Vote ‘yes’ for the city and its kids

As the former chair of the Minneapolis School Board and a longtime activist for public schools, supporting the Strong Schools Strong City referendum should have been a no-brainer. But here I was, hesitating.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the city schools. Our two sons started kindergarten at Fulton School (now Lake Harriet) and graduated from Southwest in 2005 and 2008, respectively. They got a good education and an authentic sense of community that came from years of being in classes, plays, and on sports teams with both longtime neighbors and students from all over the city and the world. My sons grew up listening to fellow students chat in Hmong, Vietnamese, Spanish and Somali. As young men, they now move through a diverse world with an ease that I am in awe of and admire.

Nor have I ever questioned that our schools need more money. I’ve sat on the school board. I’ve sweated the budgets, and the hard truth is, public education in Minnesota is woefully underfunded by the state and federal governments. Which is why 90 percent of the state’s school districts have been forced to ask residents to approve property tax levies. The current Minneapolis referendum, which expires next year, raises $615 per student and is the second lowest in the metro area. (Brooklyn Center is on the bottom with its $337 levy; the St. Anthony-New Brighton district is at the top with its $1,985.)

The new referendum would double the money raised, bringing us $1,200 per student, which would put Minneapolis in the middle of the levy pack, right behind Bloomington and a little bit ahead of Osseo. The new referendum is projected to raise $60 million a year for the school district for the next eight years. The district says $30 million will go to early reading programs, better math and science programs, computers and textbooks.

The other $30 million, says the district, will go to “manage” class size. Which is where all my hesitations came in. Although the previous referendum campaigns actually “promised” to reduce class size, in the midst of a series of budget crises, the district dropped its commitment to class size. At the same time, because Southwest Minneapolis schools remain popular with neighborhood families, class size in the Southwest Minneapolis schools have soared. When Southwest High School opened this September, 45 classes had more than 40 students. The district hired more teachers and within a month, most of those classes were down below 40. But even so, too many classes in our schools remain jam-packed, with little time to engage students in class discussion and even less time for overworked teachers to edit papers.

What happened to that last referendum promise?

The short answer: Thanks to Governor Pawlenty’s “no-new taxes” pledge, state funding stayed flat or declined (since the rate of inflation was never factored in), while the education costs for heating, transportation and health benefits soared. Unlike many other businesses, education remains labor-intensive because robots and computers really can’t teach kids. You actually need a human being in the classroom, and human beings need health benefits.

Although all the money from the two previous referenda went to reduce class size, in truth, the referenda never fully covered the costs. The district also used some of its general and compensatory education funds. But as the district’s costs went up while state funding stayed flat (or in fact, grew at half the rate of inflation), something had to give. And unfortunately, it was class size.

So, why, you might ask, am I still supporting the referendum? Because the alternative is much, much worse! Support the referendum, but demand accountability from the district for the use of these funds, particularly in regard to class size.

IBut with just half of this referendum’s dollars earmarked for managing class size, parents will need to maintain a serious communication effort with their school board members and district leaders to ensure the district keeps its eye on the
class-size ball.

Catherine Shreves is a lawyer living in Fulton. She chaired the Minneapolis School Board during 2001 and 2002.