August 4, 2020

Here we go again: white Minneapolis families tilt the scales in their favor – again


The phrase “watch whiteness work” has never been more appropriate in Minneapolis’ education politics.

More on that shortly, but first the backdrop.

The Minneapolis Public Schools are broke. Between 2012 and 2017 the district busted its budget, spent its reserves and dug a hole that now challenges its very existence. Two years ago Ed Graff, MPS’ superintendent, warned of the district’s looming deficit (which reached $33 million last year) and promised a plan to get the system back to fiscal health.

After over a year of tweaking, trimming, squeezing, plotting, and planning Graff’s financial team delivered a proposal for cuts that was equal parts thoughtful and painful. It was a jagged pill to swallow, but fair people could see how it was necessary.

Unfair people were not as accommodating. Some of them adopted Veruca Salt as their spirit animal.

One group, parents at Washburn High School, home to the child of a school board member, responded by quickly organizing to make sure budget cuts did not take away any of their ponies.

Here’s a spoiler: they won. Whiteness always does in Minneapolis.

Funding (white) Privilege

Washburn is the lowest poverty and whitest school in Minneapolis, and the majority of the money cut from their budget was from a special fund given to them by a previous superintendent to subsidize their wide array of elective classes that poorer schools didn’t have.

Washburn and South High schools got the money in 2015 so they could move from six-period to seven-period days. The funds were presumably intended to ease their transition with the expectation that the schools would make budget adjustments to pay the continuing costs.

They didn’t make the adjustments and instead treated the special funding as mad money. Last year Washburn gave up their seventh period but they still want the money.

Schools that already had a seven-period day, like Roosevelt High School, didn’t get the same bump in funding that Washburn did which meant they were paying for something that the superintendent was subsidizing for wealthier schools (using money from the general fund).

In short, the funds being cut by Graff from their budget was money they shouldn’t have received in the first place. But, when you are privileged, losing anything seems like oppression.

(White) Parent Power

The power of Southside parents was evident when Director Rebecca Gagnon introduced a surprise resolution that took her school board colleagues and district staff off center. It called for $6.4 million of “time-adjustment” funding to be restored immediately, with some or all of that money coming from future revenue earmarked to restore the district’s anemic reserves to the level specified in board policy.

The district is supposed to reserve a fund balance that is 8% of total expenses to weather unforeseen events like a government shut down. The current board voted to suspend that policy for one year so they could draw from the reserves to solve past budget shortfalls. Since then the reserve has since dwindled to a dangerous 4% for the fiscal year 2018. That means Gagnon’s resolution could drive MPS into statutory operating debt and make it a budgetary red-light district under the watchful thumb of Minnesota’s Department of Education.

To that point, Ibrahima Diop (the district’s Chief Financial Officer) said at a recent school board meeting that the reserves could only cover two weeks of expenses if there was an emergency. Gagnon’s response was to suggest the district get outside financial advice to second guess Diop’s understanding of the budget.

Everyone who encounters Diop says the district doesn’t deserve him. Almost no one considers Gagnon a cognitive champion.

A tough process

At the front end of the budgeting process district leaders must predict how many students will be enrolled, how much money that will come from local levies, referendums, and property taxes (along with state and federal sources); and how much money is needed to keep district commitments to staff, programs, schools, and special student populations.

The state only chips in $6,067 per regular education student, but some students fit into special categories that generate substantially greater funding. For example, students struggling with poverty, those that are learning English as an additional language, those that qualify for special education services, and those needing gifted and talented programs generate additional funds on top of the basic formula.

MPS also gets $16 million for integration efforts, $9 million for extended day learning options, $20 million in state grants, and $41 million in Federal support for programs mostly aimed at addressing poverty.

Altogether this means a school’s fortune is tied to how many students they attract and the number of its students qualifying for special categories.

Feed the rich

Clearly, Minneapolis’ high schools with the largest number of affluent parents are the winners of Gagnon’s resolution.

Washburn would get have its time adjustment funding returned along with $241,800 in one-year bridge money, and Southwest would get an even longer bridge at $293,000. The former would end up recovering the majority of their budget cuts, and the latter would actually see a budget increase over last year. The majority of MPS’ poor schools can’t say the same.

Gagnon has said she feared failure to pass the resolution that organizers at her school wrote for her would cause them to bolt the district or actively work to kill the upcoming $30 million referendum.

That’s hardball.

So, who are the losers? In short, we don’t know yet. How Graff squeezes the proverbial blood from a stone is a mystery. MPS staff agonized for months on how to obtain a structurally balanced budget (one where projected expenditures are less than projected revenue), so it isn’t as if there is an unseen pain-free way to produce $6.4 million.

22 of the schools prioritized in the new budget have greater than 70%. poverty, far higher than Southwest’s and Washburn’s rates. They may get a small increase in funds upfront, but they should brace for a kick in the ass later.

For example, Patrick Henry’s budget reduction was greater than Washburn’s (1.9 million vs. 1.6 million), but their share recovered ($550,605 vs. $787,248) from Gagnon’s resolution may not cover other services the Graff may be cut to fulfill it. This includes custodians, English Language Learner services, support for struggling black male students, and minority teacher recruitment.

That’s something Gagnon’s crew omitted when courting Henry and other schools to join forces with Washburn.

The question we all should  ask once the details of Graff’s new budget are announced is how did a board with a majority of representatives from communities of color allow one white school board member and a handful of white parents act as a shadow government and privately rewrite an urban school district’s entire budget merely to save a few dollars for their own kids?

The answer is that Gagnon endorsed them all during their elections, something we should remember as she seeks another term on the MPS board this year.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: