Minneapolis voters will have November school referendum


A grass roots parent/community member committee is working to get the word out: Minneapolis voters will see a public school referendum question on the ballot this November.

Referendum committee co-chair Courtney Cushing Kiernat said they will announce the amount of the referendum and their “message,” on May 15. They also expect to have a web site up and running before the May 17 DFL convention.

“This effort is all citizen driven. I’m a volunteer,” Cushing Kiernat said. “We’re asking neighbors to talk to neighbors. We want to have house parties. We’re building our volunteer base.” There is a 14-member steering committee, she added, which includes Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) board member Pam Costain as district representative.

The co-chair is Hussein Samatar. Cushing Kiernat and Samatar both have children who attend South Minneapolis schools.

She said she has been visiting schools since January, including Northeast Middle School, and recently spoke in favor of the referendum at a PEN (Public Education Northeast) meeting.

“Some of the people there brought up issues that we need to be aware of as we’re proceeding, such as the state of the economy. People are feeling the effects of the housing crisis, for instance. It was good to talk about those things; people are really thinking about all of this.”

She said that as the referendum committee works on a campaign plan, they will include people from different parts of the city. “We want people who know their neighborhoods and know what works best in Northeast. Is it best to get the message out through e-mail? Ice cream socials? It will be good to have people take ownership of this; so many of them are proud of our public schools.

“We will be talking to local politicians and other community leaders. We will be using resources that are already out there.” Referendum committee representatives will be in the Northeast parade this summer, she added.

The committee’s new campaign manager, Paul Rohlfing, starts work this week, she said, and they are also working with a consultants’ group called Grass Roots Solutions, which worked on the 2000 referendum campaign.

According to MPS web site information, voters approved a 2000 referendum which was to provide the schools with about $42 million annually ($34 million from the referendum, $8 million from the state) for eight years. It became effective in 2002 and expires in the 2010-2011 school year. However, Cushing Kiernat said her understanding is that the amount of the referendum is now closer to $27 million a year.

(According to MPS information, during the 2001 legislative session, the state shifted its funding patterns, which went into effect during the district’s fiscal year 2003. The shift provided property tax relief to taxpayers by picking up a portion of the referendum—specifically, it wrote an additional $415 per student into the general education formula. This had a neutral effect on the district; MPS received the same amount of funding, but more came from the state and less came from taxpayers. The current $27 to $30 million number identifies actual dollars paid by taxpayers.)

Cushing Kiernat said she knows that the referendum might be a tough sell in November. “In 2000, it was a time of plenty. Now the economy is not great, but that’s another reason why we really need community members and parents to join us in fighting for our schools. We need to strengthen our children’s education. If the government can’t do it we need to step up to the plate. Many people are passionate about our schools, and the teachers and kids are amazing. I think [Superintendent] Bill Green is a wonderful leader.”

She said the committee decided to put the referendum on the ballot during the national election this coming November because “that’s when more people in Minneapolis come out to vote. I know other areas don’t want to do that. But we feel it’s a good idea.”

(St. Anthony-New Brighton schools fall into the other category; their referendum is May 20.)

PEN member and Northeast resident Dean DeGroot said he supports the proposed referendum. “The ramifications would be extremely harsh if the city does not pass the referendum. There are some good initiatives going on at the schools right now that I believe will enable a certain amount of consistency among programs and core offerings. I think there’s a greater push for equity throughout the city. It’s not the ‘have/have not’ set up as much as it was in the past. If the new ideas are to take hold, we’ve got to secure funding. Currently the referendum out there basically accounts for six percent of the budget. We already don’t have enough resources; taking that out would be devastating. It would jeopardize the initiatives and framework that were passed by the board.”

For information on the referendum committee and its efforts, contact Cushing Kiernat at courtneyck@comcast.net.