Inequity, not heat, closed Minneapolis schools

  • Article by: ANTHONY NEWBY
  • Updated: September 3, 2013 - 12:40 PM

Let’s be clear. The Minnesota Legislature and the school district failed students.

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First graders Sam Collins and Luke Holter sucked on ice cubes in their un air conditioned classroom at Hiawatha Elementary School in Minneapolis on Monday.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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For the first two days of the school year in Minneapolis, thousands of kids spent hours roasting inside classrooms where the temperature topped 90 degrees. For some kids, it was uncomfortable. For others with asthma or other conditions, it was dangerous, and potentially even life-threatening.

Too many kids stayed home; kids who were in school were distracted by unbearable heat, and teachers couldn’t deliver the substantive lessons they had planned. Students, parents and teachers demanded action, and a news conference outside of Patrick Henry High School highlighted the fact that the kids were essentially being warehoused in overcrowded, underresourced classrooms. The district finally did the right thing and closed those schools for two days last week.

To be clear, that decision was not a community victory — it was a tragedy. Fifty years after MLK’s march on Washington, and with the worst equity gaps in the nation, we’re now unable to provide even the most basic climate controls for our children.

After years of our Legislature’s balancing the budget on the backs of kids and schools, the district didn’t have the resources to properly fund its decision to extend the school year. Administrators took what they hoped would be a positive step for equity and prayed for cool weather. It was worth a try, and the fact is that the extra class time is benefiting the kids who do have climate-controlled schools. For those who don’t have the resources, like the students at Patrick Henry, it’s become a lose-lose situation.

While we argue for increased funding, we also need to hold the district accountable for its mismanagement of this situation, and of resources it does have that weren’t deployed. While kids cooked in aging buildings this week, more modern buildings like Webster Open and Cityview sat empty or nearly empty.

Why didn’t we temporarily relocate kids to facilities that could have kept them safe and able to learn? Why was so much invested in a comfortable new district facility when our kids don’t have the minimum level of classroom infrastructure required to learn? Why did the district leave levy capacity on the table last year knowing that our classrooms lacked basic climate control?

We need to get serious about the equity gaps in Minnesota. We need politicians at every level of government to commit to a real investment in underresourced schools to make sure every child has the opportunity to learn in a safe, healthy environment.

According to Minnesota 2020, state funding for the Minneapolis schools has done the opposite, decreasing by 26.1 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2003, compared with 15.2 percent decreases statewide. Not only did the Legislature fail to invest in equity, it did the opposite.

The district has been forced to use levy money for debt service and basic building repairs because of a Legislature that doesn’t care enough about children of color.

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Anthony Newby is executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Minneapolis.

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