Tevlin: Southwest alum’s gifts prompt debate over inequity

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2014 - 8:02 PM

The theme of economic inequity has been debated recently from Wall Street to the White House. Now a man’s desire to keep kids cool at his alma mater during scorching summers has brought the topic to Minneapolis public schools.

Harvey Feldman grew up in north Minneapolis, then moved and attended Southwest High School. A self-confessed “terrible student,” he focused on sports as a teen. After high school, however, Feldman got serious, studied accounting and business and eventually became a successful entrepreneur.

Now 70, Feldman still has a soft spot for Southwest High. “It’s one of the best public high schools in the state, if not the country,” said Feldman. “I think first-class kids deserve a first-class facility. These kids don’t even know what they don’t have.”

Last year, Feldman spent more than $300,000 of his savings to put up lights on the athletic field. But he wasn’t done. He also gives college scholarships to four students, which he has raised to $5,000 per student, per year, for four years.

But while attending functions to honor successful students, Feldman noticed that the auditorium was so hot “people couldn’t wait to get out of there.” So, he promised that he would also foot the bill for air conditioning, estimated to cost more than $200,000.

Large private gifts have to be approved by the Minneapolis school board. During a meeting, at least one board member, Carla Bates, raised the issue of increasing inequity among schools.

“There have been issues for a long time and it’s now starting to be talked about,” Bates said in an interview. “It really is the nature of living in an economically segregated city.”

Bates is concerned that wealthy donors could shower amenities on one school while others in poor neighborhoods go without. But she’s walking a fine line because “I don’t want to seem like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth. I just think we need to have a broad policy discussion before we set a precedent. We may already have set a precedent. A half-million dollars in anybody’s playbook is a lot of money.”

Stan Alleyne, chief communications officer for Minneapolis public schools, said they welcome donors such as Feldman. His gifts to Southwest could allow the district to help another school.

“We’re very thankful,” said Alleyne. “We have limited resources and need the support. At the same time we are looking at equity and making sure resources are spread across the district.”

The board decided the current language on private gifts was appropriate, and Feldman will be allowed to install the air conditioning.

Feldman is delighted and said he was prepared for legal action had the board rejected his money or suggested it be divided among all schools.

“I wasn’t going to buy air conditioning for all city schools, and if they split the money between them no one would get anything,” he said. “I promised air conditioning to those kids, and they were going to deny it over my dead body.”

Bates said she’s worried that school inequity is “immensely intractable, and when we have the worst achievement gap in the country, as a board member you can’t ignore that.”

“It’s difficult because we are in a time of static resources, yet demands are high,” Bates said. “I wish we had the resources to make all schools wonderful.”

Bates wonders if and where the school district should draw a line. What if a wealthy parent wanted to pay the salary of a certain teacher, or give enough money to keep class sizes under 15 students?

“Why would it be OK to take money for a facility and not for more teachers or staff?” Bates said.

Yet Bates is happy for generous people such as Feldman. “I’ve never met him, but I’d like to track him down and say, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’ ” she said.

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