School board directors called the preliminary budget that they approved Thursday a “steady as she goes” budget. But with the state facing a $5 billion deficit and possible cuts on the horizon, “steady as she goes” can be downright amazing.
Despite the looming state budget deficit, Hopkins Public Schools is still on track to preserve unique programs, staffing ratios and other educational investments. The budget is little changed from the one that’s been under discussion since they set budget guidelines in January.
The $81 million budget anticipates steep state cuts. Yet it manages to keep classroom sizes at 2010-2011 school levels, expand the Kindergarten readiness program, reinstate professional development and create or expand other programs that aim to help students succeed.
“I think this budget is really about our values in this district,” said Director Betsy Scheurer.
Under the current budget assumptions, the district would dip into its savings by about $583,000 in the 2011-2012 school year—a deficit of less than 1 percent of the preliminary budget.
The district is also working under what could turn out to be overly pessimistic assumptions. The state typically pays schools in two installments—90 percent in one fiscal year and 10 percent in the other. Minnesota lawmakers and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty changed this to a 70-30 split to balance the state’s budget. With the ongoing deficit, Hopkins school board directors are preparing for a 50-50 split. The preliminary budget also assumes a 3-percent cut in state aid.
Yet state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pledging to hold K-12 education harmless as they strive to close the state’s $5 billion deficit. If they manage to do that, Hopkins’ deficit would disappear.
Even if the pessimistic assumptions do pan out, Hopkins would still have a healthy $10.7 million fund balance that is about 13 percent of its budget.
From the beginning, Superintendent John Schultz has emphasized that the district’s healthy financial situation allows it to take a more-measured approach to any changes coming from the state. With the approval of Thursday’s preliminary budget, directors echoed Schultz’s feelings.
“I like the budget because, with the uncertainty we have, it gives us some flexibility,” said Director Wendy Donovan, the board’s treasurer.
The board will adopt a final budget May 19.
Although directors unanimously agreed on the preliminary budget, they were more divided on a couple allocations classified as “one-time expenditures”—so called because they’re intended to be short-term expenses, as with a pilot program, instead of recurring expenses that happen every year.
Board members voted on each of these six items separately after approving the preliminary budget:
- Pre-K Kindergarten readiness ($150,000): This program aims to intervene with students before they actually fall behind. The directors, in what was actually two votes, agreed to maintain the 28-student program at Alice Smith Elementary and add a similar program to Eisenhower Elementary. “I think both these pilots get to our achievement gap and really get to our ability to help learners earlier,” Donovan said. (Approved 7-0)
- Online hybrid courses ($15,000): This expands the online curriculum at Hopkins High School. (Approved 7-0)
- Response to Intervention ($84,570): This is a program that helps elementary math performance. The money will add a half-time paraprofessional at each elementary school and pay a stipend for a math coach at each elementary school who will help staff with math instruction. (Approved 7-0)
- Elementary AVID ($54,000 for a three-year pilot): This program helps fourth through sixth graders start thinking about college. Hopkins already has a secondary AVID program for junior high and high school students who are “in the middle”—not above or below average. The elementary program, though, would be for all students and doesn’t have the three-decade history that the secondary program has. Director Ellen Dustman also added that the district is awaiting an elementary study due in April that could affect whether the district want to pursue elementary AVID and that teachers already have a lot on their plates. Finally, she said the way students learn and take notes is evolving with technology. “I think this program is behind the technology, from everything I’ve read. But Director Director Irma McIntosh Coleman said the program could help students in need of the most assistance and that the district should at least try it. With final budget approval coming after the April elementary study, they can always change their minds. (Approved 4-3, with Dustman, Donovan and Director Warren Goodroad dissenting)
- One Voice Coalition ($100,000): Another divisive proposal—although that division was more evident in prior budget discussions than in the actual vote. One Voice aims to reduce youth chemical use. It was funded through a 10-year federal grant that expires in 2011. Staff has sought new funding sources to replace the federal money, so far without success. Directors debated whether the school should make up the shortfall until something comes through and eventually concluded that failure to fund it would make it hard to keep the efforts alive until money is available. (Approved 6-1, with Donovan dissenting)