yellow sidebar sets out the options for budget-cutting listed as currently under consideration in the SPPS official budget survey. Those listed at the end are characterized as “not recommended,” but as possible alternatives.

Citizens who want to weigh in can also contact school board members– click here for links to phone numbers and email addresses and attend school board meetings and site council meetings at your school.

The next school board meetings are April 14 and May 16. Other public meetings are scheduled for:

• May 12: Forum at Central HS: Staff from 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Public from 6-8 p.m. (in English with Hmong, Spanish and Somali interpreters)

• May 28: Forum at Harding High School: Staff from 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Public from 6-8 p.m. (in English with Hmong, Spanish and Somali interpreters)

• June 11: Board Listening Session (no topic – open forum)

Marita Bujold: Silence the saxophones or sound the trumpets for change

The last time you attended a public high school band or orchestra concert in St. Paul, it is likely that you found yourself applauding enthusiastically and telling the music director that you were impressed by the caliber of music produced by kids ages 14-18.

Unless you were a parent of one of those wonderful kids, what you may not have realized at the time is that you could also take some credit for their accomplishments because it was your tax dollars that supported their early exposure to instrumental music.

Years before that stellar performance, when those kids were playing their first squeaky notes on the trumpet or clarinet, they were taught by a small troop of itinerant music teachers who made the rounds to elementary schools. Their efforts lay the groundwork for the high school band and orchestra programs in the same way that learning to read opens the door to reading history, the daily newspaper and plays by William Shakespeare.

The investment in instrumental music pays off. Aside from the obvious benefit of learning to play an instrument-some students even learn to play more than one – students enrolled in band and orchestra become members of a group that works, learns and plays together. The impact of membership in a group really cannot be overstated. It is an integral part of students’ success.

Despite the evidence of the benefits of the elementary instrumental music program, it is on the list of proposed cuts to the budget of the St. Paul Public Schools. It makes no sense to cut programs with proven track records. In fact, one could argue that more students be given the opportunity to utilize those programs and others like them.

But public schools are not in a position to make decisions based only on what is effective. St. Paul’s public schools share some of the same challenges as every other district in the state. They are constrained by costs, which require a solution at the level of the federal government and the state’s declining investment in public education since 2003.

Topping the list are the inflated cost of healthcare premiums and the federally mandated costs incurred by providing special education and complying with the No Child Left Behind law.

Every year healthcare premiums increase. As with other businesses, school district budgets struggle to absorb these annual increases. Schools are not responsible for fixing the broken healthcare system, but they are paying the cost in fewer resources available for school programs or additional teachers. Healthcare reform is being discussed in Congress right now. It is a good time to let Congress know that reducing the costs of healthcare premiums is absolutely critical for preserving schools’ resources.

The cost of special education is absorbed by local districts largely because the federal government fails to provide its promised forty percent share of the cost. For St. Paul district schools special education amounts to 18% of its total budget. If the federal government provided the resources it promised, a considerable sum would be available to provide access to other needed programs.

When Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind law, it failed to provide the resources to help schools comply with the mandate. Local school districts absorb the costs of compliance further reducing funding available for other programs.

The federal government plays a role in education, but the evidence shows that it has failed to be a reliable partner. Congress needs to be held accountable for providing promised funding.

In the same way, the public schools must be able to rely on Minnesota to provide adequate resources to teach to our state’s standards. The Minnesota Budget Project recently released its study of Minnesota’s public investments. They reviewed four areas including E-12 education. They named the report “Minnesota’s Lost Decade.” The report reveals that while costs for schools have increased, state dollars invested in public education have declined. Local property taxes now pay a greater proportion of the cost of public education.

St Paul Public Schools must balance their district’s budget. The long list of proposed budget cuts on the district’s website suggest that they are taking the standard approach to dealing with deficits. But what if St. Paul’s citizens rallied to demand the resources that the federal government has denied for decades?

What if the pain of sacrificing important programs and increasing class sizes became intolerable? What if the impact of the broken healthcare system on our schools became the rallying cry for finally fixing the system?

Don’t cancel the music teachers. Envision more students playing the saxophone and the tuba. Envision a partnership between communities, Congress and state leaders which reflects a commitment to provide more opportunities to help all of our students thrive. Then contact members of Congress tell them that now is the time to provide the change we need.

For more information, visit the Minnesota Budget Project and Parents United.

Anne Holzman: Creative solutions

At this moment in the history of St. Paul schools, we need some really creative solutions. It’s too hard for all of us to fight over cuts – someone’s going to get hurt, and we’ll wind up with a wounded community.

I’d like to see a two-pronged approach coming from our school board.

One is to see some truly groundbreaking reorganizations in a couple of areas, led by citizens (including but not limited to current school-attached parents and maybe some retired teachers or professors of pedagogy). Athletics strikes me as an obvious area; there are pedagogical standards for physical education in every grade, and we should be sure those are being met and get strict about not forcing the schools to meet requirements beyond those standards. Special education is another, considering that it now has a prayer of actually being funded by the federal government that mandates it.

But no amount of creative reorganization will balance a budget that looks like this, so the other approach I’d like to see the school board taking is a combination of leadership and rhetoric. We need to know the people who serve on our board, so that we trust their judgment; in my ten years as a pretty active St. Paul citizen, I’ve met only one (and that was a coincidence involving a family wedding). I hardly ever see them quoted in the press and have yet to run into one at a school event. We need them to speak to us in their individual ways, reassuring us of their passion for doing what is best for our children. We need to hear explosions of unrestrained enthusiasm for the hard work our teachers and administrators do, the hard work our parents do, and the wonderful communities that not only raise our children but undergird the entire city as a social and political entity. They’re going to have to give us some bad news pretty soon, and we need to really, really trust that they’re acting in our best interests.

I’d like to stop hearing that they want to hear from us; there’s been too much of that, and I’m not dense enough to think I’m actually being called upon to solve anything. I want to hear, loud and clear, who’s making this decision and what personal stake they have in making the right one.

I’ve got a few more thoughts to throw out there, but I’m finding it really hard to consolidate them into general comments. So I’ll throw out a few in two areas to start with:

First, school choice has turned our education system, especially the parent participation aspect, into a giant marketing game, and it’s destroying our ability to talk to each other. Our site council’s Web page (SAP elementary) mentions nothing at all about facing these budget cuts, only what you’d have to call advertising, I assume to avoid scaring prospective families away. If we really face drastic budget cuts, we need a statewide moratorium on charter schools, or at least the ability for cities or districts to declare one. The district should reconsider its magnet-school approach and instead focus on making sure every child has a school they can reasonably get to, at a time when they’re ready to learn.

I’m a big believer in second-language education, but having chosen a neighborhood elementary, I’m finding that my child gets no second-language instruction at all except what I can provide (speaking Spanish to them at home; exposure to Hebrew at Shir Tikvah). Why are all these immersion schools getting all the second-language instruction? Why should there be conservatories for a few kids while my child, whose private instrumental lessons I pay for, loses the prospect of orchestra instruction at its correct developmental window? I work hard to support our modest little private music school, but I can’t finance a whole damn orchestra just for him!

We can’t expect parents not to seek out the best possible option for their own children; we need public policy that does less “listening” and more negotiating. My family’s best option will be homeschooling, and pretty soon, at the rate we’re going, unless someone assures me that the atomization of our education system will soon be repaired. And I’ll bet I’m not the only formerly part-time working, now unemployed parent who’s thinking that way right about now.

Second, the schools have been converted from primarily educational institutions, to primarily child care institutions that have played a large and nearly unmentioned role in the productivity of the U.S. economy as they have enabled women to get into the workforce. It is just plain EVIL to have leadership that does not recognize this and continues to squeeze from teachers and parents—and ultimately, the next generation—the labor that used to be shared by all. All this talk of “accountability” is worse than hogwash; it borders on blasphemy as we dishonor the children who are our future.

I don’t know how to organize this, but in my middle-of-the-night ranting, I’ve been visualizing neighborhood marches on the state capitol, attempts to turn out not just parents and school-age kids, but EVERYONE, organized by attendance area, carrying signs that read “tax the rich” and “save our schools” and “teachers are not the problem” and “children who live with selfishness will learn to be selfish,” etc. We are undoubtedly in a recession, but damn it, we still live in a society that builds elaborate weapons we don’t need, and a state where airplanes are taking off and landing every day and plenty of people still seem to be eating expensive steaks and getting cosmetic dentistry done, to judge by the ads in local magazines.

ALL OF THAT IS SUPPORTED BY THE SCHOOLS THAT TAKE CARE OF THE CHILDREN SO THE PARENTS CAN BE WORKING! The top earners have to share, that’s all there is to it, and if our governor can’t find a graceful way to get out of the way and allow that to happen, he should be recalled from office so someone else can take a crack at it. I don’t think defeating him in the next election is soon enough to keep our schools from suffering serious damage. He talks a good line about “protecting” K-12 education, but that’s so out of date, it’s ridiculous. Education doesn’t need protecting. Our children need a safe place to play, learn, eat and rest during the day, and they’re not getting it and haven’t been for a generation now.

I’ll end by saying that I grew up in Philadelphia and Detroit, where these conversations were already happening 40 years ago, and my parents, discouraged, retreated to private education. I returned as an adult to a neighboring city, Washington, D.C., where friends who had school-age children spent their workdays largely trying to figure out a safe and productive arrangement for their children, public schools not being an option, as we saw in the recent publicity over the Obama family’s choices. Minnesota looks to me like it’s headed for the economic stagnation that went with lousy public schools in the northeast in the last quarter of the last century. Let’s turn this around before it’s too late.

Anne Holzman
Mother of 3 (oldest now in grade 2 at St. Anthony Park Elementary); former secondary English teacher; freelance reporter and editor