The Minneapolis Board of Education ran into a parental buzz saw last year when it sought to cut school budgets. The problem is, how do you distribute budget cuts fairly?
There’s a cartoon strip that has been floating around the internet lately, and it always seems to resurface whenever the question of equity in school funding comes up. There are two panels to the comic: a bunch of kids are trying to see over a fence to see a ball game, and in one they all have the same size box to stand on, but the shortest kid can’t see over the fence, and in the other the tallest kids get no boxes and the shortest gets three so he can see over the fence.
“There are definitely some who feel like no box is unacceptable,” said Jenny Arneson, representing District 1 on the Minneapolis Board of Education. “This is never an issue when you don’t have scarce resources; when you have plenty of resources for everyone, nobody really minds. But what happens is, when you have to take away something that people value, people naturally want to try and protect that.”
Near the end of last year, a massive budget shortfall left schools across the metro hurting for money. Officials of the Minneapolis Board of Education had to painstakingly calculate where cuts had to be made, a decision not to be made lightly. Measures had to be taken to ensure that cuts were made equitably, but with $33 million in question, it was pretty much guaranteed that not everyone could be made happy.
“They knew it was going to be painful; they were very deliberate” said Tamara Rusnacko, chair of the Edison Activity Council, regarding the school board’s preparation for the budget cuts.
Rusnacko explained that the Board knew that they were going to have to have to deal with massive money problems, and were very careful that they made budget cuts evenly across the whole district in areas that could afford them. It was a months-long process, she said, and the final budget plan was presented earlier this year. On April 10, $6.4 million was won back for Minneapolis schools. The Edison Activity Council expressed their displeasure with the funding restoration in a letter to The Northeaster, claiming that funding was restored in different proportions than the original cuts.
“It’s just not equitable,” said Rusnacko.
According to Rusnacko, initial budget cuts in the first iteration of the board’s plan were higher for Washburn and Southwest High Schools. The gap seemed even wider because Washburn lost Title 1 funding, which is given to schools to aid impoverished students. Rusnacko explained that losing Tile 1 funds is a bit of a trade-off, as it means a school has fewer impoverished students, which is good, but of course, no school wants to lose money. Parents at Washburn felt their school was being unfairly targeted, so they spoke out.
In the EAC’s original letter, they said that the new resolution allocated $2.3 million of the district’s $6.4 million budget to schools in District 6, a district with much lower rates of impoverished and minority students than others. Washburn had 65 percent of its funding restored, and Southwest High School’s funding went up 10 percent from its original level. Meanwhile, Patrick Henry and Northeast Middle School had roughly 33 percent of their funding restored.
The decision to restore partial funding sounded great at first to Rusnacko and other Edison parents, but the decision has earned both their ire, and the disapproval of certain board members for the levels at which this was done on an individual basis between different schools. The problem is that, while funding was restored, it was not restored in equal amounts; some schools received more of their money back than others. Here in Northeast, schools were hit particularly hard by cuts, according to Arneson.
A recent Board of Education policy meeting provided a hint of a possible solution, but ultimately went nowhere, according to Arneson. Rebecca Gagnon made a suggestion to reexamine a school district policy that says parents of students can fundraise for the school, but cannot raise money to pay individual staff positions. A reevaluation of this policy could potentially mean that parents could raise funds to pay staff members who would be cut by budget shortfalls.
“Some of these schools are asking that they can use these parent-generated funds to supplement a budget, such as at Kenwood. I’m wondering if there is any opportunity for the board to discuss the policy in helping schools, maybe a one-time pass, a one-time opportunity to use funds they’ve raised to support their student learning. My ask is that at the policy meeting, can we have a discussion about that regulation?” asked Gagnon during the June school board meeting, where the idea of using parent-generated funds first generated.
(Gagnon’s support of this idea came close to costing her a seat on the board. She came in second in the August 14 primary election, behind Kimberly Caprini. Josh Pauly and Sharon El-Amin polled close behind her.)
“It’s a separate policy [from the budget adjustments], but it’s related,” said Arneson.
The Policy Committee meeting to examine changes to fundraising policy was held on Monday, July 9, and according to Arneson, nothing was officially decided. No proposal was ever brought forward, so the matter fell by the wayside for the time being.
“I don’t think anything was ever decided, but it would seem there was no interest in moving forward,” said Arneson.
Kim Ellison, who sits on the Policy Committee and represents District 2 on the Board, confirmed in a phone call that the policy barring parents from raising money to hire employees remained unchanged.
Arneson thinks that the current policy on fundraising is fine the way it is. The thought behind the movement to change it is nice, but it brings up a slew of dilemmas to be addressed, specifically in logistics in human resources. Who would a teacher paid by money raised by parents be beholden to: the school district, or a small collection of individual parents? Additionally, the funding raised by parents would be even less guaranteed than the funding the school already has which, Arneson said, wouldn’t be fair to teachers paid with that money.
“That’s the unclear part, and that’s why we have this policy,” said Arneson. “I think that it’s tempting. Money is always useful, and no schools have enough money. It’s always tempting to want to raise additional money to support schools, and I think that’s a good thing. I think there is a lot of ways that parent groups can raise money and be supportive of schools, but I think that raising money for school staff positions creates a situation of have and have-nots…I think there are some schools that have the means to raise money for staff positions, and some that do not, and I just don’t think that’s how we should determine our resources for our schools.”
Ultimately, Arneson said that the problem in Minneapolis schools is underfunding. The movement to add parent-generated funding to budget planning only addresses a symptom of the larger cause. Under the way the school district operates currently, students who have more needs get more money, so schools in areas with higher rates of poverty get more funding to support them. The alternative point of view to this is that all schools should get the same amount of funding to ensure equality, so the current funding system needs to be redistributed. This difference in opinion was the root of the dispute over how much money should be restored to which schools; some parents believed money should be restored in equal proportions, while others believed more money should have been restored to schools that need it the most.
A big part of the underfunding is that the amount of money allocated to schools has not kept up with inflation rates. The weight of every dollar given to the school system gets lighter and lighter every year.
“What it comes down to is, this is a debate between equality vs. equity,” explained Arneson. “It’s happening both on a state level and a city level…The pie is not all that big, and it’s a problem for all the schools in Minnesota.”
So, with the parent-generated funding proposal fallen by the wayside, how will schools deal with the funding shortfalls after the budget reorganization? Arneson said that the loss of money mostly affected things behind the scenes at the district offices, though some staff had to be cut. District staff did what they could with what they had though, and managed to salvage what they could.
“When people get back to school, there’s going to be staff who aren’t there anymore,” she said.
Class sizes will be maintained, which Arneson was thankful for. Some very undersized classes had to be combined so that they more closely resembled standard class sizes, so it may seem like classes got bigger in some cases, but overall this is not the case.
“This is the fundamental debate that is happening in education finance right now,” said Arneson. “It happens at a state level and it’s happening at the city level right now. Should every student get the same amount of money, or do we give more money to students with more needs, and is it OK to take away from students with higher needs in order to elevate that equal funding level?”