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Budget fix for schools includes layoffs, donations, some luck
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Cynthia Williams works security inside the main entrance of Patrick Henry High School. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Minneapolis school district officials say mid-year budget cuts will result in the loss of 17 jobs, including as many as five teachers. Administrators will present a detailed plan for their $4.5 million district-wide budget fix Friday during a special school board meeting. The schools will absorb about a quarter of the cuts. But principals say after three years of budget reductions, they have no fat left to cut.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The Minneapolis school district is cutting $3.6 million from central support services. The remaining $870,000 will come from its 94 schools. Principals were forced to cut about $20 per student.

Security personnel keep a close watch on the the main entrance and hallways at Patrick Henry High School. Budget cuts mean the school of more than 1,500 students will lose one set of eyes. Principal Paul McMahan, struggling to find a bright side to nearly $31,000 in cuts, says he was fortunate to have a vacant security position to eliminate. He says the remaining budget gap was closed with money set aside to hire temporary clerical help.

"We decided that might be the best way to go as opposed to trying to look for another position that had somebody in it," McMahan said. "This was, we felt, would be the cleanest way to do a reduction without impacting anybody that was currently in a position, reducing their hours or closing out a section of science or whatever it might be."

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Image Paul McMahan

The district's overall enrollment drop is a big factor in the budget problems. However, enrollment at Henry is actually growing. McMahan says he looked hard for ways to cut spending without affecting classrooms. Most of the options were lost in previous budget reductions. He's already reduced teaching staff and increased class sizes. Previous layoffs included a media specialist, clerk, social worker, counselors and health assistants. Supply budgets were also cut back. McMahan says the cumulative effect has changed the school.

"It sort of forces you to stretch yourself beyond a point where you think you can actually get things done, McMahan said. "And you have to be very careful that we're not asking staff to do too many things, yet still trying to maintain a high level of instruction. And so it sort of becomes what can you afford to give up and no longer do.

The belt-tightening is similarly hard across town at Sullivan Communications Center. But at this kindergarten through eighth grade school, teachers and other staff got personally involved.

"Writing out a check seemed like a very simple, partial solution," said Judy Madsen, a veteran kindergarten teacher, who works just half-time.

Madsen is one of about 40 school employees who made donations to help offset cuts. Sullivan teachers initially offered to work a day without pay, but union leaders blocked that idea. Madsen says she wanted to save students from the disruption caused by layoffs.

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Image Tom Hegranes

"At the kindergarten level it might of meant we would have had to lose a teacher, take her kids and divide then up between two other classes," Madsen said. "So in the middle of the year, they suddenly have a new teacher, they have a new room, they might be attending a different session. It just seemed like a lot of upheaval, and if we could avoid that we would do whatever it would take."

Principal Tom Hegranes says employees gave $4,200 toward the school's required cuts of more than $18,000. He says he used money earmarked for teacher professional development to fill most of the budget hole. The school's PTA also made a small loan. But Hegranes says its was the staff contributions that helped him avoid cutting anyone's work hours or jobs.

"Having a teacher basically paying their own salary to avoid losing somebody is pretty touching, Hegranes said. "I was very moved by that generosity and that willingness to step forward when we really needed it."

The Minneapolis school board must approve the elimination of 17 jobs that area included in the budget plan. District officials say some of the affected employees could be offered other vacant positions.

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