Detroit school district is pressed for answers on how impending budget cuts will affect staffing

A preschool-age student writes on a white board in a school classroom.
At a school board finance committee meeting, community groups urged Detroit Public Schools Community District officials to prioritize student and family needs as they adapt to the end of federal COVID relief aid. (Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat)

Community members and union leaders are asking the Detroit school district for more clarity on how impending budget cuts will affect certain categories of district employees, as officials prepare for the end of federal COVID relief money.

Over 100 district positions may be cut or consolidated moving into the 2023-24 school year, including school support staff such as general ed kindergarten paraprofessionals, school culture facilitators, attendance agents, and college transition advisers. At a meeting of the school board finance committee Friday, the community groups pressed the district to prioritize student and family needs as it decides where to make cuts.

“We know that a lot of our paraprofessionals are really important for student relationships,” said Molly Sweeney, director of organizing for education advocacy group 482Forward. “So as we think about the budget process, if there are staff cuts, we want to be able to really justify that for what that impact is in our families and really stand with the community members.”

The Detroit Public Schools Community District received a total $1.3 billion in federal aid to help students recover from the pandemic. DPSCD will have spent most of the money by the end of this school year on initiatives such placing nurses in every school, increasing mental health resources and staff support, creating and expanding the DPSCD Virtual School, and after-school and summer school programming. And it has already committed $700 million to renovate and rebuild schools across the city.

The depletion of those funds will force the district to make some tough spending decisions for the coming year, because one of its main remaining sources of revenue is state aid based on enrollment. And DPSCD has seen its enrollment drop by about 2,000 students since the start of the public health crisis in 2020.

Discussions about next year’s budget are still ongoing, and the budget will not be finalized until board approval in June. But district officials are hoping to soften the impact of expected cuts on district employees and families by moving employees in positions that are expected to be phased out into roles with staffing shortages, such as pre-kindergarten paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, cafeteria aides, and academic interventionists.

“We want them to stay with us but move to another area,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. 

Principals across the district have received their proposed budgets and are working on determining their priorities. 

Part of the discussion about staff reductions, Vitti added, has been to ensure equitable funding across the district, particularly for neighborhood high schools and large K-8 schools — schools that typically have higher rates of student absenteeism and lower achievement metrics. Those schools, he noted, will have “more flexibility this year with deciding what positions they want in their building.”

After spring break next week, Vitti said, the district intends to host engagement sessions for district employees and community members to go into “greater depth and talk about the recommended changes as we go into the budget adoption in June.”

One category of employees that will see adjustments from new district priorities is attendance agents, the employees assigned to help school administrators track down absent students and get them to class.

As many as 20 attendance agent positions may be cut from the district’s budget, according to Vitti, as the district retools its strategy to address chronic student absenteeism. 

In the latest school year, 77% of DPSCD students were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year, or 18 days. 

Attendance agents have been a key part of the district’s strategy to address the problem. The district currently employs roughly 89 attendance agents, assigned to individual schools across the city. But last fall, district officials began to reconsider their allocation of one attendance agent per school. 

In the future, Vitti said, the district wants to prioritize its placement of attendance agents at schools with the highest number of chronically absent students. Another group of about 20 agents would operate districtwide to support schools with less absenteeism.

As with the other positions designated for cuts, current attendance agents will be able to transition into other high-need staff roles, Vitti said.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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