Passing the Education Buck

Everybody's behind the Minneapolis schools referendum this year--including local business interests that opposed it last time. Why? Because their taxes will go down, while those of most homeowners will go up.

          All of which raises the stakes for Hutchinson and PSG when it comes to this referendum. By any account, the firm's national prominence rests almost exclusively on the interest generated by its Minneapolis contract. School officials deny that that contract rides on the levy campaign's success, but it's obvious that if it fails--and if, as Hutchinson ceaselessly warns, the district has to close 10 or 15 schools and fire hundreds of teachers--Minneapolis's vaunted experiment will look a lot less attractive.

          If, on the other hand, the referendum succeeds, it will almost certainly increase the pressure toward more changes in education--changes that, at least to some extent, will follow the road set out by the business groups. Hutchinson's promise of increased test scores is nothing new, but it does cement a trend toward assessing kids' progress by an ever more sophisticated set of numbers. And the growing homeowner tax bills brought on by the market value shift are bound to increase resentment against property taxes--which, in turn, could lead to either education cuts or a drastic reform in school finance.

          Considering the magnitude of the issues involved, the oddest thing about the referendum campaign is how little they're being talked about. The reason, basically, is that proponents are marching in lockstep, and critics either can't be heard or don't want to be.

          Perhaps the only clear antireferendum position by a major political body comes from the Republican party. Its city committee calls the levy a "Band-Aid for a system that needs a tourniquet." But, says First Ward GOP Chair Cynthia Aldrich, they haven't been able to mount much of a campaign because "no one was willing to help fund us. Peter did a really good job at going in the front door and getting everyone to close ranks." So far, the referendum campaign has raised and spent in the neighborhood of $200,000, with a good number of the contributions coming from business interests. Yet, Aldrich and other opponents say, word of mouth shows that many voters are lukewarm to downright cool about the referendum.

          Which, in turn, is what's keeping a lot of other people quiet. As Dennis Schapiro, veteran school observer and publisher of the Jola Education Monthly newsletter, puts it, "It really would be a bad situation for the schools if this fails. And no one wants to give people a reason to vote no." In other words: Even those who might speak candidly--in a city where frank discussion of the schools is hard to come by anyway--are quiet because they're desperate. It's an understandable dilemma, and a perfect setup for a campaign as vacuous as any in recent history. "Vote Yes For Kids," read the lemon-yellow lawn signs and leaf bags of the Better Schools/Better Communities committee. They don't say a thing about what exactly people are being asked to do.

          Judging from the numbers, the referendum faces rough sailing. Eighty-five percent of Minneapolis kids go to public school, but fewer than 20 percent of households have school-age children. That's part of the reason why a lot of people thought it would have been a good idea to put the referendum on the ballot last year, when the only election in Minneapolis was for school board. Hutchinson himself suggested that in the summer of '95, and board members voted to pop the question to voters that fall. But within days, the super called them to say his staff couldn't get the campaign together in time.

          Hutchinson says district officials simply were too busy with other things, including the move to community schools. He also hints that "there was some confusion because there was a school board election going on at the same time." (Generally, board members don't like to have to run and defend a tax increase at the same time.) Other observers say Hutchinson and PSG simply dropped the ball.

          Whatever the reason, the fact that the referendum is up this year forces it to compete with a presidential election (such as it is) and a tight Senate race. School officials privately wonder whether all voters will even flip the ballot to find the referendum on its back side; if they do, it will say right there that "by voting yes on this question you may be voting for a property tax increase." It's not that often that people get to rebuke one of those.

          Publicly, school officials claim not to be worried. This, Hutchinson insists, "is a city where people support public education." Just to make sure, however, referendum proponents also make a none-too-subtle pitch to the pocketbook. "If we start going into disaster scenarios," says Minnesota PTA president and campaign co-chairwoman Sue Eyestone, "the impact if it fails would be pretty dramatic. If we have to close schools and start moving thousands of kids around, you got a whole bunch of middle-class families who say 'okay, you want to move me, I'm moving to Eden Prairie.' Then you get property values dropping and neighborhoods sliding."

          So far, it looks as if neither apple pie nor property-values panic have really grabbed voters by the gut. Internal district polls indicate a slight majority in favor of the referendum, but it's a close call.

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