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Formidable group tapped to tackle Minnesota’s education funding issues

If ever there was a group that could graft wings onto pigs, wrest sabers from boulders and mix up a kettle of stone soup to boot, Gov. Mark Dayton may have just assembled it.

If ever there was a group that could graft wings onto pigs, wrest sabers from boulders and mix up a kettle of stone soup to boot, Gov. Mark Dayton may have just assembled it.

In keeping with the seven-point education plan he announced last month, yesterday state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius announced the appointment of a 22-member Working Group on School Funding [PDF] to look for ways to wring more from the shekels left in public education’s coffers.

To anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the current legislative session, the magnitude of their task should be clear. Good thing, then, that the governor’s list leans heavily on people with track records for thinking creatively about tough education problems.

Peggy Ingison
Peggy Ingison

Co-chair Peggy Ingison, for instance, might best be described as a financial alchemist. In 2006, she left her post as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s commissioner of finance to go to work as Minneapolis Public Schools’ CFO. In that capacity, she has been credited with finding ways to lessen the pain during five successive years of cutbacks in the tens of millions of dollars.

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Doubly helpful during a year when the dueling ideological forces at the statehouse might be trying to balance the education budget with trick abacuses, Ingison is conversant in pretty much every accounting maneuver known to administrator kind. She can explain in very plain English, for example, why a shift is really a cut.

An advocate for Parents United for Public Schools and thus a veteran of more legislative hearings than many on the list of veterans, Mary Cecconi can likewise recognize a game of three-card Monty from 50 yards. She has argued passionately and persuasively for the kind of fiscal stability the governor seems intent on creating, empty checking account notwithstanding.

Mary Cecconi
Mary Cecconi

They will be joined by Bloomington Public Schools Superintendent Les Fujitaki, a private-sector refugee and the architect of any number of creative financial fixes. In part because of his pragmatism, the district’s food-service department is a profit center, its buses run on time in-house for less than they would if outsourced, and teachers can shop for supplies in a warehouse stocked with businesses’ odd lots.

St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker managed to win wage increases for her union’s members in tough times in part by collaborating with district administrators on many of the same education reforms polarizing folks elsewhere. Ricker doesn’t waste a lot of time on politics — she’s too busy hustling up grant money to put her ideas to work.

Eric Mahmoud is executive director of the Best Academy, but he’s better known as the co-founder of Harvest Prep and Seed Academy, two odds-beating Minneapolis charters. He knows the true cost of closing the achievement gap and has seen plenty of flavor-of-the-month reforms come and go without making a dent.

Program finance director at Minnesota Department of Education, Tom Melcher is widely respected among school administrators for his ability to present multiple ways to handle bare-bones budget conundrums. Indeed, Dayton’s original announcement that Melchor would be involved could just be what convinced many to give up a half-day every other Wednesday to try the seemingly impossible.

Les Fujitaki
Les Fujitaki

“He’s able to get on the balcony and look all the way around,” said Ric Dressen, superintendent of Edina Public Schools. He and Melcher both served on Pawlenty’s 2003 school funding task force. “He’s very creative and accurate.”

“I’m guessing I’m bringing the history books,” Dressen said. “These are all busy people and the it says a lot that they are willing to hit the pause button and get to work on this.”

Given how polarized lawmakers are and how little time the task force has to generate its first suggestions if it is to have an impact before sine die, it should help that five of the legislators most involved with education finance and reform on both sides of the aisle will also be at the table: Representatives Pat Garofalo, Mindy Grieling and Jim Davnie will be joined by Sens. Gen Olson and LeRoy Stumpf.