The Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education held its third committee of the whole meeting on the topic of “school transformation” on September 26. The board didn’t develop specific plans for how to address the fiscal and academic challenges facing the district. Rather, as in the previous two board discussions in April and May, board members shared questions, comments and ideas through a discussion format. A recording of the meeting is available here.

“Everything we put money into, we have to pull from somewhere else. We don’t have any extra money anymore. In fact, we will start next year with a deficit,” Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox told the board.

Cox set up the board’s conversation by providing a brief overview of recent district wide initiatives, including the Comprehensive District Design, approved by the board in 2020 and implemented in 2021, and the district’s strategic plan, approved in 2022 and now in its second of five years. Cox noted the CDD implementation had been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the educators’ strike in 2022 and the transition to an interim superintendent.

“Transformation within Minneapolis Public Schools is the realization of our mission and vision through the successful implementation of the strategic plan,” is the suggested working definition of “school transformation” as proposed by Cox.  

Implementing the district's new strategic plan will cost a significant, but unknown, amount.

According to Cox, her team is currently working on estimating the cost of implementing the strategic plan. She said that a strategic plan like this had not previously been done by the district. As written, the strategic plan includes four goals, with each goal having five supporting strategies.

Improving academic outcomes is the first goal of the strategic plan. The board has directed the district to prioritize “providing standards-based core instruction with a focus on literacy and mathematics” as one of two strategies this school year to improve academic outcomes.

Senior Academic Officer Aimee Fearing, estimates that implementing just part of this one strategy for goal one will cost $26 million over five years for curriculum, plus an additional $8 million per year in staffing costs. The curriculum costs include paying educators to participate in curriculum selection committees, the physical materials for students and teachers, and the cost of professional development to train teachers to use the curriculum.

Twelve million of the $26 million in curriculum costs will occur next school year, the third year of the strategic plan. The district will select a new elementary literacy curriculum, a new math curriculum for middle and high school students, and a new science curriculum for all grade levels. Fearing said that the science curriculum selection was supposed to be completed two years ago, but was delayed by the pandemic.

Why does the district have to select new curricula? The district currently doesn’t have a science curriculum for K-12 and an audit this past spring of the literacy curriculum determined that it is ineffective and does not meet the new Minnesota standards.

Funding for the curriculum is not clear at this time.

Four years ago, when Fearing started in her current role, the district did not have an ongoing process for selecting, purchasing and implementing curriculum to align to Minnesota state standards. When the standards-based core instruction  is implemented the district would be on-track to review, and, if needed, update its curriculum on a five-year cycle. Fearing said  the district didn’t have an ongoing budget to pay for these processes. The district had previously committed to spending $11 million on an elementary literacy curriculum, which a recent audit found did not meet district standards and was not aligned to evidence-based literacy instruction.

The $8 million in staffing costs to implement strategy one of goal one include $2.7 million each year to provide an instructional coach for teachers at each elementary school, $3.9 million each year to provide a halftime licensed media specialist at each school, and $1.3 million each year to provide teachers in elementary and middle schools for direct instruction to students identified as advanced learners, the district’s term for “gifted and talented” students. The advanced learner teachers are partially paid for with state funding earmarked for gifted and talented education. Fearing said the district is spending more than the earmarked funding this year on advanced learners.

No estimates were provided of the cost of implementing the other 19 strategies in the strategic plan.

Expanding other district programs, including magnet programs and pathways, would cost additional money.

Cox noted that part of the school transformation plan will need to address unfinished components of the CDD. The largest of these is whether to extend magnet pathways, or thematic instruction, into high schools. Currently, the Spanish dual language program informally extends to Roosevelt High School, and the arts pathway extends to FAIR School for the Arts. There is currently no STEM pathway for high school, although the Heritage Academy community has repeatedly said in public comments that the school was promised designation as a STEM magnet for high school during the CDD process.

Extending other magnet programs to high schools, such as STEM or global humanities, would cost $3 million per year per program, according to Cox.

“All of these things cost money, and so we will have to decide what things we aren’t going to fund as we make these choices,” Cox said.

School board Director Adriana Cerrillo asked about expanding the elementary Spanish dual language program noting the building at Emerson is currently overcrowded, and some Spanish home language families who would like to attend the school have been turned away. Cox noted that there is physical space at another immersion school, presumably Las Estrellas, but that adding staff would be an additional cost to the district.

Fearing noted that all students who qualify for English Learner services are served by staff at every school in the district. She also noted that the current dual language program is designed to work with a balance of 60% students whose home language is Spanish and 40% students whose home language is English. Because the district uses Achievement and Integration for Minnesota funding for the dual language magnet schools, the programs must meet the goals of that funding. The magnet schools were not designed to only serve Spanish home language students.

Upgrading and expanding district facilities would add additional costs.

Director Joyner Emerick told the board they would like to understand how facilities could be repurposed or upgraded to meet the needs of educators and students. One example they shared was of a school with dedicated spaces for conducting their work as part of Professional Learning Communities. Emerick noted that Heritage Academy has creatively utilized its spaces to meet student needs.

Student Representative Halimah Abdullah said she would like schools to have a dedicated room with a door, not an alcove or hallway, for students to engage in religious practices during the school day. She also said she would like each school to have a restoration space, explaining that Southwest High School used to have a room with coloring books, puzzles, a zen garden and couches for napping, where students could go when they needed to relax during the school day. Her vision includes staffing the space with a dedicated school social worker who would be available for drop-in consultation.

Community engagement will be part of determining any plan for “school transformation.”

Cox told the school board that within a month, the district will have an online dashboard for the community that will include a range of information about the district as a whole and each school site’s academic outcomes, operating expenses, and facilities.

Director Ira Jourdain said he applauded the dashboard project. “Bringing this whole entire data dashboard and incorporating that as community engagement will work wonders because our finances dictate what we can afford and pay for,” Jourdain said, later adding that the district “has too many schools, not enough students and deficits as far as the eye can see.”

As part of “school transformation” board members asked for “efficiencies” the district might realize by reducing the number of schools.

Some district costs vary based on the number of schools but not the number of students. One example of this type of cost is operating on-site kitchens. Each kitchen requires a minimum number of staff to operate, regardless of the number of students who eat school meals. According to Senior Finance and Operations Officer Ibrahima Diop, many school kitchens could serve more student meals without adding additional staff, and thus increasing costs. Emerick asked for the administration to develop a list of similar efficiencies that might be possible within the district, where the level of service could be maintained, but costs would be lower if there were fewer schools.

El-Amin asked if these types of efficiencies could also be found with the curriculum and staffing costs that Fearing shared.. Fearing said some of those costs do not vary based on the number of school sites, but do depend on the number of students and classrooms. Cox added that the staffing costs do vary based on the number of school sites. She gave the example of the library media specialist positions which are allocated as one per school site, and not adjusted based on the number of students or classrooms.

The board will meet again on October 12 at 5:30 p.m. for a regular business meeting. Business meetings are voting meetings of the board, and there is an opportunity for public comments.