As the St. Paul School District makes its case this fall for an $18.6 million a year increase in voter-approved funding, advocates and former students within the Asian-American community are asking pointedly: What’s in it for us?

Asian students are being neglected, they argue, even though they represent the district’s largest demographic group, at 32 percent.

Similar concerns have been aired previously in recent years, but nowhere near as aggressively as in the past few months, as community members have flooded school board public-comment sessions with signs that state, “#SEAsians Invisible No More!!” and “We Cannot Invest In Schools That Ignore Us.”

The Coalition of Asian-American Leaders is helping to organize the protests, and demands that the district make the community a priority in its funding decisions. Among its recommendations: the district hire more minority teachers, counselors, social workers and administrators, and that it embed Asian-American history up to modern times in its curriculum for grades K-12.

Cameron Yang, who attended Harding Senior High School and received a teaching degree this year from Augsburg University in Minneapolis, felt shortchanged by the district while at Harding, saying, “I wished that I could have had the opportunity to learn more about my Hmong heritage, language, histories, culture and traditions.”

But the coalition is promoting proposed improvements at a time when the state’s second-largest district speaks more generally of the desire to stem a recent run of budget cuts and invest in a new strategic plan that has yet to be fully developed.

The district has been in rough shape financially, as evidenced by numbers Superintendent Joe Gothard shared at a levy information session last week:

• A $618 per student funding gap between what the state provides per student in St. Paul and what it could have allocated had it kept up with inflation — a total of $21.6 million in 2018-19.

• More than $50 million in cuts between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, plus another $17.2 million this year.

• A $317 per student gap between what the district collects from city taxpayers for its voter-approved operating levy vs. the average received by districts metrowide.

The meeting at district headquarters drew a small audience, and while a few residents expressed concern about property tax increases, Jack Blatherwick, who lives north of Town & Country Club, said that the district’s “ask” wasn’t big enough. He has been to Detroit, he said, and if the city wants to avoid becoming another Detroit, people should invest more in the schools.

“We’ve got to win,” he said. “This is a huge thing.”

Board Member Mary Vanderwert, who attended the meeting, offered Blatherwick a “Vote Yes” campaign sign that she had in her car.

That night, Gothard mentioned the money lost when a resident student attends a charter school. For St. Paul, that issue has great significance when one considers the choices being made in recent years by the city’s Asian families.

Losing money

In 2016-17, nearly 4,550 Asian students who could have attended district schools went to charter schools or other school districts instead, a Star Tribune analysis of state enrollment data shows. Figures were not available last week for the 2017-18 school year. But a study by St. Paul’s Center for School Change showed that the flight of Asian students grew to more than 5,000 students that year.

Money follows the students, and that’s a big loss for the district, given the state now provides $6,312 per pupil in its basic funding formula.

Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director for the Coalition of Asian-American Leaders, said that many families view the St. Paul Public Schools as their best option when it comes to academic rigor. Results, however, have been mixed.

In 2017-18, Asian students lagged behind their district peers in college preparedness as seen through ACT test results. But they outperformed all but white students and students of two or more races when it came to proficiency on the state’s standardized math, reading and science tests.

The Coalition of Asian-American Leaders contends that having more minority teachers and a culturally relevant curriculum could produce greater results.

Kevin Hang, a 2018 University of Minnesota graduate who attended Harding High and twice has appeared before the school board accusing the district of a lack of a commitment to his community, agrees. He credited Harding High teacher Koua Yang, “the only Hmong teacher in the core curriculum at Harding,” for much of his success.

“Koua had always left his door open every day after school and made himself available to any student that wanted to do homework, hang out or just have a talk with him,” he said. “There were many conversations we had, where he helped me get through my struggle as a Hmong-American and the dynamics of my family.”

Asked about the coalition’s demands for more teachers of color, Gothard said that the work is underway. The district now employs 270 Asian teachers, about 8.3 percent of the teacher workforce. As for requests as it relates to curriculum, Gothard said he pledges to take a good look at the ethnic studies programming and whether it should be specific to one culture or encompass many. He also plans to have many partners in the conversation.

“I would like to be able to respond not to our community, but with our community,” he said.

Cameron Yang, the Augsburg University graduate, grew up and still lives in St. Paul’s Railroad Island neighborhood. Yang now is applying to graduate schools to become a school counselor, but has greater hopes that, if executed, would line up well with the coalition’s goals.

“I hope to become an administrator one day for the St. Paul Public Schools,” Yang said. “If I am even more ambitious, I hope to become the superintendent.”