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Cuts loom large in Saint Paul schools’ future

A room is filled with people sitting in chairs, many wearing red. They look to the front of the room, which is out of sight of the camera.
Saint Paul teachers recently gathered to learn more about their new contract with SPPS. (Photo credit: SPFE)

SPPS’ new contract with teachers, combined with the district’s looming $107 million deficit means large budget cuts to staff and programming in order to balance the budget. 

In February, the St. Paul Federation of Educators threatened to strike if the district did not honor the teachers union’s request for pay raises, class size caps, and increased health insurance contributions. SPPS settled the agreement in March, approving a $37.5 million wage increase for teachers, educational assistants, and school community service personnel for the next two years. In addition to having to reduce the number of full-time teachers to accommodate for the new contract agreement, many student and staff support programs face reduction or elimination. SPPS Board member and longtime teacher Chauntyll Allen says that was a conscious decision between the union and the Board. 

“We had a very clear conversation with the teachers saying that this money has to come from somewhere. That we [the district] don't have an endless amount of money because of state mandates and federal mandates that are not properly funded. And that these are the supports and the stuff that we have in our schools, programs, initiatives, that could possibly leave–if we give you this record percentage high [pay increase],” said Allen.

Ultimately it was decided that the union's negotiations were to be prioritized, despite what would be sacrificed in exchange. And SPPS Superintendent Joe Gothard says this wage increase, combined with a massive deficit, puts the district in a difficult position.

“The rhetoric and narrative around public education right now, whether we're talking about here in St. Paul, or my friend Kevin Glover up in International Falls, or superintendents around the country, will tell you that it's getting harder and harder to find and keep good staff. And the churn and the workforce dynamics are making it very difficult to do this. So we have to have a solid pay structure. We have to address insurance increases. We have to address overall inflation, as it factors into our budget… It leaves us with very little room to make modifications,” said Gothard during a Minnesota Now broadcast.

The district says it still has to reduce its budget by an additional $36.2 million to reach a balanced budget for the year 2025, despite all of its current eliminations and reductions. 

Allen says in addition to these individual pressures facing local school districts, this year’s strained budget is coupled with the loss of COVID-19 supplemental funds. As a part of the American Rescue Plan, the district was allotted $334 million over the course of three years to prevent learning loss. Allen says districts got to decide how best to use the money, which brought in a flood of resources.

A woman smiles at the camera. She wears glasses and a black shirt.
Longtime teacher and Saint Paul Board of Education member Chauntyll Allen. (Photo credit: SPPS)

“So right now, what we're dealing with is unfunded mandates, the teachers’ negotiations, and the fact that we're about to lose millions from ARP [American Rescue Plan] funds,” explained Allen. “All of these different things are happening all at the same time, and it feels like a huge boulder is being dropped on the public school system.”

Allen, who is a part of a fellowship cohort of 500 school board members across the nation, says the state should fund essential programs such as  English Language Learning. 

“Thirty million dollars came out of our general fund to support ELL services. And I don't have a problem with that because I feel like we should provide ELL services,” said Allen. “My argument is that the state doesn't want to fund ELL services. And then even last year, when they did want to fund it, they only funded it partially.” 

Allen says she believes some new programs which might seem beneficial, are actually hurting education efforts.

“Free lunch just happened in our state, across the districts. Everybody was so happy. It sounded like the most revolutionary radical move that could happen… But I was concerned. This additional free lunch only made it available to people who can afford lunch. So where we would collect $12 million in revenue at SPPS from people who can afford to pay for lunch, now we are dependent on the state to pay for that lunch program that they don't fully fund. So it costs us $7 million in order to give everybody free lunch out of our general fund… Money that should be going to learning,” said Allen.

Funding for language-based and cultural schools will remain stable in 2025 because SPPS has seen improvements in enrollment and graduation rates in these schools. But with upcoming cuts along with Superintendent's Gothard’s upcoming departure – as he heads for a new position in Madison, Wisconsin – significant changes are in the works. 

“I think that we'll work as hard as we can for the days that I'm here to make sure that we get this budget balanced. And I really look forward to transitioning to interim, likely for the next year, before a permanent superintendent is hired in the future,” said Gothard during the Minnesota Now broadcast.

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