It’s got to be hard, being a member of Minneapolis Public Schools‘ loyal opposition. The 50 or so people who sat through the decidedly low-key kickoff to the district’s referendum campaign Wednesday night seemed ambivalent at best.
Never mind that most of the parents, educators and community members sitting on folding chairs in the gym at Burroughs Community School in southwest Minneapolis want the district to make reducing class sizes a top priority. At best, the proposed levy would preserve the status quo.
The first few parents who rose to speak railed about their children’s overstuffed classrooms and overtaxed teachers. But they were quickly derailed by the community activists leading the referendum campaign, who outlined exactly how hard district brass will have to stretch each new tax dollar to make up for state budget cuts. (MPS can ask voters for the money, but are prohibited by law from campaigning to woo them.) The bottom line: MPS’ leadership would like smaller classes, too, but the reality is that right now teacher-student ratios are in danger of going up.
One woman complained that there are 32 kids in her son’s third-grade reading class at Hale Community School. A mother noted that parents at her kids’ school, Burroughs, often take matters into their own hands, volunteering to take groups of kids out of crowded classrooms.
“I don’t care what your research says,” she groused. “I talk to the teachers. I know when you have discipline problems, it doesn’t matter what kind of books you have in the classroom or what curriculum you have.”
School district seeking $60 million annually for 8 years
MPS is asking voters to approve $60 million in new annual spending, running for eight years starting in the 2009-10 school year. That’s twice as much as the millage city voters approved in 2000. Half the money would go to funding textbooks and other classroom materials, teacher training and literacy coaches needed to fulfill the district’s ambitious new strategic plan. The other $30 million, the disappointed parents and teachers were told, would be used to “manage” class sizes.
The class-size situation is bad, referendum leaders and MPS administrators present conceded. But, they added, some of the community’s frustration stems from promises their predecessors made and couldn’t keep.
All of the funds raised by the 2000 levy are dedicated to lowering class sizes. But because state funding has fallen so drastically since 2001, pupil-teacher ratios in MPS are nowhere near the levels promised. When they asked voters to approve the current referendum, the district’s leaders at the time said each class would have a maximum of 19 students in kindergarten through second grade, 25 in grades three through eight, and an average of 26 in high school. Right now, the district allocates teachers based on 26, 32, and 34 students per class, respectively.
As part of the overhaul of MPS’ most troubled schools, elementary-grade classes on the north side were brought down to 23 or fewer last fall. But many classes are much larger, particularly in Southwest Minneapolis, which is home to the city’s most popular schools — and the largest number of vocal, involved parents the district needs in order to carry the referendum in November.
“Yeah, I’d like it if my daughter wasn’t in a class with 28 kids,” said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, co-chair of the referendum campaign. “But I’d also like it if the state stepped up.”
The campaign’s brand-new manager, Paul Rohlfing, said proponents know lower class sizes would make the referendum easier to sell to Minneapolis voters. “But given the promises made in 2000, can this district afford, under new leadership, to make another promise it cannot keep?” he asked. “It means a great deal, I think, that we have leadership that’s not willing to commit to class sizes it can’t guarantee in the face of federal and state budget cuts.”
In April, the pro-referendum campaign, Strong Schools Strong City, polled 400 likely voters. Simply renewing the current $30 million levy was the least popular option, said Rohlfing. “People were very clear that they don’t want to vote for the continuation of the last eight years,” he said. “They want to vote for something new, something different.”
In addition to the campaign’s polling, MPS should have solicited community input before formulating the referendum request, some of the parents present complained. The lack of public forums was unfortunate, campaign leaders replied, but they had little time to formulate the request if they were going to get it on the November ballot.
The current referendum does not expire until 2009-10, but backers want the new measure on the ballot this fall, when voter turnout for the presidential contest will be high. They’re betting Minneapolis’ strong DFL constituency will override public frustration with schools.