Voters should give decision-makers at the Minneapolis Public Schools a wake-up call on Nov. 8 by voting “No” on the proposed tax levy, rejecting the kind of just-give-us-more-money argument that rewards irresponsible budgeting and programmatic failures (“A starvation diet can’t make our schools, or our students, do better,” Nov. 4).
Voters concerned about public education in this political year should understand that such local votes matter much more than the hopes they might futilely project onto candidates vying for national office.
Officials at Minneapolis public schools (MPS) seek to renew the school district’s existing referendum revenue authorization of $1,604.31 per pupil, forecasting that for academic year 2016-2017 the total revenue generated will be $74 million — 13 percent of the district’s general operating revenue ($580 million). If citizens vote “No,” that $74 million in revenue will be lost.
MPS decisionmakers say that if the referendum fails they “will have to make difficult decisions about how to operate the district without a substantial portion of the budget.” And this is exactly why citizens should vote “No”: to induce those difficult decisions.
I have followed the inner workings of this school district for many years, with great intensity in the past 27 months. From my observations and research, I offer the following account:
After Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s resignation at the end of January 2015, members of the MPS Board of Education conducted a two-phase search for new leadership. It was bungled in many ways, including a major missed opportunity to hire Houston Independent School District turnaround specialist Charles Foust. In a second phase that lasted from late winter through May 2016, board members ultimately opted for former Anchorage, Alaska, Superintendent Ed Graff, whose contract the school board of that district opted not to renew in spring 2016.
Now, after an ineffective two-phase search that cost approximately $250,000, district decisionmakers are operating on wildly improbable assumptions embedded in the district’s Acceleration 2020 Strategic Plan, and in a document called the Educational Equity Framework. Both documents are worth more as legal cover than as instruments for change: They are jargon-infested exercises in rhetoric, full of bromides proclaiming a coming attitudinal shift at MPS, devoid of strategies actually likely to raise academic performance.
Against a backdrop of terrible school performance recorded recently in the MPS Report Card, new Superintendent Graff is conveying a desire “to change the narrative” about Minneapolis public schools. He touts the slogan “MPS Strong,” knowing that less than 46 percent of the district’s students are achieving at grade level in reading and math; and that among American-Indian and African-American males fewer than 20 percent are achieving at grade level. The sanguine, feel-good message that Graff delivered during his “State of the Schools” address conveys an imperviousness to reality that could have consequences. Ill-educated inner-city young people frequently succumb to the life of the street.
MPS needs transformative change rather than shibboleths forecasting favorable results. Against a backdrop of two years wasted en route to hiring a conventional superintendent, terrible academic results that give the lie to the 2020 Plan, and the lack of any budget prioritization of curriculum upgrading, teacher training, academic remediation, outreach to families of students from challenged circumstances, and reduction of central-office staff, voters need to deliver a wake-up call.
Policymakers at the national level can do little to make structural change in K-12 education in the United States. But voters have the power. Vote “No.”
Gary Marvin Davison is director of the New Salem Educational Initiative. He blogs at http://www.newsalemeducation.blogspot.com.