Editor’s note: This article was signed by eight former members of the Minneapolis school board — Pam Costain, Jill Davis, Richard Mammen, Mohamud Noor, Alberto Monserrate, Josh Reimnitz, Catherine Shreves and T. Williams.
Good governance requires the courage to make difficult and sometimes highly unpopular decisions. Those of us writing this commentary are all former members of the Minneapolis school board who, despite our different priorities and politics, share the experience of having had to make wrenching decisions because they were in the best interests of children and the district as a whole. We closed schools, changed attendance boundaries, moved or ended programs and instituted changes in the teachers’ contract. We took unpopular votes because it is the job of a school board director to ensure the fiscal health of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), to enact policies that are fair and equitable and to take care not to favor one area of the city over another.
On April 10, the current board voted 5-4 to reject a budget presented to it by Superintendent Ed Graff and his senior administration. Facing a $33 million deficit, the professionals who lead the district had worked for months to find solutions to some serious structural problems. Their process was transparent and inclusive. A brief look at the MPS website provides voluminous information on the district budget, the sources and outlays of revenue, proposals for cuts and their ramifications.
There is no question about it, some of the proposals for cost-saving were heartbreaking and included significant reductions to school budgets, especially in some high schools. In the face of such a challenging situation, directors have an obligation to thoroughly understand the proposals put before them, to read all the materials presented to them by the superintendent’s team, to bring their concerns and questions to the administration early (certainly before public discussion) and not to fly by the seat of their pants when suggesting alternatives. School board members also have an obligation to treat the superintendent and his senior leadership with respect.
None of this was in evidence at the April 10 board meeting. Faced with vocal and organized opposition to the budget cuts from parents, students and staff, who were legitimately concerned about the impact on their schools, some board members went off the rails. In their questions and comments, it became clear that they did not understand the budget in general or the specific implications of the cuts being proposed and that they had no credible alternative to reduce the deficit. Furthermore, they treated Graff and his finance and human-resources team with contempt and condescension.
Ultimately the board voted 5-4 to restore $6.4 million of the $33 million in proposed cuts, benefiting 16 of the 70 affected schools. It did wisely prohibit using the fund balance to cover that portion of the deficit. But since all schools have already been through the budget process for their building, this means chaos as individual schools adjust and the central administration looks for cost savings elsewhere. No decision this large is without pain, but now other parts of the district will bear the brunt of these cuts.
As former board members who have had to wrestle with budget shortfalls ourselves, we understand the complex and, at times, painful decisions that must be made in service of Minneapolis students. It is with this knowledge and experience that we voice our strong opposition today, to both the decision and the way it was made.
We can and must do better than this.