During a virtual meeting Tuesday evening, Minneapolis Public Schools board members listened to more than 100 parents, educators and community members weigh in on the perceived merits and shortcomings of a plan to drastically redesign school grade configurations, program assignments and attendance boundaries before approving the plan by a 6-3 vote.
Those in favor of moving forward with the plan praised how it would redistribute resources and academic opportunities more equitably across the district — specifically building up programming and enrollment in the north and northeast regions of the district, which have historically been underinvested in.
Those opposed implored the board to hit pause and take time to conduct a financial audit, an independent equity assessment and more public engagement sessions before making any decisions.
The comprehensive district design — or the CDD, as it’s often referred to — began back in December 2017 as an effort to redistribute academic opportunities, save on transportation costs and close longstanding disparities, based on race and income level, in the state’s third largest school district.
The board hit reset on that process in the spring of 2018, after a protest at a board meeting in May, where parents demanded more time to digest two new roadmaps the district had just released.
A drive-by protest at HQ
This time around — with board meetings and public comment taking place virtually, during the COVID-19 pandemic — critics organized a drive-by protest, outside of district headquarters.
The public health crisis has added fuel to both sides of the debate. Those in favor of a district overhaul say the pandemic has exacerbated inequities that already exist within the school system, making the endeavor even more urgent. Those in opposition say it’s reckless to create such major disruptions when students already miss the stability of their school communities and when no one knows yet what school will look like, come fall.
Teeing up the board’s final discussion of the plan, Chair Kim Ellison reminded everyone that adopting a new district design plan is “just the first step of many” and that the timeline for implementation — with most major changes currently slated for the 2021-2022 school year — could still change.
”It’s important that during this time of uncertainty that we plan for our future,” she said. “I trust the superintendent will tell us if we need to adapt because of complications related to COVID-19.’’
6-3 board vote
The school board voted to adopt the district redesign plan — which centralizes magnet schools and redraws school boundaries, among other changes — in a 6-3 vote, with directors Kerry Jo Felder, Bob Walser and Ira Jourdain (representing District 2, District 4 and District 6, respectively) voting against it.
Both Felder and Walser led failed attempts to stall the vote, asking their colleagues to run a full equity audit prior to taking any action.
“I’m hoping that if people really want to talk about race and black people that they’re going to listen to a black woman from the north side who is saying ‘No’ to the CDD because it’s not fair to my constituents and my students,” Felder said, airing concerns that the plan will take “big chunks of [my] district out to support other ones.”
Walser positioned himself as a champion of immigrant families who have felt left out of the process and continued to accuse district leaders of filtering public comments, to give the appearance of a more even split between plan supporters and critics.
“When these people tell me the CDD does not work for their communities, I believe them,” he said, imploring his colleagues to “open a new chapter that includes and respects all voices.”
Ellison countered these claims, noting a committee had completed equity assessments on various elements of the redesign plan — including proposed changes to special education services, high school programs and Career and Technical Education programming — and incorporated feedback throughout the planning period.
Director Nelson Inz also pushed back on the calls to postpone a vote to conduct a full equity audit of the plan, calling the motives into question.
“I think that the only reason that this is being proposed now is to delay the vote and cast the CDD into a bad light,” he said, noting the entire plan was built on the premise of making things more equitable.
The plan isn’t perfect, he said, noting he’ll be pushing for “crystal clear” implementation details as the various elements of the plan roll out. But his motive to move forward is rooted in hopes of better integrating schools across the district — because, currently, “the neighborhoods where people are located are less segregated than the schools they go to,” he said.
‘We are in a vicious cycle’
For board member Jenny Arneson, the decision to move forward with a district overhaul boiled down to one other simple truth: “Right now we are blatantly giving more opportunities to students in south and southwest Minneapolis than to those in north and northeast,” she said.
At this stage, the redesign plan is about centralizing magnets and changing boundaries, she said, adding that lots of important details — like bell times and staffing — will follow. These are things that require a hard reset in resource allocation, rather than added layers of interventions, she’s advocated, noting pleas from some in the community that to simply replicate successful schools won’t suffice.
“We are in a vicious cycle. We support some schools and we see their enrollment grow. We use that growth to attract more students — more white students, than students of color — justifying more investment, like staffing, or building improvements,” she said. “And, thus, our enrollment across the district becomes more and more uneven — which then contributes to opportunity gaps. And it makes it appear that the flaw is somehow within the unenrolled school, or worse, with the students themselves.”