Why Is the School District Drastically Cutting Local School Budgets?
Minneapolis Public Schools face a $25 million shortfall; cuts to the classroom and central office are proposed.
To long-time public school parents, painful budget cuts at neighborhood schools are nothing new, mostly driven by the economy or the state budget. This year, some of the hatchet blows are self-inflicted as the Minneapolis schools struggle to build a budget that doesn't rely on one-time accounting tricks.
Earlier this week, Minneapolis Public Schools officials released details of the proposed budget for the 2013-2014 school year to principals and parent leaders. Howls of protest greeted the package of cuts, with some calling the reductions "catastrophic." Friday morning, the school board's Finance Committee met to get a high-level overview of the proposal.
Much of the $25 million in cuts comes to the district's attempt to stop relying on what district Chief Financial Officer Robert Doty and Budget Director Sarah Snapp called the "crutch" of money from the district's reserves, called its "fund balance." That money, Doty said, should only be reserved for emergencies like the 2011 state government shutdown, rather than trying to paper over a structurally unbalanced budget. The current budget uses $19 million in reserve funds to close its budget gap. In the last three years, the district's fund balance has hovered between $80 and 90 million; the current fund balance, Snapp said, is only enough to cover six weeks of operations.
"We don't have the ability to go back to that well again and again," Doty said.
At the same time, the district is also coming down off of several years of one-time federal aid dolled out by President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package, intended to keep the district afloat when the bottom fell out of the economy—and its tax base. In past years, the district also used some of that money to help close its budget deficit. The current budget leans on around $2 million in this one-time federal aid.
"If your grandmother sends you a check for your birthday and you go out to dinner with it, fine," Snapp told Patch in an interview after Friday's meeting. "But if you pay the rent with that, unless you have a birthday every month, you're going to have a problem."
"The stimulus delayed the point at which we needed to confront that we were structurally out of balance," she added.
Concerned parents may dispute the wisdom of launching a balanced budget campaign right now, but other, substantial portions of the $25 million deficit are being driven by forces not of the district's making.
Elementary-age students are surging into the city's public schools, forcing the district to add classrooms—and associated teachers and support staff. Because of how state education funding works, Snapp said, the district is not getting enough money to offset those costs. One rare point of agreement between district staff and concerned parents at Friday's meeting was that the current state funding setup needs to change, to increase per-student state aid. Board members urged parents to get involved with statewide parent-run lobby group Parents United for Public Schools, to help force change.
On top of that, state lawmakers are trying to reform the way desegregation money is allocated, and their current proposal could cost Minneapolis schools $3 million.
Lastly, federal aid cut under the sequester will cost the district about $2 million, but that number could rise by an additional $5 million depending on decisions by the federal Department of Education.
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