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Budget upheaval at Minneapolis Public Schools: What’s going on?

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Washburn High School ended up restoring a large portion of its budget.

The Minneapolis Public Schools board hasn’t even had an opportunity to review the complete budget proposal that its financial team, with help from Superintendent Ed Graff, meticulously prepared using public input over the last six months. But board members have already taken action on the budget in a pretty dramatic fashion.

At the last regular board meeting, held on April 10, the board directed district staff to restore $6.4 million to middle and high schools. The resolution, presented by Board Member Rebecca Gagnon and supported by four others — Bob Walser, Siad Ali, Kerry Jo Felder and Ira Jourdain — passed in response to testimony from parents and students who were upset about the deep cuts made to their schools’ budgets for the upcoming school year.

But not all board members, or community members, felt the reallocation was warranted. The district is facing a projected $33 million budget deficit for the upcoming school year — a reality that meant all schools were going to feel the impacts through measures like staff layoffs and cuts to programming.

While Gagnon and her supporters quickly hailed the reallocation a win for all middle and high schools — since the reallocation restores $469 per pupil to 16 secondary schools — critics say it reinforces some longstanding inequities between schools within the district.

Over a third of the $6.4 million was restored to schools in District 6 — the whitest, most affluent subset of schools in the district. For instance, Washburn High School, represented by the the parents who first approached Gagnon with the resolution, ended up restoring a large portion of its budget. And Southwest High School actually saw a slight budget increase.

Representatives from other schools in the district are already asking the board to reverse its decision.

“Our expectation of you as board members is that you work for what is best for the district as a whole. And that when you talk about equity, you actually make tough votes to support it,” wrote the Edison Activity Council in a letter to the board posted to the group’s Facebook page on April 19. “You have disappointed us and hurt our students, our school, our feeder schools and the district as a whole to benefit the special interests of a few.”

At the board finance committee meeting scheduled for Thursday, board members will get their first formal look at the entire budget — including the second round of budget reductions that must be made to the central office, since the resolution specifies that this $6.4 million reallocation cannot impact school budgets or further deplete the district’s fund balance.

Here’s a closer look at how the district wound up with such a large deficit, along with what transpired at the last board meeting and why it matters.

How did the district accumulate a $33 million deficit in the first place?

The district hired Ibrahima Diop to serve as its new chief financial officer a couple of years ago. With more than 20 years of experience in public school management, one of the very first things he did was comb through all of the department’s budgets to track down unjustified expenditures. Offering a small example, he said that once he realized Davis Center staff were using district money to fund their coffee pot supplies he told them to start paying for it on their own.

Of course unregulated coffee funds didn’t run the district into a projected $33 million deficit. That’s a product of not spending within its means. As expenses continued to rise — because of things like underfunded state and federal mandated special education and English language learner services, along with rising utility and transportation costs that have long outpaced state education funding — and enrollment began to drop, the district failed to rein in its spending.

“Our revenue is predicated on our enrollment level. And there was a time when the school district had a much higher enrollment number than we have now,” Diop said. “As enrollment started decreasing, our spending habit did not necessarily follow that trend. It was maintained, or in some cases, actually higher.”

Last year, the deficit was sitting at about $16.5 million, he said. That ballooned into the projected $33 million the district is now grappling with for the upcoming school year. This new figure includes the pay raise negotiated in the new two-year teacher contract, which will cost the district $2.4 million.  

What steps had the district already taken to change its financial trajectory?

In October, the district announced it was facing a projected $33 million for the 2018-19 school year. That was followed by a public survey, designed to gather community input on budget priorities prior to any pending cuts. The following month, the district announced hiring and travel restrictions that went into effect immediately.

In December, the district published a pro forma budget and Graff recommended cutting the last two days of school. The next month, the board voted to place two referendum questions on the November 2018 ballot, totaling $30 million.

In February, the district hosted four community budget discussions to continue vetting cost-saving measures, while also meeting with each of the district’s Parent Advisory Councils, according to district records. Toward the end of the month, the district notified principals of their school budgets, giving them a little over a month to finalize them.

Once parents fully grasped the severity of the pending staff cuts  — an estimated 350 to 400 full-time equivalent jobs — they began showing up at board meetings to protest.

Why did secondary schools become the focus of budgetary discord?

Diop and his team had succeeded in coming up with a structurally balanced budget for the upcoming school year. But these school budget allocations reflected two specific changes that impacted secondary schools most.

First, district staff had decided to cut $6.4 million in time adjustment funding that it had set aside to subsidize its secondary schools just a couple years prior. Initially, some schools had come to the board asking for additional funds in order to expand course offerings by moving from a six-period to a seven-period day. The expansion, they said, was necessary in order for students to meet the curricular requirements of the International Baccalaureate program these schools were offering. In the name of fairness, the district ended up allocating an additional per-pupil amount to all secondary schools.

Ibrahima Diop
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Ibrahima Diop: “As enrollment started decreasing, our spending habit did not necessarily follow that trend. It was maintained, or in some cases, actually higher.”

Second, the district raised the qualifying poverty threshold for Title I funds from 35 percent to 40 percent, in an effort to better target these federal dollars at schools serving higher concentrations of poor students.

“Some districts only give Title I when you reach 50 percent,” Diop said. “We did that to try and address concentrations of poverty at schools, which left only two schools that would be between 35 and 39 percent: Washburn and Southwest.”

While each of these schools still serves a relatively high number of students living in poverty, they also have far more affluent students in their buildings — a mix that brings their poverty levels down below 40 percent. In comparison, nine other secondary schools in the district have a poverty level over 60 percent.

Why have Washburn parents, in particular, galvanized around this issue?

In late February, with their school allocations in hand, principals began consulting with parents, teachers and community members to finalize their budgets. A this point, the realities of impending staff cuts and increased class sizes moved from being an abstract concept to a reality that was about to impact beloved teachers.

Washburn parents were the first to organize and protest the cuts. They felt “doubly impacted”  because not only did it feel like the $6.4 million was “overnight completely wiped out,” but the district had also narrowly disqualified Washburn from receiving Title I funding, says Jeanne Massey, co-chair of the school’s site council.

“It’s like ‘Gee, do you want to just write Washburn off and get rid of it? Or what, exactly, is going on here? ‘Cause you just gutted the school  at a time of growth — and that growth is happening across kids of all income spectrums, let’s be clear,’” Massey said in a phone interview.

The district ended up partially restoring their Title I funding, after it became clear that the Trump administration would not be making some cuts to federal education funding that it had proposed earlier. Dissatisfied, Washburn parents still went straight to the school board demanding more. They first approached Gagnon, who agreed to carry their resolution to restore $6.4 million — framing it as a “bridge budget” that would hold things steady until new referendum dollars became available next year.

“We assume it will pass,” Massey said of the upcoming referendum. “By putting these cuts forward, [Graff] was actually putting that at risk. Because the scale of this meant you’d hurt that many schools and they would turn around and say, ‘Well how do we benefit from this referendum at this point?’ ”

“The referendum was absolutely a consideration,” Gagnon said in a recent phone interview, adding she had opposed cutting this line item from the district’s budget from the get-go because “it completely reduces electives and opportunities for students.”

When Gagnon first presented the resolution to restore all $6.4 million in time-allocation funding at a board meeting in March — to the surprise of many of her colleagues — Washburn parents, along with parents and students from other schools who had similar concerns, showed up to testify in support.

At the April 10 board meeting, where the board narrowly voted to approve the resolution, directors Jenny Arneson and Kim Ellison strongly opposed it.

“I voted against it because I think, despite best intentions to shield schools from budget realities, this resolution now creates a budget that’s centered around an inequitable premise that could perpetuate racial disparities in our city,” Arneson said in a recent phone interview.

Ellison said that while the bulk of the emails she’d received had come from Washburn parents, she’d heard from other secondary school parents who were equally concerned about cuts at their schools, yet ended up not benefiting as much from the reallocation.  

“Even that money doesn’t make their schools whole,” she said, adding the board sidestepped all its talk about “the values of our district as a whole and equity.”

“We said that the voices of the parents we heard from was more important than the values we had set as a board. That’s on us.”

Others aimed more criticism at the Washburn parents.

“The combination of unearned power and insufferable privilege is just so strong in the parent community of Southwest Minneapolis. It’s been a longstanding problem going back decades. It’s hard to achieve equity if you don’t have people in other parts of the city standing up for themselves,” said Chris Stewart, a former board member, noting many working-class and parents of color don’t have the same level of political capital.  

All right, so the board voted (5-4) to reallocate $6.4 million in school-level funding. But where will this money come from?

Since Gagnon offered an amendment to her original resolution, specifying that the $6.4 million reallocation could not impact school budgets or further draw from the district’s reserves, the cuts were effectively deflected back to district headquarters, where departments had already been slashed to accommodate a 10 percent cut last year.

Ellison, among others, expressed concern that this additional round of cuts would jeopardize programs and services housed at the Davis Center that disproportionately impact students of color and other traditionally underserved students populations — things like the Office of Black Male Student Achievement and the districts Grow Your Own program, which supports staff of color in acquiring teacher licensure.

Friday afternoon, the district released its recommendation for where the $6.4 million in cuts would come from at the Davis Center. It includes the elimination of the expulsion office and the Office of Innovation, and reductions to the Human Resource department’s talent acquisition team. These recommendations were accompanied by a written statement from Graff.

“My team and I continue to stand behind our initial budget recommendations, which we arrived at using an equity lens and that considered the structural changes necessary to create long-term financial and program stability for the entire district,” Graff wrote, noting the delivery of services to schools “may not be as efficient and effective.”

How does all of this impact the district’s financial health?

Arneson, who will be leading a close review of these new cuts at the upcoming finance committee meeting this Thursday, says she doesn’t think staff are going to be able to “speak to the long-term or short-term impacts on the financial health of the district, or the impact it will fully have on our students,” given the tight deadline they had to work under to accommodate Gagnon’s resolution.

Diop says this directive further delayed his ability to address an even more pressing financial concern: an incredibly low fund balance. Over the course of the past seven years, district reserves have decreased from more than $122 million to about $42 million, as the district continued to dip into its emergency funding to fill gaps between increasing expenses that outpaced revenues.

According to board policy, the district should maintain an emergency fund balance of 8 percent, at a minimum. By the end of this school year, that balance will be at 4.15 percent, Diop says. It was his hope that he’d be able to help the district begin to build this number back up next year. But Gagnon’s resolution made it clear that this wasn’t a shared a priority with the board, at least for the time being.

Some have speculated that the district could be at risk of falling into statutory operating debt. But Tom Melcher, director of school finance at the state Department of Education, says things haven’t yet reached a tipping point.

“There is some concern that the fund balance is declining. And eventually the district will need to adjust its expenditures or revenues to level that out,” he said. “But in the short-term, they’re a long ways from being in statutory operating debt, which requires them to have a negative fund balance of 2.5 percent.”

Familiar with board and district politics, Stewart feels the district’s financial situation is much more precarious.

“This district is teetering on the brink of insolvency and structural operating debt and the inability to serve the needs of all its students if it doesn’t get its house in order,” he said. “And the more the superintendent tries to do that, the more he faces these kind of emotional insurgencies that come onto the board and really put the district in jeopardy. Minneapolis is a first-class city. It’s not a poor city. It’s got a school district that could be so much better governed right now.”

Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/23/2018 - 10:55 am.

    From a former practitioner

    There’s often much talk of the responsibility that goes with leadership, and in this instance, it appears to this jaundiced eye that several of the key players in this scenario have not taken responsibility for the issue, an issue for which the consequences will likely fall, not on those who hold – or held – those positions of leadership, but on the kids in the classrooms and on the teachers trying, again and as usual, to do more with less.

    A retired teacher (in another state) myself, I have two grandchildren in Minneapolis schools, so I have a vested interest, at least a bit of insight into this, from both sides, though I’ve never been a school administrator, so I lack the experience of that area that might make my opinions a bit more rounded. Because of those grandchildren, I have little tolerance for board and administrative (and legislative) doublespeak as those children, and thousands of others like them, as well as their classroom teachers, face an educational future that is, at best, uncertain.

    The crux of the problem, it seems to me, is contained in one short paragraph from Erin’s article:

    “…Of course unregulated coffee funds didn’t run the district into a projected $33 million deficit. That’s a product of not spending within its means. As expenses continued to rise — because of things like underfunded state and federal mandated special education and English language learner services, along with rising utility and transportation costs that have long outpaced state education funding — and enrollment began to drop, the district failed to rein in its spending.”

    The district seems to be suffering – has suffered already – from gross financial mismanagement. Responsibility for that mismanagement should fall directly on the shoulders of past Boards and, not incidentally, on past superintendents, whose job, in part, is specifically to avoid these sorts of financial crunches. There ain’t no free lunch, and voting to maintain programs and personnel, especially non-instructional personnel, that the district cannot afford is fiscally irresponsible. Long ago, a past superintendent and/or a past Board should have said, in regard to the titles Mr. Graff is speaking about now, “We can’t afford this.”

    Beyond that – and without absolving those past boards and superintendents of their failures to exercise appropriate fiscal discipline – the primary fault lies with ongoing and continuing “underfunding” of public schools by the Minnesota legislature. Federal funding of public schools remains a relatively minor piece of the fiscal puzzle. Minneapolis School Board members and their legislative representatives should have been lobbying – loudly, publicly, in perhaps less-than-polite terms – for whatever legislative remedy would provide stable funding streams (including allowances for inflation) for the state’s public schools.

    The most recent culprit for the Minnesota legislature’s failure to support education, and the most obvious, is the legislature’s Republican leadership, but this issue’s origins precede Republican leadership. Democrats **and** Republicans in the legislature have utterly failed their constitutionally-mandated duty to maintain an equitable education for the children of the state. From Article XIII, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution:“…it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

    The clearly intended purpose of Article XIII, Section 1, is that the state establish and maintain public schools. Those schools cannot be maintained without financial support, and it’s the duty of the legislature to provide that financial support. In this, both Republicans and Democrats have failed miserably, and at virtually every level from Pre-K through college. Shame them publicly, both Democrats and Republicans, for their failure to carry out one of their basic constitutional responsibilities. We should insist – insist – that they fully fund Minnesota’s educational system, upon which the economic prosperity and overall wellbeing of the entire state depends.

    • Submitted by Rebecca Kosnopfal on 04/24/2018 - 11:11 am.

      and what I find interesting is that Rebecca Gagnon was previously the treasurer approving the budget all those years that it was not fiscally sound. She helped create this mess.

  2. Submitted by Jim Barnhill on 04/23/2018 - 10:05 pm.

    Benefits Go Beyond South Minneapolis

    This article fails entirely to note that Patrick Henry High School, a pride of the north side, also received back a significant portion of the initial budget cut. As a result, our students are benefiting from additional elective courses, language department courses, fine arts courses, and vital collaboration time for educators to examine best practices in their work with students.

    This is not a story about privileged South Minneapolis crying out over lost services to wealthy kids. To the extent that we propagate that myth, we do a disservice to the many kids across the entire spectrum who are benefiting from these restored cuts.

    Next step: write an expose explaining to parents in Minneapolis how and why the State of Minnesota has continued to strangle public education here and around the state for the past 3 decades, all the while complaining about educational outcomes. That’s the story that is missing year after year from education reporting. Now’s your chance!

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/24/2018 - 09:09 am.

    Frustrating article

    This is chronic issue yet I can’t think of a single article I’ve ever read that actually explains MPLS budget deficits, and this article is no different. We’re told that expenses have gone up- but what expenses exactly have gone up? We’re told that spending is outpacing revenue- but what exactly are they spending on? We’re told that enrollment is down, well how can expenses and spending be increasing while enrollment drops? Why is it costing more to service fewer students? Why would the deficit double in one year? These are basic and obvious questions yet for some reason NO ONE who writes about this issue ever asks or answers them.

    Obviously coffee isn’t the issue. And yes, state and federal funding has been cut, but how much has state and fed funding been cut? Was it cut enough to generate this deficit and if so how what share of the deficit was cause by such cuts? Or are they still trying to cope with previous cuts?

    This is frustrating because some of us would actually like to understand the problem, and no one will ask or answer the most basic questions. We’re looking at a $33 million deficit yet we have an entire article that focuses on a $7 million reallocation, as if $7 million is making or breaking the budget, or making or breaking equity, or quality of education? What about the other $26 million?

    It’s like the old establishment media ploy of reporting on process instead of substance. We get all this detail about who initiated the reallocation and who opposed it, and how… whatever. I mean the budget guru MUST have found something other than coffee money so why is coffee money the only item he’s talking about? Either that, or the guy isn’t the budget guru he’s supposed to be. Did anyone ask: “besides the coffee what else did you find?”

    I just don’t get it. Why won’t anyone take the time to find out what exactly MPLS Schools are spending their money on, and write a story about it? Doesn’t anyone actually want to solve this problem?

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/24/2018 - 09:59 am.

      If you believe the Dept of Ed, 80% of the budget goes to salaries. Do the math from there.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/25/2018 - 08:41 am.

        Yeah, but I do REAL math, not Republican math

        Salaries may account for 80% of the expenses, but that doesn’t explain the deficit, it just tells where 80% of their budget goes. They have a budget of $655 million, 80% of that (assuming your figure is correct) is $524 million, which leaves them with $123 million to kick around with, and $33 million of THAT exceeds revenue. There’s your math. The question is why isn’t $123 million enough to get the job done? Salaries are just a labor expense, the idea that salaries are too high is a Republican anti-labor assumption.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/25/2018 - 09:48 am.


          Minus the $33 million deficit, they’d have $90 million to play around with.

        • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/26/2018 - 11:12 am.

          If there is a a deficit, and 80% of your budget is attributed to 1 item, it is drastically impossible that item doesn’t have an effect on the deficit. Nothing rises in cost faster than salaries.

          • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/26/2018 - 12:49 pm.

            The numbers

            ~ 59% of the budget for Salaries.
            Evidently if education were easy to solve we wouldn’t be talking about it. The big problem: We just don’t teach the 3-R’s anymore, we have to also include the reversal of social consequences in our society, technology has taken quantum leaps, we try to put some educational diversity into schools, etc. We got smarter, but that doesn’t mean we have the where with all to transfer all that to the next generation in mass. As Paul notes below the well to do communities keep putting more mileage between them and inner city/burbs at an increasing rate, only making the achievement gap worse. Would be curious what the well to do Suburb transient, English 2nd language, single parent household etc. population statistics break out vs the urban inner/suburbs. Another interesting comparison would be compare Henry, or North High Campus in North Minneapolis, to Wayzata, Minnetonka, Eden Prarie, Chaska, etc. calculate campus square footage vs school enrollment. 1 thing we know, there are no public indoor hockey rinks in North! Just saying.

            • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/26/2018 - 10:08 pm.

              59% salaries + 22% benefits.

              But let us not quibble.Your point is taken. There are no hockey rinks in North, but more importantly, there are not enough hockey moms and dads willing to out in the effort to take their kids to a rink if there was one.

              We currently spend >40% of the entire state budget on k-12, and MPS / SPPS get considerably more per pupil than anywhere else…and yet neither district gets more than 62% of their students graduating. And that statistic hasn’t budged for 25 years; through tightened budgets and Daytona open check books.

              We can always count on mumsumis’ to wail about underfunding, but rhe fact is, we are grossly overpaying for consistent failure.

              It ain’t the money.

              • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/27/2018 - 06:19 pm.


                That below JA agrees with some of the issues, i.e. parents, etc. If we start out with overwhelmed, challenged and under performing situations why would one conclude that the children coming out of these situations will have = advantage and or educational achievement? So, a teacher in suburbia, only has to work on the 3 R’s a inner city, near in suburb may have to work on the entire social well being structure as well as the families ability to pay bills, get the kids to school on time, make sure the are dressed for the weather, translators for non-English speaking parents, etc. etc. etc. Meaning, depending on who is looking they are doing 2-3-4 5- jobs. Are they now still over paid or under paid?

                • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/28/2018 - 09:15 am.

                  Self Selection

                  Also attitudes, beliefs, actions, knowledge, maturity, emotional stability, self sacrifice and habits are everything in parenting and raising successful children.

                  Unfortunately or fortunately the parent(s) and community get ~5 years to develop and ingrain all of these into children before many schools even get a chance. And then even when in school, the children still spend more time in the home / community environment therefore changing or improving them is hard.

                  Therefore kids with educated, mature, stable, academic focused, etc parent(s) come to school with the attitudes, skills and support systems necessary to learn and succeed.

                  And kids with lower educated, immature, unstable, not academically focused, etc parent(s) provide an incredible challenge to districts.

                  How much should it cost to undo poor attitudes, belief systems, habits, etc that have been developed during the most crucial 5 years of life, and to instill new better ones to enable successful learning? I don’t know but I am guessing the cost curve is geometric and not linear.

                  Not to mention that our local schools work with local food charities to send care packages home so the kids can eat on the weekends.

                  And one more BIG PROBLEM, many of the truly unlucky kids don’t make it a whole semester in the same school because the family is always moving to different “affordable housing”.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/27/2018 - 08:26 am.


            “If there is a a deficit, and 80% of your budget is attributed to 1 item, …)

            This isn’t math or competent accounting, it’s just typical Republican/conservative/libertarian anti-laborism pretending to be analysis.

            In any given budget for any organization deficits and surpluses can be cause by almost expenses. There’s no logical reason dictating that the largest budget item in any budget is “causing” a deficit, although large budget items are typically the most necessary budget items. So for instance while labor costs may account for 80% of MPLS schools budget, the only account for 2% of the State budget for MN. Yet Republicans will tell you that labor costs and salaries are the problem in both instances.

            While salaries may capture a large part of budgets depending on the organization, there’s no logical, mathematical, or accounting rule that dictates they’re an inevitable causes of any debt or deficit.

            The reality is that Salaries are predictable and stable expenses in many organizations, specially school districts. In most cases teachers salaries have been flat or even rolled back so salary increases can’t be causing budget shortfall. I would guess that the salary expense in MPLS has actually decreased because they have a teacher shortage wherein new teachers and older experienced teacher alike are quitting. Since the highest paid teachers are the ones who have the most seniority, i.e. been on the job the longest, I’d guess the average wages per teacher has actually dropped over the last 5-10 years.

            At any rate, the salary portion of the education budget is stable and predictable, regardless of it’s portion of the budget, it’s more likely the one thing we DO know is that labor costs are NOT causing the shortfall.

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 04/24/2018 - 02:22 pm.

      What Paul Udstrand just wrote..

      I have many of the same questions, Paul!!!!

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/25/2018 - 11:03 pm.


      This document is pretty interesting. Especially pages 10, 11 and 26.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/25/2018 - 01:59 pm.

    Underfunding is …

    underfunding. As pointed out the legislature is not following through with funding public education. Questions can be asked either about 90 million dollars or coffe pot money but either way it does not make a difference regarding the and let me say it again underfunding. Focusing on this dollar or that dollar is only diversion. And might I add some of the accountants here might wish to look at any major business with same cruel eye that examination is given to public educations instead of pitting one school or district against another. In the end when let say Best Buy has a coffee room set up for employees to incentivize community,positive behavior and sales do you think this is not reflected in the price you pay for product ? And guess what that profit goes into share holders pockets not into let say property taxes for someone who has been the recipent of enough public education to afford the purchase of property or a business which is the public good.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/26/2018 - 08:50 am.

    School Choice may actually be a huge culprit

    The more I look at our education system the more screwed up it looks. For instance this idea that public school have to lure students rather than educate those who live in their realm. These “choice” schemes create dysfunctional pseudo-markets that are preoccupied with branding rather than education. This is one reason budgets can increase while the core mission of education languishes, the money’s going into branding and marketing rather than instruction.

    For instance here St. Louis Park we just passed another levy increase for new spending. For the first time EVER I didn’t vote for a levy increase for two reasons. 1) If “wealthy” districts keep increasing the local spending ratio in the face of federal and state cuts- we end up with a disparate education system that establishes better schools in wealthy suburbs than those found in less affluent urban areas, or low population AND less affluent rural areas. That’s a bad thing. 2) To my mind the biggest problem St. Louis Park schools have is the education gap between black students and pretty much everyone else. The last time looked black students scored on average something like 50% lower than the general student population. Now when I look at the stuff the board wants to spend the new levy money on, it looks like a bunch of amenities designed to attract more student from outside St. Louis Park, rather than create better resources and improve instruction for black students. It’s about “branding” St. Louis Park schools, not educating St. Louis Park children. In theory they’ll tell you it amounts to the same thing, but clearly it does not. This is just consumerism pretending to be an education rationale.

    It looks like MPLS is doing the same thing, they have all these schools trying to market themselves and brand themselves to attract more students, and some schools have better marketing than others, but the gaps by and large remain. Instead of building public schools that educate the neighborhood’s children, they’ve created a consumer model that focuses on attracting new “customers”. The problem is that consumerism isn’t actually a rational mentality based on responsible behavior and reliable information, unless you think advertising is reliable information. Consumers respond to branding regardless of quality or content, and consumer satisfaction doesn’t necessarily reflect quality. We can all point to any number of mediocre or even outright poor services or products that enjoy enormous customer followings. If you run an education system that way, of course it will be dysfunctional.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/26/2018 - 12:37 pm.

      Agree Kind of

      I have no doubt that choice is the primary problem.

      I mean we American citizens are free to move whenever we wish and can afford to. So whenever a neighborhood gets a bit old, unsafe, lower income, etc… People pack up their families and move to a new “better” neighborhood with “better” houses with “better” neighbors… And therefore the children of very similar successful Parents congregate in the schools in that area and they are “perceived as better schools”.

      Now school choice is simply a way for people who don’t want to or can’t afford to physically move to have some choice in the school their child attends and the student body they associate with. My guess is that a lot of questionable communities would lose even more families if they did not offer magnet, charter, private, open enrollment, etc school choices.

      I know that the 2 Magnets and AP/IB programs in Robbinsdale have kept thousands of excellent families from moving further West… Which is good for New Hope, Golden Valley, Plymouth, Crystal, Robbinsdale, etc. And our Middle and High Schools.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/27/2018 - 08:49 am.

        A different understanding

        Word on School Choice is that: Not every Kid/family has Choice, and or can afford choice, or is it easy to do and or get. As I understand, its a lot more complicated than picking between a Milky Way and a Babe Ruth candy bar.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/27/2018 - 11:15 am.

          Yes, and…

          There is no law of the universe that establishes parental infallibility when it comes to the “choices” they make for their kids. The problem with consumerism is that it can promote brand loyalty regardless of quality or outcome. We have a lot of data now that tells us that while many parents will report being very happy with their school “choices”, in most instances those choices are not actually responsible for their kid’s academic success. By and large most successful students would succeed in most schools for a variety of reasons. This is why the educations gaps are so stubborn.

          Which brings us to another problem with an education system based on consumer models: who’s the consumer? Who’s all this branding and marketing directed at? Not the students, it’s all directed at the parents who will never actually attend the school and get an education there. This is just another layer of unnecessary complexity that obscures the mission.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/27/2018 - 02:44 pm.


          You know how I apportion ~30% of our academic achievement gap problem to the public education system failures, 60% to incompetent / ineffective parenting and 10% to other.

          Well from my 10 years of researching the topic, unfortunately I think picking a “good school” is simple… Find a school with a Free & Reduced Lunch population of <30%... If you want a "great school" find one with <15%.

          The logic is simple, low poverty schools have a lot of great parents who are interested and can afford to help the school. The majority of kids in low poverty schools have low mobility, often speak English, come prepared for kindergarten, have well developed social skills, well developed brains, parents who can help them, etc. In short, there is a majority who can help those who are struggling.

          Just think of a 30 student class. At 10% three kids have a higher likelihood of struggling and 27 are less likely. At 30% that goes to 9 and 21... And it only gets worse from there. No wonder inner city school Teachers are frazzled.

          So yes good parents in high poverty area need a way to get their kids into magnets, charters, open enrollment, and/or move to a different district. This simply moves their children away from the population of students who's parent(s) are less likely to make that effort.

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 04/28/2018 - 07:34 am.

    Schools Beating Odd

    Here is a great link a reader just left for me.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/30/2018 - 09:49 am.

    The problem with “choice” and Appelen’s criterea

    The problem with the idea that every decent parent can find a better school to send their kid rather than improve existing schools… is numbers. We just don’t have the open desks, and never will.

    The choice model simply isn’t sustainable because it assumes that there will be an open desk somewhere else for every student. So if we’re switching to THAT model we need build all those “other” desks somewhere. You can create a check list of some kind for the ideal school, but unless you have tens of thousands of open desks in some school classroom that meet the criteria students the majority of students won’t be able to get into those schools whether their parents want to move them or not.

    The model of abandoning existing public school in order to move students into other schools is unsustainable because the choices don’t exist in the necessary numbers, and it would be prohibitively expensive to build a side by side school infrastructure in order to give ALL parents a choice to move their kids somewhere else. We can fix the schools, we’re just not doing it. And the creation of “choices” has just diverted necessary resources as a time when education dollars have been getting more and more scarce.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/30/2018 - 03:02 pm.


      I always thought districts should be required to give up their public buildings if they could not keep them full. Since they were paid for by the people of the community. Then the community can let another management group and staff can give it a go.

      However based on my RDale experience the school districts fight tooth and nail to ensure a competitor can not get access to the building. They take their near monopoly status seriously.

      So one of our local charters had to build from scratch. 🙁

      And as long as the money goes with the kids, it seems folks can justify building / buying / leasing buildings and seats.

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