The school board held its first discussion of the 2024-25 budget proposal on March 26. The proposed budget had previously been presented to the board’s finance committee over two meetings on March 5 and March 19. School board members Adriana Cerrillo and Fathia Feerayarre were not in attendance. The majority of the meeting time was dedicated to the district leadership’s presentation with 40 minutes for school board questions and discussion.

The district is facing a $110 million budget gap next year, caused by the expiration of federal pandemic aid, years of decreased enrollment without cuts to its operations, rising costs, and decades of underfunding of students who need the most from public schools. The proposed budget would cut $47 million from schools and central office departments next year. The remainder of the gap will be closed with $55 million of one-time funds from the district's reserves, called the assigned fund balance, and an assumption that unfilled positions will save the district $13 million next year.

Both Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams and Ibrahaima Diop, senior office of finance and operations, have stressed repeatedly in recent finance committee meetings that the $55 million in reserves is one-time money. The district is hoping to increase its revenue by $20 million in the 2025-26 school year if voters approve an increase in its technology levy this November. The district will need to right-size its operations to match its enrollment, and reduce its costs, through a process it is calling “school transformation.” In its December 2023 financial projection, the district estimated it could trim $40 million from its costs by reducing the number of schools it operates and reducing its staffing levels to match other large school districts in Minnesota.

Sarah Hunter, executive director of strategic initiatives, presented information about a scaled-back version of the district’s intervention triad program that was launched this year with federal pandemic aid earmarked for learning loss. The new intervention program will be in Title I schools next year, and will include 45 positions, compared to the 400 intervention positions this year.

The district’s Executive Director of Equity and Climate Derek Francis said the district is creating six new positions, at a cost of about $800,000, calling them “Breakthrough Teams” that will focus on closing the achievement gap at 18 of the district’s racially identifiable schools. A racially identifiable school is one that has at least 20% more students of color than the district as a whole.

These positions will be allocated to the associate superintendents and will have “high expertise in math or literacy content knowledge” and “culturally sustaining literacy or math instruction.” The positions will be funded with achievement and integration funding from the State.

School board members Lori Novell and Joyner Emerick both expressed concerns about adding these new positions at a time of budget cuts. Norvell said that the same schools that qualify for Breakthrough Teams are planned to receive intervention supports next year. Emerick expressed concerns that the schools receiving Breakthrough Teams include schools losing assistant principals and magnet coordinators next year, and the need to have principal input on which positions would most benefit a particular school.

Emerick called attention to the potential overlap with existing content lead positions in literacy and math. They shared further concerns that the Breakthrough Team description appears to overlap with another set of positions, funded by Q Comp, that are focused on teacher evaluations, called Standards of Effective Instruction, abbreviated SOEI.

“Do we have people who we have accepted, won't do this in an anti-racist way, won't do this in a culturally responsive way? And so we need a separate department of content leads, of coaches, of observers, of people who can actually do this in a way that aligns with our values? And if we need a separate program to do that, what are all the other people doing?” Emerick asked.

Francis said the Breakthrough Teams will be “laser focused” on “coaching, ongoing support for the staff supporting the students who need the most intentional academic support.”  

Although it is only about 1% of the overall budget gap, school board members have focused their questions to district leadership on the elimination of the fifth grade instrumental music program in recent meetings. In 2021, the district began providing instruments and instrumental music teachers for all fifth grade students.  Some district parents have also started a petition to save the program. The program was started as part of the Comprehensive District Design, and championed by former school board director Kimberly Caprini. Previously, some elementary schools offered band or orchestra to fifth grade students, often in combination with private fundraising to supply instruments.

“Is there information in here that I missed or maybe I saw for the cost savings of the reduction of fifth grade band. Do we have that number?” Director Lori Norvell asked.

Aimee Fearing, senior academic officer, responded that in the current year, the program has 15 full time teachers, and costs around $1.5 million. She added that because the number of fifth grade students is expected to decline next year, continuing the program would likely require fewer teachers, but the cost could be higher depending on any changes to teacher salaries reached as part of a new contract agreement with teachers.

The board moved into a closed session after its public meeting. The closed meeting agenda included two topics: discussion of ongoing contract negotiations with its labor unions, and ongoing litigation over an as-yet-to-be implemented clause in its teacher’s contract that provides an exception to layoffs and excessing outside of seniority for teachers from underrepresented groups.

The board will meet again on April 16, one week later than usual, for its April regular business meeting. Business meetings include time for public comments and the board may take votes. Meetings are open to the public at Davis Center or can be watched online.