Melissa Whitler also wrote a detailed Twitter thread during the meeting.

The Minneapolis Public Schools Board met for its annual Truth-in-Taxation Meeting Tuesday night at the Davis Center. This is a required meeting before the board can approve the property tax levy. 

The agenda is here, with links to presentations and reports. 

One requirement for the meeting is to set aside time specifically for public comments on the levy, on top of the usual time the board sets aside to hear public comments. 

There were several speakers affiliated with the Racial Justice Network who asked the board to limit Superintendent Graff’s contract to a single probationary year subject to specific academic targets. Many speakers highlighted the worsening results on literacy and math assessments for the district’s students, particularly for Black and American Indian students, and asked why city residents should pay more money to fund the schools when they believe the district does not have a plan to address this ongoing problem. 

Education inequities

At the Committee of the Whole meeting on Nov. 23, the district shared the fall assessment data for this year. It showed 43 percent of Black and 29 percent of American Indian kindergarten students are working at grade level in reading, compared to 80 percent of white students. In math, just 22 percent of Black and American Indian kindergarten students are working at grade level, compared to 60 percent of white students. 

District learning calendar

During Tuesday’s meeting, Graff asked Chair Kim Ellison for permission to deliver an update on the calendar for the next three school years and asked for feedback from the board. The district is trying to balance multiple goals in designing the calendar, including starting after Labor Day, maintaining a two-week break at the end of December, and a one-week break at the end of the third quarter in the spring. There has been some opposition to the district utilizing online learning in lieu of “snow days” but Graff said maintaining a policy of no learning on days with inclement weather would push the school calendar into the third week of June. 

Student Representative Ghebrameskal asked about the number of buildings without air conditioning, because several schools had to switch to online learning in June 2021 because of the extreme hot weather. Graff said there are currently 14 buildings in the district that are not fully air conditioned. 

Board member Jourdain noted that several years ago one of his children had to unexpectedly spend extra days in school at the end of the year, and that this was very disruptive for families who may have already made plans around travel and childcare. He said most students simply didn’t show up for the extra days, and he would prefer for this to not happen again. Graff noted again that this is where online learning can be used to offset what would be lost days of instruction due to inclement weather. 

Board member Arneson said that she would support extending the school year another week into June if necessary to maintain the other district priorities around winter break, spring break and starting after Labor Day.

In previous conversations about the calendar, several board members were supportive of having days off for Eid holidays because the lack of days off is currently a challenge for Muslim students. Graff said a proposed calendar would be brought before the board in January or February of 2022.

The auditors’ report 

After the calendar discussion, the district’s auditors presented their annual report. The auditors said there were no issues with the district’s financial statements, federal program compliance and Minnesota legal compliance. 

The auditors issued two findings of “material weakness” related to government accounting standards. The first was related to the segregation of accounting duties and the second was a prior period adjustment that the district made to correct an error.

In addition to the audit findings, the auditors shared data on the revenues and expenditures of the district and the general fund balance. Several years ago, the district was not maintaining an adequate general fund balance. The board set a target of 8 percent for the general fund balance, and the auditors said the general fund is currently at 9.5 percent, which is $126 million above the board’s goal.

If you’re interested in more financial data, the auditor’s presentation is here and the report links are included in the agenda for the meeting.

The finance department report on budget, tax levy 

A presentation from the finance department on the 2022 budget process and proposed property tax levy increases followed the auditors’ report. 

Since the board approved the current budget last spring, there have been several changes, including larger than expected enrollment declines. 1700 more students left MPS than anticipated. Higher than expected kindergarten enrollment led to adding a class in five schools, Hall, Lucy Laney, Windom, Bryn Mawr and Barton, and there was a steep increase to the job vacancy rate.

The 2022-2023 school budgets are scheduled to be released to principals on Feb. 14 of next year. Parents interested in providing input on their school’s budget should look out for the school’s council meeting dates after those budgets are released.

The board must approve the next budget before June 30, 2022.

In 2022, the MPS property tax levy will increase by 7.4 percent, the maximum the State will allow for the district this year. Last year, the levy declined by 4 percent, which was required by the State because it determined it had overpaid the district in the previous year. In 2020, the levy increase was zero percent. For a home valued $350,000 or above, the property tax bill will increase by $80 next year. Commercial businesses valued at $1 million or more will have a property tax increase of $108. 

The pre-forma budget

After the presentation on the levy, there was a brief presentation on the pro-forma budget. Graff noted that the district continues to have a structural imbalance in the budget that will present a significant challenge to the district in the coming years. The American Rescue Plan funding will delay the point when the district runs out of funding, but Graff noted that the district should use the opportunity presented by the ARP funds to address the structural issues in an intentional way. 

The presentation stressed that simply increasing enrollment will not be enough for the district to overcome the structural deficit in its budget. The ongoing pandemic continues to require the district to make additional purchases, including for PPE.

Legislative agenda 

The final presentation of the evening was on the district’s legislative agenda. While the State’s budget surplus is unprecedented, there is little confidence that there will be a new bill for education to address the district’s priorities around special education and English learner funding. There is some hope that Gov. Walz will use some of the unallocated state ARP funds to address these issues. 

There was also discussion about how special education services are funded for students who reside in the district but do not attend district schools. The district is hoping for legislative action to change the way these services are provided and paid for. 

Non-district schools submit a bill to the State Department of Education for services they provide to students who reside in MPS but do not attend MPS schools. The district has no way to audit these bills to determine whether appropriate services are being provided. Instead the State deducts the costs directly from what it owes MPS. 

Currently the district pays $24 million per year for special education services provided by non-district schools. A charter school is billing the district for services at a cost 600 percent higher than what it would cost the district to provide the same services. 

One additional item on the legislative agenda concerns pre-kindergarten for 3 and 4-year-olds that would be funded by Build Back Better legislation at the federal level. Under current law, the state of Minnesota limits the number of 3 and 4-year-olds  who can use state funds to attend pre-kindergarten provided by district schools. If the BBB legislation passes and expands the funding for these programs, the cap would still apply under current law. The law would need to be changed in order for school districts to be able to provide pre-kindergarten with these additional funds.

One of the topics that came up in the levy discussion, the pro-forma budget and the presentation on the district’s legislative agenda at the State capitol this year, is the cross-subsidy for special education and for English learners. The cross-subsidy is the amount the district spends on legally mandated services for students that the State does not appropriate enough money for the district to pay for. 

During the discussion about the levy, board member Arneson asked Senior Financial Officer Diop what the district’s cross-subsidy was. Diop replied that it is around $56 million for special education and $15 million for English learners. (According to the budget pro-forma, the special education amount is $40 million, so I suspect Diop was reporting them together as $56 million.) As a result, the district utilizes a combination of property tax levy funds and state general education funds to pay for these mandatory services that the State does not adequately fund. 

The meeting ended with a series of unanimous votes to approve the consent agenda, and the 2022 levy increase. The next meeting will be a Committee of the Whole meeting on December 21.