A crucial referendum and another question

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October 24, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

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Two ballot questions on Minneapolis schools

The public school referendum appearing on ballots this fall is a kind of double-or-nothing bet.

If it passes, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) replaces an existing property tax levy of almost $30 million with an eight-year, $60 million levy. If it fails, the district faces a $30 million hole in its general fund.

It’s no surprise, then, that the levy campaign is taking no chances — distributing 3,500 lawn signs, staffing phone banks and sending school board members to neighborhood gatherings. What may surprise voters is that the referendum is not the only schools-related question on the ballot Nov. 4.

Minneapolis residents also will vote on whether or not to change the way school board members are elected. It is a hot-button schools issue, but one overshadowed by the push for the referendum.

Named for its author, state Sen. Jim Davnie (DFL–62A), the 2006 Davnie Bill called for expansion of the Minneapolis school board from seven to nine members, including three at-large members and six district representatives. Currently, all school board members are elected at-large.

When the current school board voted against the change last December, language in the Davnie Bill assured the proposal would go to voters in the General Election.

Talking to voters

When Tricia Bloodgood and Chris Cleveland invited friends and neighbors to their Loring Park-area condo on a recent Thursday evening, it looked like any other casual, after-work get-together. Guests mingled near the appetizers and brought their drinks along on brief tours of the couple’s home.

But once things got going, there was only one topic of conversation: the school referendum.

The house party was one of dozens hosted around Minneapolis in recent months, and at least the eighth attended by School Board Member Pam Costain. Bloodgood provided the venue; Costain explained why passage of the referendum was so important.

If passed, the $60 million property tax levy would support early reading programs, enhanced math and science instruction and upgrades to technology and textbooks used by students. About half of the levy dollars would be dedicated to managing class sizes.

Property taxes on a home valued at $256,000, the average in Minneapolis, would increase about $17 per month.

While explaining the basics to a room of about 15 people, Costain emphasized the positive impacts of the increased levy, like the support it would give to the district’s five-year strategic plan. But she didn’t shy away from consequences of failure.

“If we don’t pass this, we’re going to lose about 350 teachers,” she said.

Bloodgood, a Minneapolis attorney with a long record of donating to Democratic political candidates, said she didn’t consider the school referendum to be a partisan issue. She said strong schools were essential for the city’s future.

“[Minneapolis] could be a truly great city if we have a world-class” education system, she said.

This year, the school district has not faced the kind of organized opposition to the referendum seen in years past, many working on the campaign say. But there are opponents out there.

The vast majority of Minneapolis residents do not have children in the public schools. Some may look at a district struggling to raise student achievement and wonder why it deserves more of their property taxes — especially now, as the economic forecast seems to get grimmer every day.

“What we’ve said from the very beginning is the opposition is the economy,” Costain said.

The other question

School Board Member Tom Madden put in time on both the referendum campaign and a campaign to support the Davnie Bill. But Madden admitted the effort to revamp school board elections had been dwarfed by the referendum campaign.

“I think it’s been overshadowed quite a bit,” he said.

Current school board members were split when they voted on the Davnie Bill reforms last year, with Madden and Costain falling on opposite sides of the divide. Neither is up for re-election this fall.

Costain said representation by districts — determined by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board district boundaries — could lead to a “Balkanization” of the school board.

“I am adamantly against this change,” she said. “In my opinion, the responsibility of every school board member is to represent every child in the district.”

Costain predicted district representatives would become preoccupied with constituent concerns. Infighting would detract from important reform efforts like the district’s five-year strategic plan, she said.

Madden argued that district representation was the only way to ensure “geographic diversity” on the board.

He said areas of the city with high voter turnout — like Southwest, where Madden lives — often have a neighbor on the school board, while other areas are chronically underrepresented.

“Unless you live in the Northeast, you may not feel like the board is really missing you right now,” Madden said.


Ways to get involved

The League of Women Voters Minneapolis (LWVMpls) invites you to become a member of this exciting organization as it celebrates its 90th year. Since its beginnings in 1919, the League has supported democracy by promoting informed, objective and non-partisan community engagement.

Dues are $65 annually for a single membership and $100 for a dual membership. Call 333-6319 for more information.

Kids Voting Minneapolis also has volunteer opportunities. The community-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization works on preparing the city’s 50,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students to become informed voters. The organization is seeking people to help with the following tasks:

• Staffing a three hour shift on Election Day at a polling place to help students cast their ballots;
• Volunteering for eight hours to help pack voting day supplies; and
• Representing Kids Voting Minneapolis at various neighborhood events.

To volunteer, or for more information, contact Autumn at 729-1963 or autumnchm@hotmail.com.