Despite consistent warnings to districts from national experts to avoid using ESSER COVID-19 relief funds to add permanent staff to schools, Minneapolis Public Schools is committing nearly $30 million to add 400 positions to its schools next year in roles the district is calling “interventionist triads.” As described in the February 28 Committee of the Whole meeting, the triads will include one licensed educator and two full-time associate educators. Each triad will serve up to 75 students at the K-5 level and up to 100 students in middle and high school. The district expects enrollment to decline 3%.

The district is also planning to add 32.5 full-time equivalent teacher positions for licensed media specialists. Along with the intervention teachers, this will add 165 full-time licensed teaching positions to the district.

These new positions add to what the district referred to as the “status quo” baseline in its financial pro forma, released in November 2022. In that document, detailing the district’s projected financial health for the next five years, the district estimated that by the end of the 2024-25 school year it will have exhausted its general fund balance, and entered statutory operating debt, the nearest thing to bankruptcy for Minnesota school districts.

The pro forma financial projection explained that relative to other large school districts in Minnesota, the combination of MPS’s low student-to-teacher ratio and high number of school buildings with a small enrollment, lead to a cost structure that is too expensive for the district to sustain given the funding it receives. Adding additional licensed and non-licensed educators to the district will exacerbate the district’s financial challenges.

MPS administration, school board members, MFT leaders and members, parents and community members have all advocated with the DFL Governor, House and Senate to rescue the district from financial collapse. According to one Minnesota school district lobbyist, MPS is unlikely to see more than $30-35 million in additional funding from the state of Minnesota next year. In addition, some of that funding may be tied to additional mandated costs such as teacher pensions, teacher and ESP healthcare contributions, increased planning time for teachers.

Where is the money coming from for the triads?

The district is using the 20% of its ESSERIII funds, which are required by federal regulation to address “learning loss,” to fund these new positions. These are one-time funds that will not be available in 2024-25 to fund these positions. Federal regulations require that ESSERIII learning loss funds “supplement not supplant” existing instruction. Because of this requirement, the district cannot use these funds for expenses like current classroom teachers, or for increasing wages or paying bonuses. Originally, the district had planned to use the learning loss funds for investments such as new curriculum, professional development for educators and summer programming.

Last spring, the district announced it was using 80% of its ESSERIII funds to meet the additional costs of its new collective bargaining agreements with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. After a three week long strike in March 2022 by teachers and ESPs, the new contract included wage increases for both teachers and ESPs, and created new required staffing at schools, including full time social workers at every building, counselors at some elementary schools, and class size caps. The contract also included bonus payments of $5000 per teacher, and $6000 per ESP paid out over two years. The district said the bonus payments cost the district $27 million of its ESSERIII funds. The wage increases and new staffing requirements in the contract were expected to cost an additional $27 million per year.

By the end of the 2023-24 school year, the district will have spent all of its ESSERIII funds, leaving the district without an ongoing source of funding to support these new intervention positions. At the same time, the district projects that in the 2024-25 school year it will face a budget deficit of over $108 million. This projection was based on maintaining the status quo, and does not include the addition of 400 new positions.

Is there evidence to support a single year of intervention triads?

Based on internal documents and information from meetings between principals and administration on March 9, obtained by Minneapolis Schools Voices, the new triads are receiving significant pushback from some district principals. The district is asking schools to use the interventionists to support students who are below grade level proficiency in math or literacy or both. One of the concerns of principals is the lack of evidence to support this intervention model in secondary schools.

In describing the speakers in the meeting, Minneapolis School Voices is choosing not to name specific principals or schools.

In one meeting with district principals and administrators, a high school principal describes how the proposed model of intervention triads is a “special education model” that does not take into consideration “the whole child.” MPS currently uses an intervention model, which is a multi-tiered system of support, colloquially called MTSS.

“MTSS is the whole child,” the principal said. This principal said that in their current and previous roles they were able to see progress by implementing the MTSS model.

Another high school principal reiterated these concerns. They explained how their school currently uses co-teaching for special education students in literacy and math classes, but said their students need these supports in science and social studies class. Students who are below grade level in reading proficiency struggle in these courses. The principal asked to use these “intervention triads” to support students in science and social studies. The principal noted that without this flexibility, literacy and math courses may have as many as six teachers and associate educators in the classroom with the addition of these triads, while science and social studies classes will have only the classroom teacher. The extreme difference in teachers is because there are already special education co-teachers in literacy and math classes.

Several high school principals asked for flexibility to meet the needs of their students in exchanges with Senior Officer of Schools Shawn Harris-Berry. She told the principals that Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox directed that the “triads be implemented with fidelity,” and added, this is “not up for debate.”

One asked for a social worker to support their students “social emotional learning” instead of an academic interventionist. Another principal asked to use some interventionists in math and literacy and others in science and social studies.

Harris-Berry said, “If you put forth a counter-proposal, you can consider that denied.”

Minneapolis Schools Voices reached out to Cara Jackson, an education researcher who specializes in evaluating interventions, to ask her what makes interventions successful. In an email exchange, Jackson wrote, “The key elements I would look for are whether there are any rigorous impact studies of the intervention.” She shared two sources of information that school board members or parents could look at to assess an intervention, the What Works Clearinghouse and the Evidence for ESSA.

Jackson cautioned about the temporary aspect of the intervention triads. “Even if the district was selecting programs with an evidence base, rigorous studies of impact usually have pretty small effects.”

She added, “In my view, it's not helpful to have unrealistic expectations about what can be done in a year because you could end up throwing out a program that really was an improvement over its predecessor.”

Overall, the information Minneapolis Schools Voices obtained indicates an intervention plan that is not yet complete. The district is promising to provide schools with intervention strategies, but acknowledges that some don’t yet exist. The district has said the positions will include professional development before school starts, and twice a month during the school year. But the details of the content of that professional development hasn’t been shared.

Where will the district find over 400 additional educators? Will the district mitigate the impact of district wide vacancies on its schools and subjects that are harder to staff?

Across the state of Minnesota, nine out of ten districts report a shortage of teachers, according to data from the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. As previously reported in Southwest Voices, MPS had 216 openings for educators in August 2022. And, based on a new analysis of district job postings by Minneapolis Schools Voices, as of March 6, the district has 119 current classroom openings for teachers and ESPs, including four openings for full time elementary classroom teachers.

Matching national trends, vacant positions have disproportionately impacted the district’s schools where low-income and BIPOC students make up a majority of the students. Over half of current classroom openings for teachers and ESPs are in schools in the geographic boundaries for Edison, Henry and North high schools. In addition, 71 of the current classroom vacancies are for special education staff, either teachers or non-licensed special education assistants. Minneapolis is not unique. Adequately staffing special education services to meet students’ needs is a challenge nationwide.

Minneapolis Schools Voices spoke with one middle school principal, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of discussing internal district management decisions. This principal echoed many of the staffing concerns other principals have shared with the district about the impact. They said, exasperated, “We are already in a teacher shortage but we’re adding more teachers?”

In particular, the principal has concerns about the impact the new positions will have on finding educators to fill difficult to staff licensure areas like secondary math and science. If current teachers leave their classroom positions to take the intervention positions, this principal is concerned about being able to adequately staff core subjects, like math and science, next year. And these impacts could be exacerbated at schools serving predominantly students of color and low income students, that are already difficult for the district to fully staff.

This sentiment was shared by principals in the meetings with administration, too. One high school principal noted, “If we don’t have general ed teachers in the fall because they have left their [classroom] positions to take an intervention position, now we don’t have [classroom] instruction that we’re delivering.”

These concerns were echoed by an elementary school principal who raised concerns about not being able to fill classroom teaching positions. “Is there any plan for… if we can’t staff all of that? Is there a backup plan, are you all thinking about that?”

Executive Director Sarah Hunter misunderstood the principal’s question and responded that the district may “pivot” to high-dosage online tutoring if intervention positions are unfilled. She also noted that Cox shares the concern about the district’s ability to fill the new positions.

The principal replied, “I don’t think we’re going to have a problem internally filling those intervention positions. I’m more concerned about, we get them in these positions, and then come August and we have all of these classrooms open. That’s more where I want to hear what the plan is.”

Hunter responds, “I’m not probably the best one to respond to that, but I want to acknowledge that’s a key question.” Hunter then promised to write up a response to that question in the Q&A document.

According to one document obtained by Minneapolis Schools Voices, the district is making the intervention positions open to educators that hold licenses in areas that are difficult to staff, such as secondary math and science. The district is still negotiating the exact teacher licenses that will be allowed to apply for the interventionist positions, according to Senior Officer of Human Resources, Candra Bennett, in one of the meetings with principals. Currently, some types of special education licenses will not be allowed to apply for the intervention positions, according to Bennett, as a way to mitigate the impact the new positions may have on special education vacancies.

The approved licenses for the interventionist positions planned for MPS.

Will the new positions cause instability in staffing for the next two years?

The intervention positions are being funded with one-time money, so there is no guarantee they will exist in the following school year. For students, this could mean forming a close relationship with interventionists next year who won’t be back the following year. Or it could mean that a favorite teacher they have this year might move to another building to take an intervention position next year. That type of instability in staffing was a particular concern to the middle school principal Minneapolis Schools Voices interviewed. This principal noted stable relationships are important for middle school students as they develop their identity and enter adolescence.

According to Senior Human Resources Officer Candra Bennett, in a meeting with principals, the district is in negotiations with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers about the new positions, including whether teachers will retain the right to return to their former position if the intervention positions are eliminated. The ongoing negotiations have caused principals to hear conflicting information about retention rights. Even if intervention teachers do not retain the right to return to their previous position, they will retain their seniority within the district, according to Bennett.

When funding for the position ends, this could lead to a situation colloquially known as “bumping” where a teacher who has been excessed and has higher seniority in a license area can “bump” a lower seniority teacher out of a position. The process is a bit like musical chairs, where the educators with the lowest seniority in a license area end up without a job. Teachers can be shuffled across the district as they “bump” those with lower seniority.

Does the district have the capacity to hire for over 400 new positions?

Hiring for so many vacant positions will be a significant undertaking for the district’s human resources department. According to the district’s own data, in 2021-22, the district had a retention rate of teachers of 92%, meaning 242 teachers left the district. Over the same period, the district hired 253 new teachers, but had over 150 classroom teacher vacancies two weeks before school started last fall. Adding 165 new teacher positions, on top of the usual attrition, could increase new hires in the district by over 50%, a challenge given the current labor market in K-12 education in Minnesota.

Minneapolis Schools Voices has asked the district for comparable data on the number of ESPs that are hired each year. The district said it could not meet our request for that information before our deadline for publication.

How were the new positions allocated to schools?

The new intervention positions were allocated to schools based on winter assessments in math and literacy given to all K-8 grade students. For high school students, the district used the eighth grade assessments for current ninth graders, and extrapolated their results to the entire school. Schools where a larger number of students are below grade level in reading or math on winter assessments were allocated more triads than schools where a smaller proportion of students are below grade level.

Based on Minneapolis Schools Voices analysis of the district’s proposed allocations to schools for the 2023-24 school year, each school will receive at least one triad, at a cost of $217,420 per triad. Ella Baker and Andersen will each receive five intervention triads, more than any other schools in the district. This is enough teams to provide intervention services to over 50% of Andersen students and just over 65% of the students at Ella Baker. Northside elementary schools, Bethune, Cityview, Hall, Hmong International Academy, Loring and Nellie Stone Johnson, are all allocated enough triads to provide intervention to over 75% of their students.

What will the intervention triads do?

A district powerpoint presentation, titled “Intervention Triads,” includes several requirements for the positions. One requirement for both licensed and unlicensed team members is professional development before school starts, and twice per month during the school year.

Some elementary principals have asked if they may use the associate educators to supervise lunch and recess. In the Q&A document shared with principals, the district has provided conflicting answers to that question. In one section the district says this can happen if this would allow a licensed teacher to attend meetings related to the interventions. But later, the district says “No, the [associate educators should be working directly with students…OR supporting the intervention teacher preparing for intervention time.”

It is ambiguous whether intervention associate educators can be assigned non-intervention duties as a school. It says one role of the associate educators is “to maintain safe and productive learning environments” and to “monitor and supervise student activities” without specifying which students.

Ignoring its own pro forma financial projections about the district’s low student teacher ratio and looming budget deficit, the district will add over 400 full time positions for educators next year. The district’s principals have shared concerns that these new positions may exacerbate existing disparities in which schools are able to be fully staffed and staffing challenges in already difficult to fill licensure areas, and, particularly for secondary students, the interventions may or may not improve students’ academic outcomes.