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Local View: Shifting process could shift dollars from students who need them most

It is school budget time, and the Duluth school district is quietly rewriting the rule book on school funding.

One year ago, the School Board took the historic step to return most compensatory-education funds — essentially achievement-gap money — to the buildings that generate them. That structural change guaranteed equity for at least those particular funds.

This year, the district is introducing a new budgeting process that not only undoes the guarantee promised in the compensatory-education realignment; it undoes years of precedence in school funding.

Historically, general-educations dollars were allocated to buildings based on the number of students enrolled via a student-to-FTE (full-time equivalent) ratio. The ratio provided an equality-based foundation for staffing buildings. Schools with the same number of students in the same grades got the same amount of staff. Added to that were funds linked to students because of systemic obstacles such as poverty. These were allocated, for the most part, to the buildings that generated them. The compensatory-education diversion violated this principle, prior to it being curtailed with last year's board vote. The result is that schools with a greater concentration of students with greater needs receive more resources: to add specialists, for instance.

The new budget process does away with the student-to-FTE ratio. That decision can have huge implications on how resources are allocated across the district. No longer can one trust that School A and School B, with roughly the same number of students, will receive comparable general-education dollars. No longer can one trust that the money designated for the greater needs at schools with higher rates of poverty among their families will actually get more funding than schools with far lower rates of poverty.

The structural fix that ensured equality for general-education funds and some degree of equity for achievement-gap funds is gone.

Sure, the district still has to send achievement-gap dollars where the law or the School Board directed, but now the district can do whatever it wants with the much larger general-education funds.

The new budget process also centralizes staffing and programming decisions for each of the 13 buildings. No longer will building leadership teams be able to decide how to meet the needs of their school communities; instead, the superintendent, with the chief financial officer, will decide if a particular program merits funding. This after the CFO stated in a March 26 School Board committee of the whole meeting that she is not qualified to make decisions as to the educational merits of particular programs or approaches.

Finally, the new budget process does away with reporting per-building budgets. District leaders aren't even telling the School Board how much staffing or funding each school receives. If they don't tell anyone how or where they are spending the money, then no one has the ability to assess, much less criticize, their allocation decisions.

We are told all of this is to ensure the more restricted funds are used appropriately and that general-education funds are freed up for use in a building for things that restricted funds won't pay for. It doesn't add up. You don't need to eliminate the ratio, centralize decisions, or hide budget numbers to do better bookkeeping.

What it looks and feels like is a backlash to a community and School Board that dared to question an administration that for years diverted achievement-gap dollars to lower class sizes in mostly well-off schools. It looks and feels like a power grab that threatens to undo the principles of both equality and equity in our schools.

The School Board will discuss the preliminary budget at a business committee meeting Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. and on April 23 at its regular 6:30 p.m. board meeting. Community members can email the School Board or speak during the community-input section early in the meeting on the 23rd.

Kevin Skwira-Brown is a Denfeld parent and a member of the Education Equity Alliance, a grassroots collaborative of community groups and others.

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