Photos and story by David Pierini, editor of North News

The school year at Lucy Laney Community School begins with a new mantra.

Principal Lisa Pawelak stresses over the summer to find the perfect words to inspire and guide the school staff. The slogan is on t-shirts and is the last thing Pawelak says each morning as she wraps up morning announcements.

For this year, Pawelak selected “Don’t let anything steal your joy today.”

But budget cuts are a cruel thief. Minneapolis Public Schools are wrestling with a $115 million gap to balance the district’s budget for the next school year.

MPS officials call the budget gap historic and acknowledge the pain the cuts inflict.

Across all schools and administration, some 200 positions are slated for elimination. Fifth-grade music will no longer be funded. Mental health services and the number of High-5 classrooms will be reduced.

No school is spared. Some principals were asked to trim a few hundred thousand from the school budgets. Others will have to cut more than $1 million.

Millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds for schools are set to expire. Declines in enrollment and school-age children in the city have left many school buildings half-empty.

Lucy Laney: a view from one school

The cuts are especially painful to schools in North Minneapolis, whose students live with several life challenges that impact educational outcomes, such as trauma, poverty and housing insecurity.

Principal Lisa Pawelak, center, huddles with other school leaders each morning outside her office. The chat ends with hands in and a chair. With Pawelak are school nurse Jessica Findell, nurse Bettie Joseph Smith, and student support specialist Morgan McDonald.

Northside school cuts total nearly $10.3 million and seven of the eight principals identified for layoff are from schools in North Minneapolis. Pawelak was forced to trim $880,023 for Y25.

“We started the school year with about 70 percent of our children testing in like the high-risk category,” she said. “And there’s fruit we’re seeing. We have some pretty strong growth in a lot of areas… and now we’re going to be tasked with the same work with fewer adults to do the work. It makes me sad because you can’t do as much when you have less, and my teachers are incredible. But it’s really daunting.”

At Lucy Laney, the cuts include the assistant principal, two academic associate educators, one social worker, one lunch/recess educational support professional, one STEAM coordinator, two teacher-leader positions, one half-time associate educator and reduced hours for all ESPs. Field trip money and contracts for professional development were also eliminated.

As the district tinkers with the budget to get ready for a school board vote in June, joy remains palpable in Lucy Laney’s hallways and classrooms.

There are many hugs throughout the day and when staff greet children as they come off the buses.

Staff leaders meet outside Pawelak’s office each morning for a huddle-up that includes a fun icebreaker (like who has better fries, McDonald’s or Wendy’s?), staff and student updates, and a quick cheer. In one third-grade class, faces light up as students race to scribble spelling words on small dry-erase boards.

Third-grade teacher Amelia Spivey works with Ramal Robbinson, left, Veda Dixon, and Jayceon McMahan in a small group.

One boy was sent to cool off in the hallway after an outburst softened when Assistant Principal Joshua Cattedge spoke to him in his warm, raspy voice. He was gathering a small group of boys for a session to get them to talk about their feelings.

Lucy Laney has the most highly mobile or homeless students in the district but manages to nurture steady growth with a “village” approach to educating kids and connecting needy students and their families with services.

Pawlak said she is confident that the staff will maintain the family-like bonds with students and their families going forward. Still, she acknowledges that kids who connect with a specific teacher or assistant principal will feel a loss not seeing those faces next year.

Trevion Clevenger, left, Josiah Dotson Trudell, Lauranna Anderson, and Yeimi Garza got comfortable on the floor for a little focus work.

Even the youngest of students have approached Cattledge, asking if he’s been fired. As much as the staff tries to keep news of the cuts away from their students, they hear and talk about it, Cattledge said.

Sarah Olson, a social worker for the Stable Homes Stable Schools program, is concerned about how cuts and changes will affect children in unstable environments.

“When you go out back and you see all the help the kids have coming out of cabs. Some of our families are homeless and live outside the bus zone,” Olson said. “And you see staff coming out and loving on them, including Joshua. (His departure) lies would be a huge loss to my families I work with. These families are often in crisis, and they know that Josh is like a calming person. My families need him.”

Two days after an interview with North News, Olson learned the district cut her position.

Hard to say goodbye

Pawelak has been at Lucy Laney for 17 years, much of that time as the assistant principal to Mauri Friestleben, who is now the principal at North High School.

Lucy Laney has never been without an assistant principal and Cattledge’s duties will undoubtedly fall to other staff. He is only in his second year as an assistant principal.

Assistant Principal Joshua Cattledge is slated to lose his job if budget cuts for next year are approved. Kids respond to his peaceful energy and Cattledge is a valuable thought partner, Pawelak said.

“I haven’t even fully wrapped my mind around it,” she said. “Our assistant principal is busy. He is working all day every day. Our students need him, our teachers need him. They love him and so it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to both the person and the position it brings to the community.”

Worried parents

Many parents, grateful for Lucy Laney’s reach into the community, are troubled by the cuts. Some have come to school board meetings in tears, asking administrators to reconsider the cuts.

Sara Hollie, who has a fourth grader at Lucy Laney, told the board on March 12 that administrators have not used data to make targeted and equitable decisions.

She described Lucy Laney as a refuge supporting children through challenges and celebrating their progress and triumphs.

“Significant budget cuts by this district are disheartening,” Hollie said. “It does not consider the hard work many Northside schools are doing to improve student achievement, retain staff, have targeted resources for the students in need and continue to support students who are thriving and exceeding grade-level expectations.

School secretary Kelly Knodel and Cattledge work in tandem to request silent passage through the hall.

“The staff, teachers, and leadership should not be expected to do more with less resources and funding to support students because of this proposed budget cut.”

Leona Robertson cares for seven grandchildren at home, five of whom attend Lucy Laney. Robinson said school staff have helped her address mental health challenges with her kids.

A teacher taught one daughter with a learning disability how to read.

“They help with these kids,” Robertson said. “And when they talk about taking away the mental health? What will that do to these kids?”

Honesty Gordon-Scott hugged her principal to start her day.

This story was originally published on North News.