Election time is nearing, and we may miss important issues buried within the cacophony of the presidential election. Issues that affect you and me, locally, in Minneapolis — where we live. The “Strong Schools/Strong City” campaign for Minneapolis Public Schools (MSP) is in full swing, as anyone driving our streets can see while passing one of the 3,500 “vote yes” yellow and black signs in yards around our city.
Yes, the campaign has run out of signs to promote the $60 million referendum on the November ballot. This vote transcends the decision of whether or not you agree that our school system needs more money. The success of the referendum requires support from the larger population as the percentage of voters with school-age children stands at 19 percent. So, what are you going to do?
It is widely believed that a well-educated population yields significant benefits to the wider community through improved housing values, workforce quality and overall city and state rankings. In a 1997 UCLA report “Do Better Schools Matter?” each 5 percent increase in student test scores equaled a 2.5 percent jump in housing prices and an 18-25 percent difference in value between a home assigned to a school in the bottom 5 percent versus those in the top 5 percent (USLA School Accountability Ratings and Housing Values 2003).
Employee shortfalls coming
Demographers for Minneapolis are predicting serious employee shortfalls in the coming years. Jobs in finance, insurance, educational services, professional, scientific and technical services, health care and social assistance require a well-educated pool of workers. The state of the economy notwithstanding, we cannot allow our education system to continue to deteriorate or we all will experience the consequences.
The MPS referendum is all about funding for basic needs in our schools. Approximately half of the money will go toward purchasing textbooks and technology for schools. Right now, in our schools, many high school students share textbooks with two or three others and there are not enough computers to go around. These facts were not surprising when I discovered that Minneapolis ranks second from the bottom in per pupil referendum dollars spent at $535 per student. By comparison, Richfield students receive $1,100 and Hopkins $1,552. How can we be expected to compete, retain families and continue to draw businesses with jobs to our marketplace? In addition, monies will go toward programs ensuring all children are reading at grade level by third grade and to ensure all children are prepared for algebra by eighth grade.
The second half of the referendum dollars will go toward the continued management of class-size programs instituted under the last referendum. Many are not happy with the current class sizes even though 100 percent of the monies of the last referendum were directed at class size. Clearly, a better method of funding schools is needed and changes demanded from our legislators. The status quo is forcing us to face this financing situation every 8-10 years.
Fundamental change is needed
Consider how our school leaders ponder the question of “what will be palatable to the public yet meet our needs” each time we face a referendum. This is a tough year to be asking people to face increased property taxes of $203 dollars per year (based on a home valued at $256,000). Fundamental change in the way Minnesota funds education is drastically needed. But, until that time, we have to face the facts and figures of the need, as it is, today. There will be a Referendum Oversight Committee led by former state finance commissioners Jay Kiedrowski (the Rudy Perpich administration) and John Gunyou (Arne Carlson’s administration) to ensure accountability and transparency with the referendum dollars.
Some of you may wonder what will happen if the referendum does not pass. MPS has cut more than $150 million over the past seven years. Without the referendum, the district would need to make an additional $30 million in cuts. This would result in the layoffs of up to 350 classroom teachers, class size increases and other program reductions.
So please, continue down the ballot, past the presidential votes, the local government votes and find the Vote Yes for Kids; Strong Schools, Strong City referendum question and vote Yes. Your community, our children and the future our city, depends on it. I hope everyone understands the far-reaching effects of this vote.
Colleen Simmons is a parent living in the Kenny & Susan B. Anthony school neighborhood, with children in Windom Spanish Dual Immersion, and is a volunteer for the Strong Schools Strong City referendum.
Want to add your voice?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.