New Minneapolis School Board member Bates ready with tough budget questions

Imagine, for a moment, that none of the seven members of the Minneapolis Board of Education show up to be sworn Tuesday night. Really, who could blame them?

Fresh on the heels of six years of painful belt-tightening, wrenching decisions about school closings, and plummeting enrollment, the first item of business for the new board is … a budget shortfall that’s even more massive and unprecedented than past ones: $28 million for the 2009-2010 school year and $36 million the following year.

Yet board newcomer Carla Bates can’t wait to get started. The spreadsheets passed around during a board meeting last week looked like so much financial gobbledygook to many of those in attendance. But to Bates, they were the tip of an iceberg she’s been agitating to explore.

Fiscal transparency a key issue
Fiscal transparency was a centerpiece of Bates’ campaign platform. “Budgets — they’re narrative documents,” she explained after the meeting. “They totally tell a story about an institution and what its priorities are.”

By day, Bates, 46, is an IT professional in the University of Minnesota’s psychology department. One of two newly elected board members, she is expected to take a lead role on the board when it comes to financial issues. In addition to figuring out where to trim tens of millions of dollars from a budget that’s already pared to the bones, that means helping guide a major restructuring of the way the district allocates money to individual schools.

Carla Bates
Carla Bates

The other board newcomer is Jill Davis, the supervisor of a family intervention program in Anoka County and a longtime activist on education issues in Northeast Minneapolis.

She and Bates both have children in Minneapolis schools. They join returning board members Pam Costain, Lydia Lee, Tom Madden, Chris Stewart and Theatrice “T.” Williams. After all take the oath Tuesday, a chair and other officers will be elected.

If last week’s working session is any indication, the new board will be just as assertive as the last one when it comes to guiding staff on the district’s numerous reform efforts. Indeed, more so with the addition of Bates.

Peggy Ingison, the school district’s chief financial officer, had barely begun her presentation on the dismal financial forecast when Bates began firing tough questions at her: The governor spared education during the recent “unallotment” process — did Ingison have a contingency plan if schools weren’t so lucky after the next gloomy state budget forecast? If the district found “sustainable” places to cut the first $28 million, would the second round be easier? Isn’t the payroll where most of the cuts must occur?

The grilling clearly had more to do with Bates’ eagerness to get her hands on hard data than any doubt in the CFO’s abilities. Bates refers to Ingison, who was state finance commissioner before she took the schools job in 2006, as “a rock star.”

Nonetheless, Bates’ plans include demanding more transparency from district staff, something she’s wanted since she began asking questions about the budget five years ago during staffing cuts at one of her kids’ schools. “I could not figure out where the money was going and how it was being distributed,” she said.

School allocations long a frustrating issue
During her campaign last year, she learned she wasn’t the only one who was frustrated. “One of the things that became very clear to me during the campaign was how upset different communities were concerning their allocations” — budget-speak for the revenue streams dedicated to their children’s particular educational needs.

Bates’ conclusion: Education is underfunded, but the process through which money is doled out to schools needs as much reform as anything that happens in the classroom.

District staff might agree, but they’re not used to publicly airing their accounting in such stark detail. At last week’s study session, eyebrows shot up when Bates requested a long list of raw data.

Bates and Davis are joining a board that has shown a willingness to make tough calls and to consider changes their predecessors of just two years ago deemed unthinkable. In addition to closing numerous schools, the board has committed the district to an ambitious array of strategic reforms — all with financial implications. 

Bates “won’t let the administration off the hook,” predicted Seth Kirk, a Minneapolis parent who worked on her campaign. “The thing that has always impressed me about her is she has a level of understanding of how the district works that few people do — even some of the (incumbent) board members.”

In addition to her IT background, her resume reveals her to be something of a Renaissance woman with a restless intellect. She has a doctorate in American studies and is a candidate for a master’s in education and learning technology. She is also the founder of the popular MPS Parents Forum on Yahoo.

In addition to statistical expertise, Bates has a background in nonprofit volunteerism that gives her experience reading and manipulating budgets. “I’ve always gravitated toward money: who gets it, who gives it, where it goes,” she explained. “It just takes a willingness to be literate.”

As for taking that oath of office, the one that will officially make the red ink her problem? She can’t wait: “I’m very excited and very ready.”

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