My "Disingenuous" Push to Save a Neighborhood School

My hometown school district is having a vote tomorrow on a $200+ million spending package. The proposal would remodel most of the existing schools, build one new school out in a forest, tear down a neighborhood school and build a bunch of nice auxiliary facilities (upgraded pool, expanded gym, performing arts center).  

I’m going to start this by noting that I come from a family of teachers; both my parents taught elementary school. My daughters go to school in the district and would directly benefit from the upgraded facilities. My family has been in this community for more than a century and so I feel very invested in both the past and the future. When school district officials say they need something, I’m inclined to vote for it.

I also should note that my community is generally pro-education within a state that is generally pro-education. Throughout my life we’ve had high-quality education here and a broad commitment to be leaders in that area. I feel I owe a lot to this school district — and some very specific teachers — for the success I’ve experienced in life.

This past weekend, I was criticized – if not by name certainly by inference – by the local newspaper for being “disingenuous” in my stance on the referendum issues. Over the past six months, I’ve led a mini-campaign to get the school district to modify a couple aspects of their approach and, failing in that effort, have found my pleas morphing into an opposition campaign. This is not what I thought I’d be doing.

Disingenuous: no. Extremely frustrated: yes.

There are a number of things included in this vote that frustrate me to no end but I’ve long accepted I can do nothing about. The central issue is the way we have chosen to fund education from two major sources. Classroom, administration, transportation and maintenance funding comes from the state. Capital improvements — building new schools and other facilities — are generally paid for by local taxpayers through the referendum process.

I’m probably going to make some of you angry here but I’m a little crabby about it all anyway so I'll run the risk. Over time, we in Minnesota have consolidated annual operations funding with the state for, of course, reasons of equity and justice. Decades ago, schools in rich districts had a lot of money and schools in poor districts did not. To address this, we limited nearly all flexibility for local school districts, collected the money at the state level and then distributed it out on a per-pupil basis to school districts. We’re now all equally underfunded.

I could write thousands of words on the crazy and perverse incentives this system causes, but I’ll just point out two. First, for schools with falling enrollment, this is a death spiral. School districts have fixed costs – the electric and heat bills, for example – and they have flexible costs — like the number of teachers they employ. Declining enrollment forces, without any real recourse, school districts to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and favor short-term contracts (young, new teachers) over long term. The negative impact this instability has is hard to overstate.

The second bad incentive is related, but it affects districts with rising populations as well. That is the referendum process. In this system, if a school district can spend $1 on capital projects to save a dime on operations, that’s money well spent. This is because capital projects are approved by referendum and come out of a different revenue stream than operations.

Let me give a salient example. Say you have two neighborhood elementary schools that can each house 275 students. Each school has a principal, a librarian, an art teacher, a music teacher, a gym teacher, a secretary, lunch aides, etc... In a business sense, you can think of this as the overhead cost for operating a school.

Let’s say that each school is getting old. The school district can put money into maintaining those old buildings, but that money will come out of the same stream as paying those overhead costs, paying teachers, buying books and other more visible things. So the buildings don’t get properly maintained.

When that becomes a crisis and something needs to be done, there is little incentive to fix up those old schools. What is most beneficial for the school district, the teachers, the students and pretty much everyone involved is to find a way to shift money away from overhead items and into the classroom. That can be accomplished by abandoning the two elementary schools and building one, shiny and new elementary school that would house all 550 students. Only need one principal, one librarian, etc...

Not only can we make the case that the new school is more efficient — better HVAC, less overhead costs, low maintenance costs (at least for a while) — but we can contrast that to the cost of just getting that old school back to a “modern” standard (and we can inflate those costs to be bizarrely high). It becomes a comfortable no-brainer for administration, especially when it allows us to keep more of our underfunded resources in the classroom. This is true even though failing to maintain and then abandoning two older schools looks horribly wasteful to non-insiders.

So if we can spend a dollar on facilities (local money) and that gives us a dime more flexibility on classroom spending (state money), we don’t have to work too hard to justify that. For those involved in the process of putting this together, it just makes sense.

I’m going to pause here and point out some uncomfortable truths. First, for those of you whose core value is equity (and who may not realize that, often, all that means are equally crappy outcomes for all,) you need to grasp that we’ve simply replaced our baseline inequalities in student services with baseline inequalities in our facilities, while we're also slowly strangling school districts with stagnant or declining enrollment. I spent this past Saturday at a dance competition with my daughters at one of our state’s richest suburban schools and, yeah, the district has obscenely amazing bling. I personally find this depressing.

If it were up to me, instead of building a performing arts center, I’d love to spend that money doing some modest upgrades to our existing auditorium and then shift the rest into hiring one of the top theater directors from Julliard to run our program. Or pay someone from the cast of Hamilton to come in and spend a couple weeks a year working with our students. In fact, I’d love to do that in every educational domain, paying the top teachers from around the world obscenely more to share their unique talents with our incredibly intelligent students in facilities that perhaps weren’t world class, but who would really care at that point. I’d send my kids to school in a barn if they could take physics from this generation’s Einstein.

Our local school districts are not allowed that flexibility, and we don’t get to pay our great teachers all that much, because we’ve essentially capped what is possible, all in the name of a one-dimensional equity. I’m not a fan of this approach — I’d love a system that lacks equity on paper so long as it drives real, robust, ongoing improvement in quality for everyone — but I don’t have any power to change that. I'm stuck with underfunded education in obscenely high quality buildings, even though I'd prefer the inverse. It’s a frustration I must accept and live with.

One other thing I want to point out — and this one is touchier, especially in a small town like mine — is that a large percentage of those involved in the intricacies of this decision make a lot of money, or see their resume (and future earnings potential) enhanced, by having a huge project right now (instead of a decade or more of ongoing, smaller projects). It’s one of those distasteful things that’s just true. It makes it hard to fully trust advice and analysis — even from people I know to be decent human beings— when the outcome is so binary; if it passes, the payout is huge and if it fails, there is no payout. If you want to understand this concern better, read Daniel Khaneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and get a sense of how our minds trick us into aligning our personal morality with outcomes that also benefit us financially.

It’s actually an easy human failing to address: we must simply prohibit the advisors we use to perform facilities analysis from also working on the projects they recommend. But, for whatever reason, we have chosen not to do that, and I have no say in that decision. It’s not a hill I wish to die on and therefore I have accepted it.


That's the backdrop of frustration with things I must live with, but there are things I have not accepted in this process. In calling me disingenuous, the local paper stated that I — and others who share my concerns — should have raised our issues two years ago when the school district first floated their preliminary plans. It's an incredibly myopic and egocentric view of the questions in front of us and how we got here.

Two years ago.... what fond memories. Yes, when that initial proposal was floated, the school district was planning to abandon two walkable neighborhood schools, tearing one to the ground to make it into a parking lot, and building a new school out on the edge of town. It seemed really dire.

And this was even more true since our leadership at the city council was — and excuse me for the offense, but I stand by this — really terrible. Our council president at the time was not only a champion of widening a criminally-underutilized highway through the middle of town (I wanted it shrunk dramatically - a battle I lost) — an endeavor supported by the Chamber of Commerce and the local economic development group — but was vocally sympathetic to the school district’s proposal. The staff was pushing for the same.

Again, I try to have the courage to change the things I can, accept the things I cannot, and ask for the wisdom to know the difference. I could not change any of these proposals, but I could help change the city’s leadership, especially since I now live in the city limits and can vote here. In 2016, I helped get some new candidates elected, volunteered with the local history week group (where I was able to raise awareness on one of the schools) and applied for an open position on the city’s planning commission. While there is more to do, I am satisfied that we’ve got some momentum at city hall for appreciating the inherent strengths of our core neighborhoods again.

With some neighborhood allies, I helped turn people out for meetings so that the school district officials could hear directly from the residents whose neighborhood school was going to be closed, whose kids were now going to be bussed across town. This was a true crisis, because that neighborhood is the poorest, most fragile one in the city. Without the school, this neighborhood would be – in the words of a friend of mine who was part of the school district’s planning process until he got shamed off for this remark – treated like a ghetto with the disinvestment of the school district accelerating the disinvestment we see from the city and private individuals.

But by last fall, when the school district finally presented their proposals to the planning commission, they were still seriously considering — and, I had the distinct impression, favoring — abandoning this school. It wasn’t until November, a little over four months ago, that they officially opted to keep the neighborhood school and grotesquely expand it (again, a nod to administrative efficiency in arbitrarily setting a minimum school size).

At the same time we got the preliminary school siting plans, district officials testified that the city’s parking requirements were forcing them to dramatically reduce the size of the playgrounds at our neighborhood elementary schools, as well as raze one of those historic elementary schools entirely — all to build more parking. This was bizarre to me, and it was something I could change.

Along with some colleagues, I pushed forward ordinance revisions to eliminate the minimum parking requirements for every school. I had to have some verbal combat with our (suburban-minded) city attorney at a city council meeting, but the provisions passed and freed the school district from the need to make these dramatic changes to their grounds.

I waited to see if the school district's plans would change. I inquired if anything was going to be different since now the reason district officials gave for doing a lot of nasty stuff to our neighborhoods — the city is requiring us to put in this parking — was eliminated. Would the school district back off on the parking? Would they leave the playgrounds? Would they leave the neighborhoods intact? Would they repurpose the beautiful Depression-era elementary school instead of tearing it down for parking?

The answer (and I must admit, I was, maybe naively, kinda shocked by it) was no, there would be no change in plan. In fact, district officials became vocal and adamant that the off street parking is needed, that the district needs to improve parking convenience for students, faculty and visitors. I had personally done a parking study around one of the elementary schools and demonstrated clearly that there was excessive parking already available, that the furthest anyone ever needed to walk was a block. Now we’re tearing down a school, ripping up playgrounds and buying neighborhood homes to create surface parking lots!

Despite all of this, by early February I still planned to vote yes on all three referendum questions. Like my friends and neighbors, like my parents and their generation ahead of me, I support our schools. I support investments in education. I want my kids to have the best. I was prepared to swallow a lot of bad to get that little bit of good.

Without knowing what else to do to nudge the school district towards sanity, I started a Facebook page to save the historic school. My thought was that if I could raise the profile a little bit, I could get the school district to, perhaps, open up to the potential of repurposing that building.

Two things happened. First, the response of this community was overwhelming. As I write this, the page has over 500 supporters — enough to tip the vote in my small town. I’ve been inundated with people wanting to talk about these issues, find ways to improve our neighborhoods and, most importantly, save the school from the wrecking ball. I’m ashamed that I did not anticipate this, but it has been a heartwarming surprise.

The second thing that happened has somewhat offset those good feelings. Not only has the school district doubled-down on their off-street parking rhetoric (and I feel somewhat compelled to say, stretched the truth beyond what I think is friendly in a situation like this), but the collection of insider voices — the newspaper, the chamber, local dignitaries, even some personal friends — have joined to ridicule, when they weren’t outright condemning, any efforts to question the approach.

People I’m very close to have suggested that I’m hurting our area students, threatening the future of the community and basically being a “disingenuous” jerk for not getting on board with the official plan. The newspaper even rolled out the tired bully tactic common to small towns: you didn’t bring up the concern years ago, so shut up, because it’s not valid anymore. I’m a little sickened by it.

I look around and I’m starting to feel the momentum shifting in this place. A sleepy old railroad town that accepted decline and second-rate status is waking up to possibility. The people in charge are no longer aspiring to be a cheaper version of the big box strip in the (showing the early signs of failure) city next door. They are starting to embrace our strengths. So are my neighbors, some of who have put their time and money into fixing up buildings in our struggling downtown. The list of things we can change is growing.

I owe it to them, and I owe it to the future residents of this community — kids and adults alike — to not support a $200 million investment that would irreversibly turn large parts of their neighborhoods into parking lot. I can’t support any more scars to the fabric of these neglected places. I won’t approve of my tax dollars making student’s walks any more dangerous, let alone their parents and those who must walk to get to where they are going. I find these site plans disrespectful.

And I won’t pay for a perfectly good, historic building to be put in the landfill instead of being repurposed, just so we can have a few more parking spots within convenient distance of the front door. The suggestion feels shameful and I can’t imagine what my Depression-era ancestors would say.

We’re making a once-a-generation decision, borrowing money for 25 years in this proposal. With the people of this community finally standing up to push back on the long-accepted decline, I don't feel compelled to settle for a choice between neighborhood schools and neighborhoods. They go together, and I’m going to keep saying that until school district officials grasp it.

I’m one person with one vote and, sadly, despite my strong desire to invest in our schools, I’m compelled to vote NO on Question 1 and NO on Question 2. I’ll change the things I can and accept the things I can’t. After tomorrow, we’ll all have a better sense of the difference.