St. Paul Public Schools: If budget is set, is input needed?
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, May 12, 2012 –
The St. Paul school district’s budget proposal brought good news — and sparked a question that divided the school board.
In a city where parent-and-staff groups used to have a big say in school spending, how much public input should district decision-makers seek?
Some members have called for a wider conversation around the next school year’s $655 million budget, scheduled for a board vote next month. Others have cautioned against inflating expectations that the resulting input from residents will cause major changes to the plan.
In any case, next year’s budget is free of the deep cuts and school closings that tend to elicit the strongest reaction. Instead, St. Paul will spend more, add staff and beef up professional development.
“This year, we’re not in cutting mode; it’s not about what has to go,” said Jackie Turner in the district’s Office of Family Engagement. “The message and the outreach are pretty different.”
District leaders will preview the budget at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday, May 15.
Next school year, the district will tap additional revenue — from a slight enrollment increase, a higher local tax levy and additional state funding — to make a larger investment in its Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan. The district is looking to boost general fund spending by $27 million, dipping into reserves for about $6.9 million of it.
Board members uniformly welcomed the brighter budget outlook. Then, they had a lively discussion about soliciting input from district stakeholders.
District officials said principals actually participated more actively in budget decisions this spring compared with last year, when central administrators allocated school funding based on a formula. And, said Superintendent Valeria Silva, some principals expressed relief that the days of parent-and-staff site councils making staffing and other decisions are gone.
Still, board members such as Keith Hardy and Anne Carroll argued that the district still needs to ensure residents have a meaningful way to weigh in.
“Centralized control will always be easier for administrators,” said Carroll. “I just want to make sure we’re not abandoning that community response.”
But board members such as Mary Doran wondered whether, with the budget “pretty much set,” the district would open itself up to criticism that it invited input without taking it into consideration.
“As we change the role of the site councils, we potentially run the risk of asking for input when a lot of the decision-making is centralized,” board Chair Jean O’Connell said in an interview.
Last week, chief budget analyst Jaber Alsiddiqui made a budget presentation for the district Parent Advisory Council; the district’s Hmong, black, Latino, Somali and other parent groups were also invited.
“We were really grateful we were brought in at this point in the process,” said Kelley Nelson, the Parent Advisory Council co-chair.
Principals will distribute one-page budget summaries at parent events and report back any feedback they hear, Turner said. Residents can also comment and ask questions about the budget on the district website.
Hardy said those efforts are a good start, but he would still push for a budget proposal meeting that all residents can attend. And he stressed that it’s not too late to voice an opinion. “I want to be sure that while much of the budgeting has moved to a centralized process, our primary stakeholders still have a chance to be heard,” he said.
Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.
IF YOU GO
What: Regular St. Paul Board of Education meeting
Where: 360 Colborne St.
When: 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, May 15
To review the 2012-13 St. Paul Public Schools budget proposal, go to businessoffice.spps.org/budget_update.