Voting to raise taxes


“As a parent, your first thought is ‘I don’t care about state funding and unfunded mandates, I don’t want excuses, I just want it to be fixed,’” said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, a Minneapolis Public Schools parent. She was skeptical of the district after class size went up, but now she’s co-chairing the effort to pass a referendum increasing school funding.

“Before I got involved with the referendum campaign, I didn’t realize the complications and the intricacies of running the district. I’ve gained a new respect for that.”

With the current excess property tax levy to fund the Minneapolis Public Schools set to expire in 2009, the school board has placed a referendum for a new $60 million excess levy on November’s ballot. Hoping to take advantage of high levels of voter engagement in this presidential year, school advocates have spent months assembled a campaign that is both sophisticated and broad-based.

They’ve got the unanimous support of the school board, the endorsement of numerous unions and the DFL. Both Mayor R.T. Rybak and Congressman Keith Ellison have signed on as honorary co-chairs. They’ve tested messaging, run the poll numbers. Now, the group is ready to take their message to the grassroots.

School Board member Pam Costain, an organizer at Wellstone Action and the campaign Community Organizing Sub-Committee Chair, said she’s encouraged by the openness she’s seen on the ground and in polling.

“We found that people are very concerned in Minneapolis that the state and federal government aren’t adequately funding their share of public education,” Costain said.

Proponents say if passed, the schools referendum will cost the owner of the average home (valued at $256,000) an additional $17 per month in property taxes.

The campaign used the Portland-based Grove Insight, the same pollster referendum backers used the last time an excess levy referendum came up in 2000. From those results and the district’s strategic plan, organizers say they’ve identified four essentials they plan to emphasize in their appeal to voters – literacy, strength in math and science, up-to-date textbooks, and class size.

Steve Kotvis, who served on the district’s strategic advisory group and now volunteers for the campaign as Communications Sub-Committee Chair, said the referendum reflects an honest assessment of need for funding for these goals.

“We wanted to look specifically to the achievement of the objectives in the strategic plan,” Kotvis said. “We had some pretty extensive conversations with the Chief Financial Officer [Peggy Ingison], and identified very specific, tangible achievement milestones throughout the five-year implementation period.”

For the wider public, class size may still be an issue. While the entire focus of the 2000 excess levy was on keeping class size down, the numbers have continued to increase.

Costain faulted decreasing federal and state commitment to funding public education, noting that “literally every dime” of the excess levy since 2000 has gone toward reducing class size.

Kotvis added the standards used in the 2000 referendum didn’t account for declining commitments from the federal and state government relative to funding from the district. Kotvis said the campaign has learned from that effort.

“We wanted to be really careful not to promise things that we couldn’t control, to promise something we could deliver,” he said.

The 2008 referendum’s priorities, Kotvis and Costain emphasized, are both important to the public and eminently measurable.

“What we need—and what the public really values—is that the foundation of our educational institutions is really about literacy,” Kotvis said.

Kotvis also noted that, were the referendum to pass, revenue allocation would be overseen by an independent referendum oversight committee, providing additional assurance of holding the district accountable to its promises to use the measure to fund the essentials.

Cushing Kiernat said she enjoys talking to neighborhood groups because of the opportunity for transparency and dialogue. She and her campaign colleagues, including a wide swath of parents, board members and other public officials – but not district employees on district time – have wasted little time in taking their message to the streets.

“My kids always ask me, ‘Is this a full-time job?” she said.

But for Cushing Kiernat and other school advocates, the campaign is worth the time.

“I’m not running for office,” she said. “We need to make a key investment in our kids now. It sounds idealistic, but it’s really what drives me.”

Costain sees the district entering a new phase. After several years of administrative turnover, she said the level of commitment and competence could help to address challenges and talk up successes. According to Costain, the latter has been sorely lacking.

“The Minneapolis Public Schools have suffered for several years with an inability to communicate well about what’s really happening well in our district,” Costain said. “When we show them our results, they’re going to be won over.”

For example, Costain noted that while the district continues to grapple with a wider than average achievement gap, this is due in large part to an extraordinary number of high performing students. She was quick to emphasize, however, that closing the gap is a high priority, and central to the district’s strategic plan.

David Seitz is a student at Macalester College, and a freelance writer.