The Most Cynical Chapter of St. Paul’s Nasty Budget Battle

If you saw $9 million lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up?

What’s that? You can’t be bothered? What if you were $15.1 million in the red, would you be willing to bend a little then?

If you’ve paid even cursory attention to the headlines, you know St. Paul Public Schools finds itself in the midst of a painful community discussion over the 2016-2017 budget deficit. With the fat long gone, the Board of Education and district administration are now looking at cleaving into the meat of the school day.

All of which begs the only slightly sarcastic question above. Because $9 million in potential state aid is being left on the table because the St. Paul Federation of Teachers would prefer other budget-balancing measures.

On May 12, Sandy Pappas, the St. Paul DFLer currently serving as president of the state Senate, sent a letter to Federation President Denise Rodriguez and Board Chair Jon Schumacher pleading with them to consider participating in Q-Comp, which could have meant $9 million more in district coffers to be spent on teacher development.

On May 16, Federation leaders sent back a letter saying they have made other recommendations for cuts that would close the deficit—period. Two days later school board e-mailed the union leaders, spelling out in more detail why they ought to reconsider. (Scroll down to read the letters.)

So, beyond the obvious—that $9 million is a lot to leave on the table with a $15 million deficit—why does this matter? Because there’s a case to be made that ideology is the reason SPPS is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Q-Comp, is case you live outside the acronym stew that is education policymaking, was the brainchild of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who sought to tie teacher pay to performance. With the support of its teachers union, a district could sign on to tap a limited pool of funds that, at its inception, amounted to bonuses.

Problematically, at the time of the program’s creation in most places we lacked the tools to measure teacher quality objectively. Because of this, in most places teachers engaged in a certain amount of ongoing training and got merit pay.

Lackluster results notwithstanding, for a long time no one wanted to revisit Q-Comp. Districts couldn’t afford to leave any money uncollected and the concept that some teachers should be paid more than others, either because of their effectiveness or their willingness to teach in the most challenging settings, is the hottest political potato out there.

In part because of the advent of state-required teacher evaluations, this has changed in recent years. Putting the lie to the notion that teachers are opposed, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers drove much of this change.

Districts may now use the money to pay for evaluation-related activities, including two kinds of intensive teacher training, “job-embedded professional development” and training within professional learning communities.

What you really need to know about both of those is that we’re talking not about a one-off seminar on, say, diversity, but about ongoing PD in which teachers work together in groups during the school day. It’s expensive and in some cases required bringing in subs to free teachers up.

Done well, it’s a game-changer that has a direct and dramatic impact on student outcomes. It can be a powerful strategy for closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

In St. Paul—and we’re getting here to why the exchange of letters is so maddening—this training would cost $7.2 million next year. Because the budgetary bloodletting is so bad, it’s on the chopping block. If it goes, as a result most district schools next year will move from a seven-period day to a six-period day.

Feeling cynical yet? Hold on to your horses.

Like every nickel associated with education in latter day America, Q-Comp as a funding stream is under threat. And the fact that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers—which represents the best-paid teachers in the state, in the state’s largest district–has consistently refused to sign on comes up every year at the Capitol.

Which makes the most pointed line in Pappas’ letter this one: “As we discussed, my colleagues at the Senate do not understand why St. Paul does not pursue this funding.”

Indeed the amount of Q-Comp St. Paul has left on the table in recent years is some $80 million. And the Legislature? Well, it didn’t actually gavel to a close this year but it did adjourn with no new money or capacity for Q-Comp.

The final irony is all this, of course, is the fact that the board members who tonight will ask the Federation to elaborate on its stance swept to office as the union’s hand-picked and big-money-backed slate. And the first thing those new board leaders did was ink a contract with the Federation that gives the union $21 million in new spending over the next two years.

So, now that you’ve heard all of this, if you saw $9 million lying on the sidewalk, would you reach down to pick it up?


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