Last week, Twin Cities voters said an enthusiastic “yes’’ to their public schools. They chose to increase their property taxes to send $30 million a year in new funding to Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and approved $18.6 million a year for St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS).
That support was far from tepid. Strong majorities in both cities opted to back levy requests. In Minneapolis the yes votes on two questions prevailed with 78 and 72 percent of the vote. And in St. Paul, 66 percent of ballots cast favored digging a little deeper to educate kids.
The school communities in both cities made persuasive cases for their budget needs. As the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued in its endorsements of the requests, many schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis face a series of challenges, including higher numbers of low-income, special-education, English-language-learning and even homeless students. Those kids legitimately require more resources to educate. The additional funding should help with those needs and hopefully spare the districts more rounds of budget cuts.
Although it’s worth celebrating that the districts have widespread community support, they must do more to live up to the votes of confidence. Both districts have had issues in years past with fiscal management, leadership turnover and communicating a clear strategy.
For example, just last month SPPS leaders said they had vastly underestimated the cost of an ambitious 2016 building improvement plan. According to a St. Paul Pioneer Press analysis, eight major school projects that began last year will cost $214 million — $63 million more than district estimates from two years ago. The higher costs forced the district to postpone construction at several schools.
In MPS, the board has had to dip into reserves several years in a row — even as the district made substantial budget reductions.
Minneapolis and St. Paul schools have large, complicated budgets — in the $600 million range — that are affected by state and federal requirements. Yet they still must be transparent about where the dollars go and whether they are effectively spent.
And the most troubling, intractable challenge for both districts continues to be improving academic achievement for poorer kids and many students of color. When funds are spent in areas that don’t affect student learning, district leaders should pull the plug on those efforts in favor of proven instructional approaches.
The core cities were among the majority of Minnesota school districts that requested and won additional taxpayer support last week. According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, 19 of 25 districts passed at least one request for bond and capital project levies — a more-than 75 percent approval rate for those on the ballot last week. For the calendar year, including votes that were held earlier in 2018, 31 of 45 districts passed at least one question, for a 69 percent approval rate.
In addition, 24 of 35 districts passed at least one request for operating levy increases, for a 68.5 percent passage rate.
In this election cycle, Minnesota voters once again showed their strong support for educating children. Now the districts must put those funds to work to get results.