If Minnesota DFLers are to be believed, Machiavelli is rolling over in his grave: Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal Thursday to hand the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul control over their respective school districts may or may not have ignited the public’s passions, but it certainly opened the door wide for the governor’s critics — including both mayors — to charge through.
Both Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a gubernatorial candidate himself, and St. Paul’s Chris Coleman hustled to issue statements suggesting that Pawlenty had missed the mark.
Rybak seized the moment as an opportunity to goad the governor on education funding: “I hope we can take Gov. Pawlenty’s announcement today as a sign that he wants to become more engaged in the hands-on work of improving our schools, as Mayor Coleman and I are already doing.”
“And while I’m very interested in talking with the governor about how to best help our schools teach our children, mayoral control is not the central issue,” Rybak said in a written statement. “Giving schools and the people who work in them the tools, resources, and support they need is.”
Coleman, too, jabbed Pawlenty for suggesting that mayors would be more likely than elected school boards to implement changes he has pushed for, such as reforming teacher tenure and more closely tying pay to performance.
“Mayoral control is a conversation worth having,” Coleman said. “That discussion has to start, however, with treating educators with the respect they deserve. As cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and others have illustrated, mayoral control is not the only solution for student success.”
Pawlenty’s speech only raised tensions in Twin Cities school districts, which are still struggling to deal with his decision last summer to “unallot” $1.5 billion in state school funding last summer and postpone $423 million in payments due to local districts in March and April. Although the governor has said he will not touch K-12 education funding — a promise he made during last year’s legislative session — he also said Thursday that he wants the Legislature to ratify last year’s unallotments.
The governor is expected to release his budget proposal Monday.
Even school districts in relatively prosperous parts of the metro area, including Pawlenty’s home turf of Eagan, are spending down scant reserves. Many expect to begin borrowing in coming weeks.
Outgoing Minneapolis Superintendent Bill Green, facing a short-term deficit of $49 million this spring, declined to comment on the proped mayoral control. But Minneapolis Board Chair Tom Madden called it “a distraction.”
“If people think it’s a silver bullet, they’re naïve,” he said. “We’ve been spending a lot of time visiting and studying districts that have had some success turning around underperforming schools, and there are a lot of factors that go into that. Sometimes mayoral control is one and sometimes it isn’t.
“More importantly, in all honesty, he should worry about paying back the money he owes us before he worries about other things,” said Madden.
St. Paul School Board Chair Elona Street-Stewart accused Pawlenty of demonizing two districts for problems that are widespread.
“For too long, the achievement gap has been considered a city issue and not a statewide crisis,” she said. “I see that with the governor’s latest proposal, he continues to create distractions in Minnesota’s city centers and pit local governments against each another, rather than address the statewide achievement gap.”
Both Rybak and Coleman have been strong advocates for education and services to youth. Like many other urban mayors, they see reforming public education as an economic development issue.
Coleman’s “Second Shift” initiative, which uses circulating buses to give kids rides to after-school learning centers, has won national praise, as have the city’s early childhood education scholarships.
In addition to a number of youth-oriented initiatives, Rybak has been a steady proponent of the reform efforts under way in Minneapolis Public Schools. Two years ago, when the Minneapolis board voted to undertake the painful, controversial process, he made a point of showing up at the meeting and promising board members full support.
Much to the irritation of teachers’ unions, school board associations, and the reform organization Council of Great City Schools, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last spring that he would stake his tenure as a Cabinet official on increasing mayoral control of schools.
While not new — until the mid-’60s, St. Paul schools were controlled by the mayor — the concept has gained recent political traction because test scores and superintendent tenure have gone up under mayoral control in Boston, Chicago, and New York. It’s unclear whether the mayor’s leadership made the difference.
Many of the Minneapolis reforms are modeled on those under way in Boston, where former Minneapolis schools leader Carol Johnson is superintendent. And both cities have consulted recently with her predecessor, Tom Payzant, who is credited with creating Boston’s “pilot schools” and other successful new programs.
Pawlenty vowed to move forward with some of his own reforms with or without the mayors, announcing that he had directed the state Department of Education to create an Office of Turnaround Schools that will use federal stimulus money to address problems at up to 40 of Minnesota’s lowest-performing schools.
Part of the state’s application for a share of the Obama Administration’s controversial Race to the Top grant money, the office would have greater oversight over those schools.
Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.