A panel prepares to address audience questions at an October 2 EdTalk event about Minneapolis Public Schools' finances. From left to right: moderator Adia Morris, interim superintendent Rochelle Cox, South High School student Amira Ali, Andersen Middle School principal Tara FitzGerald, Minneapolis teacher Teresa Gloppen, parent Elleni Fellows, and senior finance officer Ibrahima Diop. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Minneapolis Public Schools administrators warned Monday night that budget cuts are coming—and that the cuts will likely involve reducing staff.

The remarks by Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox and Senior Officer of Finance and Operations Ibrahima Diop come as the district prepares for federal COVID aid to expire in September 2024. Minneapolis Public Schools has projected an impending fiscal crisis for years, but the COVID funds helped stabilize the budget and push off that reckoning, Diop said. 

Cox and Diop addressed a crowd Monday night at Icehouse, an Eat Street music venue and bar, in an EdTalks presentation sponsored by the nonprofit Achieve Twin Cities and the Graves Foundation. The next day, Sahan Journal described the administrators’ comments to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals.

Cox framed the conversation, forecasting cuts to the budget next June, as part of a new era of clear communication from Minneapolis Public Schools. “It’s not always easy to come and talk about your challenges, but I think it’s really important,” Cox said. “I hope you see that as a change for Minneapolis Public Schools: about transparency, but also accountability.”

Starting with the positives: Diop said the district should be able to avoid statutory operating debt—a financial situation that would require additional district oversight from the Minnesota Department of Education. He said the district’s staffing shortage—the district has struggled to fill empty jobs—had allowed it to save some money, and he thanked the legislature for increasing education funds in the most recent legislative session.

Schools receive money from the state based on how many students they have—and this is where the negative news begins. Even as the city’s population has increased, Minneapolis Public Schools enrollment has declined, Diop explained. Fewer kids are living in the city; families who leave the city limits often cite housing affordability issues and crime. And nearly half the children who live in the city choose to attend schools outside the district. The largest share of Minneapolis kids leaving the district enroll in charter schools.

Because of federal COVID relief, the district had avoided a $40 million shortfall in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, Diop said. But with those funds expiring, the district will have to reduce expenses. And since most of the district’s budget goes toward staffing, that’s where the district will have to cut, he said.

“If you are to cut expenses in a way that is meaningful, you can’t avoid cutting staff,” Diop said.

The district’s general fund budget is about $700 million annually, and about 85 percent of that amount goes to staff salaries and benefits, he said.

Even as Minneapolis Public Schools looks to reduce staffing, the district has been grappling with an ongoing staffing shortage, with vacancy rates over 10 percent. Cox said that some of those problems predate the recent teacher shortage.

“The shortages we’re seeing are at schools that historically have had shortages,” she said. “So there is a root cause problem there that we have to solve in Minneapolis Public Schools.”

After Cox and Diop each gave an initial presentation, audience members submitted questions to a moderator. A panel of a student, a parent, a principal, and a teacher also joined for the question-and-answer session.

How do you cut staff during a staffing shortage?

Cox said the district would first need to look at where staffing shortages exist in the schools, and then see which roles are most necessary for supporting students. She described a “priority-based” budgeting process of aligning each department’s funds with the district’s strategic plan.

“If you’re staff, and you don’t have direct contact with students, that’s a factor we have to think about,” she said.

Diop said that Minneapolis Public Schools’ ratio of licensed staff to students is too high. Minneapolis has one licensed staff member for every nine students, while most districts have one staff member for every 14 or 15 kids, he said. “If you have that low ratio, you have way more staff than you need,” he said.

Tara FitzGerald, the principal at Andersen Middle School, clarified that this ratio includes many staff who are not in front of a classroom—counselors, social workers, and teachers on special assignment. These teachers may, for example, work to support a team of English language teachers.

How will the staffing cuts happen?

Diop stressed that the district’s strategic plan should serve as a guiding document, and that the needs of students will have to come first.

Cox said that in any budget cut process, some cuts happen at the central office level, and some happen at the school level. She said she hoped to give schools autonomy to decide what would work best for them.

How would the district protect jobs for probationary teachers of color?

One way the district was addressing this issue was through collaboration with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals, Cox said. Their union contract, which included language designed to protect teachers of color, came after a historic three-week strike in March 2022. Mentorship and an emphasis on retention of teachers of color is also important, Cox said.

Could school closings be part of the solution?

Cox said that the school board has been discussing “school transformation,” which could include school closings and consolidations. But the board is still deciding on a draft definition of “school transformation.”

“Technically, as I look at it, you have to have those decisions made the October before the next school year,” Cox said. “When you have school closings, there’s often redistricting that happens. And I worry about the Minneapolis Public Schools community being ready to go through that again.” The school board approved a controversial redistricting plan, the Comprehensive District Design, in the spring of 2020.

“We need to have the conversations ongoing with our communities, and have to understand all the unintended consequences that come with this,” Cox said. “And it’s going to be a really hard conversation.”

What do students need from the budget?

Amira Ali, a student at South High School and a member of the district’s CityWide Student Leadership Board, spoke on students’ behalf as part of the panel. She said she’d noticed students need more counselors to help them navigate classes, social workers to help them navigate their emotions, and nurses—particularly when COVID cases surged.

“That caused a lot of problems with a lot of students at MPS,” she said.

She also said that some classes are too big. She’d also like to see more attention to safe transportation for high school students.

The union responds

Marcia Howard, the acting teacher chapter president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals, said she questioned the district’s budget numbers—and its timing, as contract negotiations with the union are about to begin. It will be the union’s first contract negotiation since the 2022 strike.

“We have not had layoffs in quite some time,” she said. “We are still understaffed.”

How would union members feel if the district decides it needs to cut a certain percentage of teaching positions?

“I think my members who are currently in classrooms with more students than they have seats would be a little shocked by that,” she said. Howard, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School, said that she has 40 students in one of her classes.

If the district needs to make cuts, she said, it could look to reduce purchasing services, administrator salaries, and the rate at which it increases non-instructional staff. But she also questioned why the district did not discuss a plan to raise revenue by attracting more Minneapolis students who are leaving the district.

“The lack of that plan is very telling,” she said.

Cox will lead the process of creating a budget for the 2024–2025 school year. Principals will receive their school budgets in February, and begin the process of making any cuts on a school-by-school basis. The school board will vote on the district budget in June.

Correction (October 27, 2023): This article has been changed to reflect Marcia Howard’s role in the union.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...