“School transformation” is a term that’s been used in the last few months by the Minneapolis Public Schools administration and school board to refer to changes to the school system in the face of a growing deficit. Some school board members have said these changes will include closing schools and redrawing attendance areas.

“I worry about the Minneapolis Public Schools community being ready to go through that again,” Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox said at Achieve Twin Cities’ event, “Big Challenges, Realistic Solutions: Confronting a Potential Financial Crisis for Minneapolis Public Schools” on October 2.  

The event, hosted at Icehouse, included presentations by Cox and Senior Officer of Finance and Operations Ibrahima Diop and a panel of MPS community members including  South High School student Amira Ali, also a member of the MPS CityWide Student Leadership Board; Andersen United Middle School Principal Tara FitzGerald; Andersen teacher Teresa Gloppen; and Lyndale Elementary School parent Elleni Fellows. A recording of the event can be viewed on the Achieve Twin Cities Facebook page.

At the event, Cox said a plan for making changes to the number of schools or enrollment boundaries would need to be in place by October of the year before any changes would take effect in order to give the district, schools, staff, parents, students and community adequate time to plan and make adjustments. That means if changes are to happen next year, the MPS community would have been hearing about it by now.

Cox’s remarks are the first public acknowledgment  of when changes might happen, as the district confronts how to balance its budget after federal pandemic aid expires in September 2024.

In her remarks, Cox defended her choices to add new education staff during a teacher shortage and a year of federal pandemic aid left to support those new positions. She explained how priority-based budgeting informed her decision to fund intervention triads to meet the academic needs of students who aren’t proficient at grade level nor making progress, new teaching staff for advanced learners, and adding part-time licensed librarians at each school.

Cox said people told her she was “crazy” to add 400 intervention triad staff, but told the audience the district will have sufficient data in January 2024 to know whether the triads are working.

Cox called her choice to use the final year of ESSER funding for new initiatives, instead of continuing the status quo, “radical.”

At the talk, Cox said people said she was “kinda crazy for [adding intervention staff] when there’s this thing called a teacher shortage.” Again, Cox defended the choice, saying, “The shortages we’re seeing are at schools that historically have shortages. So there is a root cause problem that we have to solve in Minneapolis Public Schools.”

While Cox’s remarks focused on the staffing added to schools this year, Diop highlighted the role of declining enrollment within the district and the needed staffing cuts to balance its budget when federal pandemic aid expires in September 2024.

Unlike most other school districts, Minneapolis Public Schools shares a five year financial projection each fall with the public, called the pro forma.

According to Diop, starting in 2017, the pro forma laid out a status quo scenario where the district would have faced statutory operating debt around fiscal year 2022 if it did not make structural changes to its budget. The conditions underlying that projection included the declining school-age population in Minneapolis, and the increasing number of Minneapolis families choosing non-district schools for their children. These conditions continue to impact district finances because nearly all of the district’s funding is tied to enrollment.

What did change was the influx of over $250 million in federal aid to the school district because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Diop. The pandemic also led the district’s vacancy rate to increase from 3-5% to upwards of 10%, which means the district has budgeted to spend money on staff that it has not spent because the positions went unfilled. Between fiscal year 2021 and 2022, Diop said the district spent just under half of its pandemic funds on covering a $40 million budget deficit and increasing the district’s fund balance by $38 million.

“Now we will have to do the work to reduce our expenses,” Diop said, of the path ahead for Minneapolis Public Schools, when federal pandemic aid ends.

He said the district’s operations are still structured to service 55,000 students, while enrollment this year is projected to be around 27,000. District’s across the country are facing similar budget challenges from the combination of enrollment declines while they have maintained or added staff.

“If you are to cut expenses in a way that is meaningful, you can’t avoid cutting staff,” Diop added, noting that 84-85% of the district’s budget is spent on employee salaries and benefits. “The budget this year will be something that is really, really, really hard, but it is something that we needed to do ten to fifteen years ago.”

During the question and answer, Diop explained that the district has about nine students for every one licensed staff member, while most districts in Minnesota operate with a ratio closer to fifteen students per licensed staff member. Cutting staff will move the district to an operating structure that is more similar to other districts.

FitzGerald explained that many of the licensed staff that make the ratio of students to staff lower in Minneapolis Public Schools are in non-classroom positions, often supporting teachers.

Ali and Fellows spoke about the importance of engaging the community in district decision-making. To her fellow students, Ali said that when given the opportunity by the district to engage, “It’s our responsibility to step-up, take up that space and say what we need to say.”

Fellows challenged the district to do more to connect with parents who are not already engaged with the district. She said that she has been called on many times to give her feedback to the district, but challenged district staff to broaden the group of parents and students they reach out to.

“It shouldn’t just be the handful. It’s quite easy to develop a shortlist of go-to people,” Fellows said. She added that not all caregivers have the capacity to engage in traditional ways, like showing up to meetings. “So how do you meet those people where they are so that they can participate?”

The next EDTalks event will be on November 13 at 5:30 pm at Icehouse. The topic for the event will be “We Need Teachers! How to Attract and Diversify Our Teacher Workforce,” and the presenters will include Dr. Rose Wan-Mui Chu, Josh Crosson and Haben Ghebregergish. Tickets are available in advance or walk-in for $5.