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St. Paul schools: District plans to tap reserves to boost spending on goals

imagesSt. Paul schools: District plans to tap reserves to boost spending on goals

By Mila Koumpilova
mkoumpilova@pioneerpress.com

The St. Paul district plans a third round of beefing up spending in what leaders called a “seminal year” for its schools in 2013-14.

That’s the third and final year of rolling out the district’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan, and the district is giving it another financial boost. At almost $513 million, St. Paul’s general fund will be up $57 million, or more than 12 percent, from 2010-11.

The district will use $9 million in additional levy dollars that taxpayers approved last fall. It also is planning to dip into its reserves for more than $18 million.

In terms of financial health, said the district’s second-in-command Michael Baumann, “I think we’re one of the better districts in the state, and I dare to say we can compete nationally.”

In a bid to tackle stark discrepancies in how its schools perform, the district factors in poverty levels and test scores in setting school budgets. Unlike the purely enrollment-based allocations at most districts, St. Paul’s formula aims to prop up struggling schools. It makes for marked differences in per-pupil spending among district schools.

This week, the administration reviewed the budget with the school board, which is slated to vote on it next month.

In addition to the new levy, the district is looking at a number of revenue increases. Chief among them is a projected uptick in enrollment, from 37,860 to 38,120 students, for whom the district receives per-pupil aid from the state.

The budget

proposal does not include an increase to the per-pupil aid the state Legislature is weighing, which could bring in as much as $5.8 million more. If the additional revenue comes through, said district chief budget analyst Jaber Alsiddiqui, “The priority will be maintaining our class sizes.”

District officials currently project expenses will outpace revenues by roughly $18 million in the general fund.

Dipping into the district’s rainy-day stash to fill the gap would leave $31.3 million there. That’s just more than the minimum the board has directed the district to save.

Most of the additional school spending will go directly toward supporting the Strong Schools rollout, particularly a new plan to harness technology in the classroom and beyond.

Schools will employ 92 more educators and other staff than they did a year before. The district also is setting aside more than $1 million extra for substitute teachers.

Superintendent Valeria Silva said the district has chronically budgeted too little for that expense; next year, it also is raising substitute pay, which Silva said has lagged behind other districts.

Roughly half the district’s general fund dollars go into individual school budgets. For several years now, the district has set school staffing levels centrally, with only limited leeway for principals to tweak their staff makeup.

Class sizes and thus the number of teachers each school can hire depend on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch there. State test scores affect the ranks of support staff, such as “interventionists” who work with struggling students in small groups or one-on-one.

High-performing elementary schools in better-off neighborhoods such as J.J. Hill Montessori ($4,763 per pupil), St. Anthony Park ($5,121) and Randolph Heights ($5,112) came in on the low end. That compared with $7,660 per pupil at Benjamin E. Mays and $7,168 at Maxfield Elementary.

At the high school level, Central and Highland Park each will get less than $5,000 per pupil. Harding and Johnson on St. Paul’s East Side are slated to receive more than $6,200 per pupil.

Silva said that this year, the district took in more input from principals.

“The real action happens at the schools,” she said, “and we have to listen to them.”

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

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