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The advocate: Mary Cecconi educates parents, legislators to help them support education

Mary Cecconi thinks of herself as an access point where parents and legislators can get the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their schools.

Mary Cecconi: someone with the knowledge, energy and desire to promote better school funding and the policies to achieve it.
Courtesy of Parents United for Public Schools

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from a leadership expert. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Knowing how much money schools get from the state to educate children should be simple. The amount should be comprehensible to the average adult, transparent to anyone who wants to know where the money comes from and where it is spent, and fairly distributed among rural, suburban and urban students.

Unfortunately, education funding in Minnesota is none of these things. School district superintendents and financial officers spend a lifetime learning the alleys and hedgerows of education funding, and when a regular parent has a question, the answer is more likely to be confusing than helpful.

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Enter Parents United for Public Schools, an organization born out of frustration with education funding and what to do about it.

At the heart of Parents United is Mary Cecconi of Stillwater, a woman who doesn’t consider herself a leader. The nonprofit’s executive director since 2004, Cecconi prefers to think of herself as an access point where parents and legislators can get the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their schools.

Flaws in the system

Parents United is actually the result of a unique flaw in Minnesota’s educational hierarchy. Most states either elect a statewide school board or an education commissioner. Minnesota is the only state that does neither. Our education commissioner is a political appointee, which leaves the administration of statewide education policy and funding at the whim of whoever holds the governor’s chair.

This process works fine when the governor and Legislature are pro-education, as they were from the 1960s to the 1990s during what has been called “The Minnesota Miracle.” Minnesotans were among the best-educated in the nation, if not the world, and thanks to an effective tax system, schools had the money necessary to do the job.

This changed in the late 1990s when Gov. Jesse Ventura vilified public education, calling its funding mechanism a “black hole that will never have enough money.” He and the Legislature changed the school funding formula and gave property taxpayers rebates totaling more than $1 billion. They then required school districts to ask voters for bond levies if they needed to make up the funding that was lost. Not surprisingly, more than a decade later all but one or two of the states’ 340 school districts need a bond levy to pay their bills, and the total amount is just over $1 billion.

The assault on school funding was continued by the less bombastic but more focused Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who rarely accounted for inflation when determining school budgets and used accounting tricks to swap billions of dollars from schools with IOUs for a later date. In addition, increased demands and unfunded mandates from areas such as special education and universal testing further squeezed school budgets.

It was during Ventura’s administration that public-school supporters realized the need to provide clarity on how schools are funded. It was during Pawlenty’s administration that education supporters saw the need for a campaign using information and parent lobbying to counteract the negative attitude toward public schools at the Capitol.

The movement needed a flag-bearer – someone with the knowledge, energy and desire to promote better school funding and the policies to achieve it.

Parents United became the vehicle, and Mary Cecconi was that person.

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What happened in Stillwater

Cecconi came to Parents United with a pedigree. She has a teaching degree and a master’s degree in education administration from Northern Illinois University and has taught at both the high-school and junior-college levels. And after she and her husband, Bob, moved to the area in 1983 with their three boys, she became active in both fundraising and setting policies for the Moundsview school district. After the family moved to Stillwater, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Cecconi to successfully run for school board in 1995.

In 1999, gaining her second term on the board was a different story. School board elections are usually nonpartisan, but that year the Republican Party endorsed five candidates, including one to run directly against Cecconi – future state senator and then U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. Cecconi won.

Then Apple came to Stillwater with an offer: It would supply Apple laptops at a discount so every student in one junior high could have one laptop. Then Apple would study how the technology affects learning. Stillwater had just passed a technology levy, so its portion of the costs was covered. They had one junior high that had worked hard to prepare for technological advances, so the venue was set. And finally, Apple said that during the project, anyone from Stillwater could buy Apple products at a 25 percent discount.

“It was a win, win, win scenario,” Cecconi says.

Not so fast, Mary. The community was skeptical. Parents wondered about whether students really needed laptop computers. They were concerned about the cost. They wondered about access to inappropriate websites. Mostly, they were concerned because Stillwater has two junior high schools — one which had been preparing for better technology and was ready for this program, the other years behind, Cecconi said. The program was for one school only, so students from the other would be left out in what parents saw as an avoidable digital divide. Cecconi said the fact that the junior high that would be left out was from the more affluent part of town also played a role in parent consternation over the program.

By the time the board was ready to vote, the members had no illusions what their votes would cost.

“We knew it would cost us our seats on the board,” Cecconi said. “Of the four of us who voted for the program, three were up for re-election in about two months. All three of us lost our seats.

“There was no doubt about my vote. We needed to walk into the future and we did. But boy, when I walked into my polling place to vote and every head turned and every conversation stopped, I knew what it felt like to be a pariah,” she said with a laugh. “I cast my vote, walked outside and called my friend at Parents United and said ‘Hire me.’ ”

Informing parents and lawmakers

Cecconi was hired in early 2004 by the nonprofit lobbying group Save Our Schools. Parents United and Save Our School ran on parallel paths: Parents United worked with parents to give them the information they need to effectively lobby their hometown legislators, and Save Our Schools was a lobbying group that held lawmakers accountable for their votes on education.

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It was obvious to Cecconi that the two groups should merge, which she accomplished soon after taking charge of Save Our Schools. While Cecconi is still a registered lobbyist and regularly attends committee meetings at the Capitol, she does so primarily to provide information to lawmakers and to gather information for Parents United’s website and weekly newsletter.

Courtesy of Parents United for Public Schools
Cecconi is a regular presence at the Capitol.

While no one doubts her effectiveness walking the halls of the Capitol lobbying for parents, that’s not her biggest role. She and her colleagues agree that her greatest ability is to tell parents about the intricacies of public education. (More on that later).

“If I’m a leader, then I’m a leader through modeling,” she says. “People often want to say or do something but they feel like they need permission. I try to offer that.

“Parents are hot-wired to protect their children. They go from zero to 60 in a second; they can’t help it. If, as an organization, we give them the information they need to get to the table with the decision-makers, then we did well. But they need the information. It’s like a hockey game – you might want to yell at the referee, but if you don’t know the rules, you look like an idiot. We tell them the rules.”

Cecconi’s efforts have been successful. Here’s a sample of comments from her peers:

Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius: “Many say there are two people in the state who can explain our K-12 finance system – Tom Melcher, the director of finance at the Department of Education, and Mary Cecconi. She is not afraid to push back and fight for what she believes to help our children succeed, and I admire that in her.”

Osseo School District parent Laura Kelly Lovdahl, who first met Cecconi at a Parents United Leadership Summit five years ago: “As a parent volunteer in a district where our local levies failed to gain community support, I was looking to understand education financing and get ideas about what we need to do to be successful. … I wasn’t alone!  There were parents from across the state who were in exactly the same position. (Cecconi) is knowledgeable about education, is articulate, and is passionate about giving parents the resources they need to be powerful advocates for their children.”

Former Stillwater school board member John Uppgren: Cecconi “never failed to advocate for the right things: benefits to the many over the few, fairness in the allocation of resources, and an abiding commitment to the public good through the education of children.”

Former Rep. Mindy Greiling, longtime House member and chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Committee: “Mary Cecconi is the most passionate and eloquently articulate education lobbyist in Minnesota. You can cut her ‘realness’ with a knife. She is listened to for her knowledge, values, and because she more purely represents the viewpoint of parents and students from all around the state than anyone else.”

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East Metro Integration District parent and Parents United donor Eric Celeste: “Mary is an insider who shares what she knows with the outside. A lot of people who work with the Legislature keep knowledge as currency, but Mary makes the Legislature accessible … There have been a lot of battles over the past decade that we (public school parents) have not won, but Mary’s energy is up no matter what the issue. Where she gets the enthusiasm and ability to keep engaging, I don’t know, but it’s good for us parents to see.”

Robbinsdale school district parent Kim Lewis: “The fact that she’s approachable and calls a spade a spade, I find that to be leadership. She won’t let a representative or senator intimidate her. … When we had our (Robbinsdale) Parents Day at the Capitol, I asked Mary if she would help. Bless her heart, she cleared her schedule and got 70 more people to sign up to participate. She’s tireless and engaging, and it’s wonderful.”

A history of work at Parents United

When Cecconi took the reins of the combined Save Our Schools and Parents United in 2004, the only groups lobbying the Legislature were several unions, several associations representing principals and superintendents, and the PTA.

“The PTA at first was unsure about us,” Cecconi says, “but our agendas are quite different. Their agenda is extremely long and robust and covers topics such as nutrition and physical activity. Parents United wants only to look at how well Minnesota schools serve Minnesota students.”

Cecconi’s first target was to have parents in each state legislative district know that they could come to Parents United for information. “We wanted to be a trusted, credible, non-partisan source of information.”

The group hit that goal by 2006.

Simultaneously, the group wanted to tackle the negative perception of public education. “Ventura called education the black hole of funding – it sucks money in and nothing comes out. Then Pawlenty kept cutting education funding. We had to make the case that schools didn’t have the money. We had to make sure people didn’t believe the money was just bleeding out the door.”

Parents United came up with a slogan – “5 & 5 in ’05,” meaning a 5 percent increase in education funding in 2005 and another 5 percent on 2006. To promote this idea, they planned a rally on the steps of the State Capitol on Feb. 28, 2005.

“Would people coalesce around this idea or would we return to the Ventura days of “Quit your whining?” Cecconi said. On the day of the rally, the Capitol was silent. Legislators said the group didn’t have a chance. At 5 p.m., the rally’s scheduled start time, Cecconi looked onto the Capitol steps and saw no one.

“Then the buses showed up, and they kept coming and coming,” Cecconi says. “The Star Tribune put the attendance at 8,000. We put it at 10,000 just by the number of buses there.” That year schools got a 4 percent bump one year and 4 percent the next.

“Parents saw the value of coming together collaboratively. Parents started working to empower the districts. They saw that they can be more than one small group interest,” she says.

Move forward to the 2013 session, and the talk in the Capitol was about replenishing education funds. “We’ve moved the discussion from the ‘black hole’ to the need for more money to help students,” she said.

Among its education achievements the Legislature approved significant increases in the basic per-pupil revenue formula and funded all-day kindergarten for all families who choose it.

Counters those who cut budgets while criticizing schools

Cecconi also takes issue with education-bashing.

“People talk about the achievement gap and how it’s bad, but the achievement gap has always been there. It’s always been acceptable before, so why complain about it now? Beating up schools doesn’t help, but what happened to funding for summer schools, before and after-school programs, crisis care and student counseling? These have often been eliminated because of budget cuts, and they are the very things I would argue we could use to close the achievement gap.”

Another topic is a public-private education research center. The idea came about because it was obvious that education policy was a very piecemeal affair, put together by whichever party was in charge at that time. Since Minnesota has no elected education commissioner or state school board, Parents United and other groups are advocating for a research center that can give a nonpartisan cause/effect reaction to any proposed education bill.

“So we’ve gone from this nascent organization to one that can hold a rally bigger than in anyone’s memory, can speak to education and how it interacts with the budget, and is seen as a provider of quality information for parents to use to get what they need from their representatives.”

As for her own role in the process, Cecconi says “the world is run by those who show up, and that’s all I do, is show up. We just work to get parents’ voices heard.”