May 13, 2016
At the Tuesday, May 10, Minneapolis school board meeting, interim superintendent, Michael Goar, received something of a hero’s farewell from several board members, along with a handful of parents and community members. Board member Don Samuels, for example, praised Goar for many things, including his negotiating skills with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), which resulted in “unprecedented concessions” from the union.
It is not clear which concessions Samuels was referring to, but they probably have something to do with the still-nebulous “Community Partnership Schools” plan that Goar and MFT president, Lynn Nordgren, agreed to during 2014 negotiations. More principal power over “hiring and firing” of staff is a key aspect of this “autonomous/accountable” school model. (The academic freedoms supposedly associated with these schools don’t make sense in a district flush with a diversity of school models, from magnets to IB and beyond.)
Coincidentally, or not, the day after the May 10 board meeting, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an article about the slippery budget practices that have gone on during Goar’s time as district CEO and interim superintendent. The gist of the article is that MPS has a “$15 to $17 million budget deficit” this year, in part due to the practice of purposefully cooking the books ahead of time–by willfully underestimating costs for known expenses–to make the budget look better. (Goar has faced budget-related issues in previous school district jobs.)
This issue was actually presented at the June, 2015 school board meeting, when board members first approved the 2015-2016 budget, while also agreeing to an emergency addition to plug the gaping $17 million hole within it.
Red flags also flew up in February, 2016, when an audit of MPS’s finances revealed the shifty budgeting practices that local media outlets are only now covering, months later. (This audit was discussed at the February 9 school board meeting, just after Goar withdrew his name from consideration for the superintendent position.)
The multimillion dollar budget discrepancy for this year could be attributed to any number of things, such as:
- The sudden addition of an extended school day this year, at district middle and high schools, with no apparent planning for what this would cost.
- Community Partnership Schools (CPS). How are these schools being funded? What additional monies are being given to the four CPS sites? It is not clear, partially because the funding formula (called “student-based allocations”) used for these sites is different than the one applied to every other district school. A Minneapolis parent requested the formula months ago and has yet to see it.
- Ongoing patterns of mysterious budgeting, as when, in 2015, Goar publicly announced he was “right-sizing” the Davis Center, by cutting staff, only to hire many of them back, under different job descriptions. Positions were also pushed off onto schools, which were required to absorb the cost of jobs previously included in the Davis Center budget.
- The auditor presenting information at the February 9 board meeting raised–ever so politely–questions about the board and district’s budget processes, noting that there did not seem to be an accurate “paper trail” attached to district requests for additional spending.
The good news is current district CFO, Ibrahima Diop, seems unwilling to continue on with shady budget practices, telling the Star Tribune that he “did not know why the previous financial staff crafted the budget in such a manner, but he and his staff members, who are almost all new to the district, have committed to budget expenses accurately.”
In the meantime, some Minneapolis schools are finding it difficult to navigate the capricious spending priorities of the Davis Center. At the May 10 board meeting, Field Middle School parent Darren Selberg described the painful choices confronting Field this year, as it struggles to absorb what parents say is a new, district-imposed program for special education students, without additional district resources.
“As I understand it,” Selberg later said, “the budget was essentially flat but Field is now required to add a program that eats up $100,000. so other cuts were needed. The choices were to fully cut a language arts class, which is part of the core curriculum. The most viable option–if it can be considered that–was to cut art completely, a Media Tech position, and the school counselor.”
Selberg has daughters in fifth and seventh grade at Field and is especially concerned about losing the school’s counselor. “My fifth grader’s classmate has been subjected to bullying most of the year from a group of boys. She’s a little quirky and has some behavior issues herself, so the bullying has been difficult,” Selberg noted. He says the child had further trouble coping at school, and even attempted suicide while at Field. Thankfully, Selberg reports, the counselor was able to help the girl access potentially life-saving outside resources.
“My concern without a counselor is how much time staff may have to spend dealing with these issues that they’re not trained for, nor have time for, when they should be teaching their subject. Additionally, with the behavior issues around the district, who will implement whatever plans they put forth?”
In June, Goar will leave the Minneapolis schools for a new job, and the school board will be tasked with final approval of the 2016-2017 budget. Whether or not that budget will include a counselor for Field Middle School remains to be seen.
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