Minneapolis schools struggle for stability


The problems are not new. For the past seven years, student enrollment in the Minneapolis schools has been dropping. As a result of less students, the district has entered a fiscal crisis that has resulted in the closing of schools, layoffs and some think, an education crisis. The leadership within the district has also suffered. Three superintendents in three years does not bode well.

Budget problems
With students, comes funding. The more students you have, the more resources you have available to you. The reduction in funds the school district receives per child is not inherently a problem. The problem is that operation costs – the costs to maintain buildings, grounds, etc – does not decrease. Schools continue to need gardeners, maintenance personnel, accountants and administrative personnel. The amount of people needed to operate a school is not significantly reduced in direct proportion to the number of students in the school. Therefore, even with less students, the district continues to have to pay costs almost as if the schools were overflowing with students.

The obvious result is the district being in the red. To deal with the shortfall, members of the School Board have been forced to dismiss teachers and have closed down schools.

The Numbers
The number of students enrolled in the Minneapolis school district has decreased an average of 5 percent over the last four years.

As a result, fewer than half of the students of school age living in the city will be going to school in the district. In school year 1999-2000, the district had 48,000 students enrolled. In 2005-2006, that amount was reduced to 38,800. The number is alarming. Nearly 10,000 students have left the district in a little more than five years. A 20 percent loss should be sounding more alarms.

The projections for the next school year, 2006-2007, indicate that the district will have no more than 37,200 students and approximately 35,200 for 2007-2008. Those numbers imply a continued reduction of the budget for the district and, therefore, more cuts and more problems.

Who is leaving the district?
Apparently everyone. Initially the exodus occurred among white families in the best-off areas of the city. These families moved to the suburbs and took their children with them. Next, followed Afro-American families displeased with some of the problems facing the Minneapolis School District (budget, gangs, lack of programs in certain areas and instability). They took advantage of open-enrollment and enrolled their children in suburban schools.

The exodus continued and the district did not find a suitable answer. Today, the only influx of students into the district is the rapid influx of immigrants to Minneapolis, and although it would seem that those numbers would be enough to keep enrollment numbers high, they are not.

The problems for minorities
According to a study by McKinsey & Company in 2000, 69 percent of African-American and 69 percent of Latino students in the ninth grade in the city do not graduate in four years. Worse, according to studies made by the same company in 2003, only 46 percent of Latinos and only 43 percent of African-American in the district were able to pass reading tests that 86 percent of their white counterparts were able to pass. In math, the numbers were even worse: 30 percent of African-American and 39 percent of the Latino students in the district were able to pass their exams, compared to 75 percent of their white counterparts.

A vicious circle
The basic problem the district has is the loss of students. The loss is a consequence of the continued growth of problems within the city’s schools. Gang activities have increased exponentially and the solutions the district has come up with have been totally inadequate. Gang recruitment has increased. The pressures on young people continue to grow. Parents, unhappy with the situation, then decide to put their kids in schools outside the district that have fewer problems.

Each student who leaves the district takes part of the budget with him/her. Which results in budget deficits, which means less resources, and less ways to tackle the problems the district faces.

The district has entered a vicious circle and as of yet there have been no solutions presented to increase enrollment. The district has simply focused on cutting staff and closing schools.

Meanwhile, parents have found viable alternatives outside the district, in suburban schools and charter Schools that operate in the city, many of them with focused programs in specific areas.

Solutions to the problem
Some people see a leadership problem. Other people see discipline as a problem. The truth is that its probably both things (at least). On the leadership side, of late, the district has regarded its superintendent as sacrificial lambs in the face of displeased public opinion.

Carol Johnson held the position for six years, until her retirement in July of 2003, when she took over the Memphis School District. David Jennings then took over, only to relinquish it to Thandiwe Peebles only a short time later.

Peebles took over the district in the midst of confrontations with the district’s teachers over re-licensing. This happened in July of 2004 and was the start of her rocky administration that would end a mere 18 months later.

The crisis has continued, the closings of schools and cuts continue and the School Board doesn’t seem able to find solutions.

After Peebles left, the School Board named Dr Bill Green, a veteran of the district, as interim superintendent. Green took over and inherited the problems of a district in the heat of collapsing in on itself.

The possible solutions to the school district’s problems are varied. The problem has reached such a point that members of the State Legislature stepped in and have proposed a different way of electing School Board members. The proposed legislation was put forth by DFL Representatives Jim Davnie, Keith Ellison and Neva Walker.

The proposal calls basically for a division of the school district into six different sectors, with each sector voting on its school board member. The three remaining members would be chosen by a universal election. The proposed sectors correspond to the sectors established by the Park Board. According to Davnie, the rational behind the proposal is the following, “All citizens must have confidence in the members of their School Board, that they will be responsible for their actions, that they will respond to their concerns and that they will be accessible … that’s why this system makes sense.“

Mayor R.T. Rybak has offered enormous support to this proposal and has said, “This law would make strengthen ties between teachers, parents and students.”

Representative Keith Ellison believes the system, with its “democratic representation,” would increase the confidence of citizens in the district and would help the members of the School Board make more responsible decisions and would ultimately result in increased support from communities.

For Representative Neva Walker, the representation on the school board of different sectors would be key. She has said that minority communities do not have enough say in the school system. “The heart of our schools in Minneapolis, is our families and our students. It seems to us that the School Board should reflect the rich mosaic of those families.”

As far as the district’s disciplinary problems, many propose the use of uniforms and strict dress codes to decrease the influence of gangs on the students. In addition, they advocate working to specifically increase scores in basic standards knowledge and increase support programs for parents and families.

Of course all these proposals are just that, proposals. None of them have come to fruition. Not even the proposal of Davnie, Ellison and Walker, which has been postponed “indefinitely” and relegated to the next legislative session.

The situation of the district seems to be getting worse. The projections do not seem to indicate that the number of students enrolled will increase anytime soon. That means that the budget cuts will continue. The district does not seem to be reacting to the problem and has not launched any kind of initiative to increase enrollment, which makes the problems likely to continue, shrinking the district more and more. Intervention is needed, and quickly. Before it is too late.

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