District levy, school board to grow

New school board, new election process and new funds from referendum

There was change in the air on election night, and at least a little bit of it touched Minneapolis Public Schools.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a doubling of the district’s current property tax levy to $60 million a year for eight years, beginning next fall. By nearly as wide a margin, they approved a major change to the way school board members are elected.

They also elected two new school board members — Carla Bates and Jill Davis — and returned incumbent Lydia Lee. Sharon Henry-Blyth, the board’s longest-serving member, failed to earn re-election.

The impact of voter’s choices Nov. 4 will play out over the next two years and beyond.

Funds from the new referendum become available in the 2009–2010 school year. Budgeting for that school year began this month and continues through February.

But it won’t be until the 2010 election that the school board begins an expansion from seven to nine members. After the 2012 election, it will be a body comprised of six district representatives and three at-large members, ending an era when all school board members were elected at-large.

Thrilled and humbled

Minneapolis voters have a track record of supporting school referenda. They last renewed the district’s property tax levy in 2000 with an approval rate of more than 70 percent.

Courtney Cushing-Kiernat, co-chair of the Strong Schools Strong City campaign in support of the referendum, knew that. Still, referendum supporters worried voters’ appetites for a property tax increase might have been ruined by recession fears.

That led to a bit of “nail-biting” at campaign headquarters in Uptown on election night, Cushing-Kiernat said. Minneapolis returns came in later than expected, but it was clear by 10 p.m. the referendum had passed.

“We felt like we ran a good, positive campaign,” she said, “but so much was up in the air.”

It’s estimated less than 20 percent of Minneapolis households have a child enrolled in Minneapolis Public Schools. Still, just more than 70 percent of voters approved the referendum.
Reflecting on those statistics, Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson said: “We’re thrilled and, quite honestly, humbled.”

Johnson took it as a “vote of confidence” in the district, but she acknowledged that voters would be looking for results from the additional funding.

About half of the referendum dollars were designated for holding down class sizes. The rest will fund math and literacy education efforts and buy new textbooks and technology.

Johnson said the referendum directly supported the district’s strategic plan, a five-year effort to improve academic outcomes on a variety of fronts. And to ensure the referendum funds are spent responsibly, the district will form an independent Referendum Oversight Committee.

Two committee members were selected already: Jay Kiedrowski, state finance commissioner under former Gov. Rudy Perpich; and John Gunyou, who held the same post under former Gov. Arne Carlson.

New blood

Less than 24 hours after they learned the election results, Davis and Bates were headed to district headquarters for their first training session. There’s a lot to catch up on, even for two new board members who built reputations as highly involved parent advocates.

Budgeting, the sale of empty school buildings and the search for a new district headquarters are just a few of the projects on the table. Looming over every decision is the strategic plan.

The strategic plan aims to address some of the district’s greatest challenges, including the achievement gap and declining enrollment. While the framework for reform is in place, the future board still must approve many of the plan’s details.

As representatives to the District Parent Advisory Council, both Davis and Bates were involved in development of the plan from its early stages.

“I’m pretty committed to a lot of things that are included in the strategic plan,” Davis said.

Bates said the plan included many common-sense reforms she and other parents had long supported, like getting all students through algebra in the 8th grade.
“I just don’t see these as real rocket-science things,” she said. “The parts of the strategic plan are all very strong, research-based, recognizable goals to achieve if you’re going to have a good school district.”

Both also have their own agendas for reform. For Bates, it’s a focus on clear budgeting and the needs of special education and English language-learner students; for Davis, it’s school equality, community responsiveness and early childhood education.

It’s yet to be seen how Bates and Davis will change the dynamics of the school board. They replace Peggy Flanagan, the youngest board member and its first Native American — who chose not to run for re-election — and Henry-Blythe.

With the return of Lee, they join the four board members swept into office in 2004: Tom Madden, Pam Costain, “T” Williams and Christ Stewart.

Looking ahead

There is enough for the current school board to work on without thinking too much about the next election in 2010. But that year will mark the beginning of geographic representation on the school board based on the six districts of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board [MPRB].

Four seats come open in 2010. Voters will select three representatives from the odd-numbered MPRB districts, plus two at-large representatives. In 2012, three representatives will be elected from even-numbered district, plus one at-large representative.

Along the way, things may get “a little messy,” Madden, a current board member who supported the change, said.

Potentially, current school board members who live in the same district — like District 5 residents Costain and Stewart — would be pitted against one another.

Williams and Madden live in even-numbered districts but are up for re-election in 2010, the year for election from odd-numbered districts. They could run for an at-large seat, sit out until 2014 or chose not to run at all.

But those decisions are still a long way off, Madden said.

“I am truly, honestly, trying not to think about it right now,” he said. “There’s so much on the plate right now.”