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Peggy Ingison, now leaving for Historical Society, has made a big difference at MPS

After four and a half years of coping with funding shifts, unallotments and revenue formulas, she’s moving on.

Schoolchildren of Minneapolis, you almost had her. Your infectious back-to-school exuberance almost convinced Peggy Ingison to stay on as Minneapolis Public Schools’ chief financial officer, the woman who has kept the lights on despite a fiscal landscape that would depress Charles Dickens.

Like other senior MPS staff, Ingison spends the first few days the year not at district HQ but out in the schools, remembering what all the fuss is about.

Peggy Ingison
Peggy Ingison

New teachers, new notebooks, friends you missed over the summer — why, it’s almost enough to trick a person into forgetting that she spends the other 51 weeks of the year holed up in the dank administration building with an abacus, coping with funding shifts and unallotments and revenue formulas.

Almost. After four and a half years of loaves and fishes, Ingison has accepted a job as CFO of the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Was Pawlenty’s finance commissioner
Before former superintendent Bill Green lured her to MPS in January 2007, Ingison was Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s finance commissioner. When she worked for the state Senate Finance Committee years before that, one of the agencies she worked with was the Historical Society. A history professor at Augsburg, Green sits on the society’s board of directors.

When Ingison handed her resignation to Green’s successor, Bernadeia Johnson, the superintendent pleaded. “You can’t go,” Ingison reported she said. “School’s just starting.”

Watching kids tumble off buses, she had second thoughts. “It’s a little tug at me,” she said. “It’s like, this is why we do this.

“But it’s hard work,” she continued. “I’m a little worn out. I love this place and I know there is no more important work to do, but I struggle some days to know whether it’s making a difference.”

No one else wonders. When Ingison arrived at MPS, the district did not have financial statements. Checks were sometimes cut months late. She would never say this, but often the response to news that funding was drying up was met with grousing about funding drying up and not by any serious discussion about the painful structural changes that would have to be made to keep schools open in a different fiscal climate.

It’s Ingison who explained year after year, loudly and in plain English, exactly how a state funding shift eventually turns into a cut. It was Ingison who schooled board members in the mysteries of the unallotment process.

It’s Ingison who co-chaired Gov. Mark Dayton’s education finance working group, which spent the spring coming up with a plan [PDF] to revamp the state’s badly broken school funding system. (A plan the Legislature blew off.)  

And it’s Ingison who returns journalists’ calls from her car, late at night, knowing that the details are hard for the math-impaired to grasp, much less rearticulate to a citizenry that needs education so it will trouble itself with things like funding referenda.

Less of a hot seat
She has no illusions about her new job — anyone involved in public-sector finance is facing a long, tough slog. But, she allowed, her Historical Society post should be less of a hot seat.

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“Nobody picks on them the way people pick on the school district,” she sighed. “People’s futures really do depend on doing the tough work that we have to do.”

She’s been warned by others who were worn out advocating for MPS; David Jennings — a former state commerce commissioner who was superintendent from 2002-2004 and who went from MPS, briefly, to the historical society — warned her that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about the district.

Indeed, Ingison sounds heartbroken.

How about this: Give her a few weeks to forget the abacus and send a few classes of carefully chosen kids on a field trip to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Perhaps some of the same bright-eyed kids who almost convinced her to snatch back her resignation will accidentally make a wrong turn into her office.