St. Paul schools to boost spending $27 million to support achievement plan

/ 5 April 2012 / jennifer

Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, April 5, 2012 –

St. Paul plans to spend an additional $27 million next school year – a boost to the district’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan to raise achievement.

This will be the second sizable infusion of cash to give momentum to the plan, entering year two of its three-year rollout.

The money will go toward lowering class sizes and building more professional development into the school week, among other things.

To make it happen, the district will tap revenue increases, dip into reserves and use savings from curtailed citywide busing. For St. Paul, the rosier financial picture comes after a decade of annual shortfalls.

“It’s been awful, and this is not awful,” said St. Paul school board member Anne Carroll. “It’s a nice, different place.”

Meanwhile, the district is gearing up to decide whether to seek just a renewal of its $646 per-pupil operating levy in a November referendum – or to ask taxpayers for more.

St. Paul is looking at an almost 4 percent increase in revenue in the coming fiscal year. Among the reasons: $50 more per pupil the state started giving schools last year, a slight increase in enrollment, the state’s new literacy incentive aid and a 3.6 percent property tax increase this year.

This year, these increases allowed the district to spend an extra $9.7 million beyond what it budgeted last summer. The total general fund spending of $471.8 million was a 5 percent increase over the year before.

That spike in spending and next year’s planned increase come after the district cut a total of more than $21 million over the previous two years.

“This is a really big deal,” Jean O’Connell, the board chair, said of the district’s investment in Strong Schools. “There’s been some strong fiscal management and a solid focus on spending money in appropriate ways.”

Next year, the district also plans to use about $6.9 million from its reserve fund, leaving about $25 million in it.

Much of the extra spending will go to hire additional staff, including 195 teachers. The new educators are slated to drive average class sizes below district targets at almost all grade levels.

Earlier this year, in an addendum to the new educator contract, the district and the teachers’ union vowed to seek a class-size reduction. That agreement came after district leaders balked at a union demand for hard class-size caps.

In a new, more centralized approach to funding schools, the district again will link staffing allocations to poverty levels at each school. Thus, the projected class average for fourth- through sixth-grade classrooms next year at schools with high poverty is 24.8, below the district target of 26 students; at lower-poverty schools, the projected average is 28.4, below the 30-student target.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, lauded the plan as “a good-faith effort to follow through on the commitments we made to each other at the bargaining table.”

The 37,000-student district also will make a $6.4 million investment in job-embedded professional development: time set aside each week to coordinate and brainstorm in teams of educators.

“We’re investing in human capital and providing an opportunity for all of our teachers to grow,” Superintendent Valeria Silva said.

At the elementary level, while classroom teachers are in professional development, students will receive additional science instruction – a total of 100 minutes per week, on average. Time dedicated to science now greatly varies among schools in the district, officials said.

The district also will spend $2 million on tweaking and beefing up various Strong Schools programs, including efforts to engage parents in student learning.

Administrators will present a more detailed budget proposal to the board May 1.

Next month, the board also is slated to make a decision about November’s operating levy referendum. The district could just seek a renewal, ask for an increase, or do both by posing two separate ballot questions.

Last month, the board approved a $29,000 contract with a St. Paul firm, which will conduct a phone survey in early May. The survey will gauge how open residents are to supporting a higher tax for things such as classroom technology, new online learning options, more prekindergarten slots and smaller class sizes, chief of staff Suzanne Kelly told the board this week.

O’Connell said the district’s financial prognosis will undoubtedly weigh in the decision. But she stressed the district still faces federal and state funding uncertainty and relies heavily on the roughly $30 million a year the levy brings.

“This is a good news story that shouldn’t be translated into, ‘Well, we don’t need the levy money,’â ” she said.

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.

http://www.twincities.com/stpaul/ci_20335564/st-paul-schools-boost-spending-27-million-support