During her State of the City address this week, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges emphasized the yin and yang of a city with remarkable attributes but also deep challenges — especially regarding race and equity.
That dichotomy is illustrated in the Minneapolis Public Schools — a district that does a great job educating some students but struggles mightily with others. Recognizing the critical role that education can play in closing the gap between white students and students of color, Hodges will be the honorary co-chair of the campaign for a school referendum renewal in the fall. Her co-chair will be U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the congressman from north Minneapolis who represents the city.
Hodges told the Star Tribune Editorial Board that she had been involved in similar campaigns before becoming mayor and that she thinks it is essential to be involved again. She noted that the referendum renewal would not bring additional dollars to the school district; rather it would allow the district to maintain a portion of its current budget.
Failure to renew would cost the district about $74 million, which represents about 15 percent of its operating budget. The original referendum was approved by voters eight years ago to lower class sizes. Without those funds, it’s estimated that class sizes could go up to 48 students. “At a time when our public school students are 70 percent students of color … when our economy is facing a workforce shortage and when graduation rates are rising, pulling the plug on our 36,000 students is pulling the plug on the future of our city,’’ Hodges said in her speech.
Meanwhile, the School District is poised to select a new superintendent. School board members interviewed two finalists this week: Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Ed Graff, the outgoing superintendent of the Anchorage School District in Alaska. A decision is expected next week.
With only about five months before the November referendum, the new schools chief will face an early test. Board members should select a superintendent who can articulate a vision for improving learning, be a persuasive district advocate and make a strong case to voters that their dollars will be well spent. That won’t be easy given the district’s missteps, including recent news of a $15 million to $17 million financial mistake due to a failure to budget for expenses that included pension contributions and the cost of the new teacher contract.
To help rebuild public trust, the board needs a strong administrator at the top. Above all, the new school CEO should be focused on proven strategies to improve learning for all students. Effectively meeting that challenge will aid Hodges’ equity agenda, which rightly calls for extending the best Minneapolis has to offer to citizens of all incomes, races and cultures.