The school board continued its discussion of what it is calling “school transformation” in its May 23 Committee of the Whole meeting. Chair Sharon El-Amin guided, and sometimes prodded, board members through a list of questions, soliciting their guidance for Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox and her Cabinet about what exactly “school transformation” means. 

The responses from board members covered a wide range, but with consensus that any plan must leave the district financially stable in the long-term, improve academics and address long-standing issues in the district around special education, racism and equitable access to high-quality schools. El-Amin asked Cox to bring back options to the board for what could be done, and how it could be done, including information on financial impacts. 

Directors Ira Jourdain and Adriana Cerrillo were absent from the meeting.

The district and Board have known that the district is not financially sustainable since at least 2017. Without action, the Board would leave the district subject to State approval of district financial decisions.

Director Kim Ellison, the longest serving member of the current board, noted that the district has been telling the board for over five years that its operations are not financially sustainable. Indeed, as far back as 2017, the district’s annual pro forma memos, which provide a detailed overview of district finances, predict declining enrollment, expenditures in excess of revenue and a depletion of the district’s unassigned general fund balance. 

The district has delayed statutory operating debt, which would trigger State involvement in district finances, by using $100 million in one-time federal pandemic relief grants to close its budget deficits in recent years. It will use much of the remaining $150 million of those one-time funds during the current school year and next school year. The one-time funds must all be spent by September 30, 2024. There is currently no plan for how the district will address its budget gap once pandemic funds end.

Board members did not discuss the district’s finances during the meeting. However, Finance Committee Chair Director Abdul Abdi suggested board members read the district’s most recent pro forma to understand the significant financial challenges the district faces. He also asked for the finance department to present to the board more information on what the district budget would look like without the pandemic relief funds as part of the budget. This idea was raised by Director Joyner Emerick in the May 16 finance committee meeting.

New State funding will improve the outlook for the district, but will not be enough to resolve the underlying structural issues in the district’s budget. Some of the new funding will be needed to cover the costs of new State policies. The district’s collective bargaining agreement with teachers and ESPs will expire June 30, 2023, and historically the district has passed along State funding increases in the form of higher wages and benefits.

“School Transformation” will include more than just addressing the district’s financial instability.

Directors began their conversation responding to the question of what “school transformation” means to them.

“How are we best using our resources? And do we consolidate some of our resources?” Director Collin Beachy said to the Board. “I know there’s a lot of conversation of schools closings. Is that part of the transformation? It sounds like we’re going to have to have that discussion.” 

In addition to school closures, Beachy said that practicing anti-racism in the district is part of the school transformation discussion. Abdi highlighted the academic side of school transformation.

“We’re doing good in some areas, and we’re not doing good in some areas,” Abdi said. “We have to be intentional for those students or schools that consistently fall behind.” 

He added that the district should be targeting its resources because it already has the data to show which school and students persistently struggle academically.

“I’m not interested just to close schools. If we close schools, I want to see where those resources go. Everybody says we have too many schools. Our schools are so unique. Our community likes it that way,” Abdi said. 

At the end of transformation, he said that he wants every student to end up with the best education. Emerick said that the school transformation means closing buildings, but is also something bigger.

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say ‘Why are you saying school transformation? If you mean building closures why don’t you just say that?’ They feel like maybe they’re being misled. I think we should close buildings. I feel pretty strongly about that,” Emerick said. “But I’m not just meaning close buildings. I’m not being hyperbolic when I’m up here talking about school transformation, and I don’t think that we are.”

Emerick went on to explain that their vision for school transformation includes more than just going back to what the district used to have. Rather, they are looking for the conditions to be substantially improved.

“The reason the word transformation feels so honest and accurate for me is that we have to go so much deeper than a change in policy or a change in wording or a change in bell schedule,” Emerick added.

Norvell emphasized that as much as people want to go back to what the district had before, the district should focus on the students it still has, not those who left.

“I don’t think anybody really wants to close schools. But when we look at the financial health of our district, and we want this district to be here for years from now, we’ve got to make some really hard decisions and have some really tough conversations around what that looks like,” Director Lori Norvell shared with the board. 

Norvell also commented on the importance of supporting school communities in the event of closures or consolidations. 

“We’ve got to help these communities say hello and say goodbye. Say goodbye to the community that they did have and say hello to the new community that’s forming,” she said.

She added that this process is a shared responsibility. “We have got to be there to help guide that, to help facilitate that, to help support that, whether it’s district staff, site staff, school board members, union members, we are all in this together and we’ve all got to do that.”

El-Amin described her view of district transformation saying, “We, as a district, we have to look at some school closures. We have to look at consolidating our resources and making sure that our students who need the resources, have the resources that they need. That is the financial piece that we as a board are responsible for doing.” 

Like Norvell, El-Amin said the board should focus on serving the students it has. 

“No one wants to have closed school buildings in their neighborhood,” El-Amin said. 

She said part of the transformation process should include looking at ways to transform district buildings to serve the needs of communities. In addition, she said closing schools may give the district the opportunity to consolidate staff in ways that better serve student needs.

“We know this is not easy. We know this is not something we can do fast. We know this is something we have to do,” El-Amin said.

El-Amin said that she would lean on district staff to provide information for the board, and to outline options for it to consider.

Ellison said her goal for transformation is that students have what they need to learn and staff have what they need to teach students, in a fiscally responsible and anti-racist way. 

Director Fathia Feerayarre said that she and Jourdain met recently with Lyndale school families, who asked specifically about which schools would be closing. She said that they didn’t know what to tell the families because they don’t know what a future plan might be. Feerayarre expressed concerns that closing schools will “feed” students to charter and private schools. 

“If we are closing schools, that’s fine, but give me enough evidence why,” Feerayarre said.

Feerayarre also expressed concerns about class sizes increasing from consolidating schools, saying, “Teachers are complaining about class sizes being overloaded. That will overwhelm teachers.”

Emerick pushed back on the characterization that the district has large class sizes, noting, “The district has significant variability in class sizes.” They noted that while some schools in the southwest part of the district have some large classes, particularly in middle and high school,  many Northside schools have much smaller class sizes. Emerick says they recently read to a third grade class at Bethune with about fourteen students. “It was amazing.”

Historically, the district has released class size data in October with official enrollment data. The district has not released any class size data this school year. Last school year, classes averaged 21.3 students in elementary schools. The average for kindergarten through third grade was just under 21 students, 21.4 students per class in fourth grade and 23 students per class in fifth grade. Districtwide, there were only 11 K-5 classrooms with thirty or more students last year, the majority of those in fifth grade.

El-Amin said that based on the board conversation, Cox and her leadership team would come back to the board with more specifics, including possible actions for the district to take, and a timeline to implement those actions. She stressed that there are currently no plans to close specific schools.

Beachy noted that as a candidate for school board he heard rumors of a secret list of schools that would be closed. He said that as a board member, he does not believe that list exists.

“We have not had those discussions yet. And when we do, we're going to do them publicly so that everyone will be informed as to what’s going on,” he said.

Prompted by Cox, board members shared their “non-negotiables” and timeline for the process ahead.

Emerick said that their non-negotiable is “non-standardization,” meaning every student’s education should be specific to them. They added that another high priority is coordination with other local governmental bodies, including the city, park board, Hennepin county and library system, “Minneapolis kids belong to Minneapolis, and we should all be working together.”

Ellison said her non-negotiable is equity, and pointed to the centralization of magnets as part of the Comprehensive District Design as an example of something equitable.

Norvell said her non-negotiable is that any decision leaves the district financially stable for the years ahead. She called out past district initiatives as temporary “Band-Aids” instead of addressing the ongoing structural issues.

Beachy said his non-negotiable is that the board must do this work “in public” and “engage the public in what’s going on.”

“Zero discrimination” is Feerayarre’s non-negotiable. She said staff of color continue to leave the district because of discrimination.

El-Amin said that retention of teachers of color is her non-negotiable in the transformation process. She agreed with Director Norvell that any plan should be financially sustainable for the district.

Emerick, Beachy and Norvell all spoke to the need for community engagement during the transformation process, and including district leadership in public forums. El-Amin noted the importance of the district’s communication team to providing the public with “timely” and “consistent” information.

Ellison suggested the district determine when the State would become involved, if the district maintains the status quo, and work backwards to implement changes quickly enough to avoid State intervention. 

The board will meet on Tuesday, June 6 at 5pm for a Special Business Meeting to discuss the superintendent search process. The final board meeting of the school year will be Tuesday, June 13 when the board will vote on a budget for next school year. By law, the district must approve a balanced budget by June 15.