The truth about the $10.6M unassigned general fund balance

You may have seen some things going around from groups that opposed the referendum regarding the district’s $10.6 million unassigned general fund balance – and how this should mean that no painful budget cuts are required.

Like most of the information from these groups, there’s a kernel of truth here surrounded by bushels of misinformation. Let’s dig in, shall we?

First, let’s start with the kernel of truth – the district did in fact have a $10.6 million unassigned general fund balance as of June 30, 2019, which was the end of the school’s 2018-19 fiscal year. However, this doesn’t mean that we can just use up this balance and not have to worry about budget cuts or referendums to raise additional operating funds. Why?

You may recall that in October (before the referendum), there was a fair amount of hyperventilation from the anti-referendum groups about Finance Director Dee Dee Kahring’s presentation to the Victoria City Council, where she noted that the district was spending more in 2018-19 and 2019-20 than their projected revenues. The anti-referendum groups at that time said that such behavior was irresponsible.

Lost in the hubbub was how the district was closing that gap – by spending down fund balances – the very same mechanism these groups are calling for today! The district’s 2019-20 budget calls for spending about $2.8 million out of the unassigned general fund balance, and an additional $1.5 million out restricted-use funds. That’s in addition to $2 million of spending down of fund balances in 2018-19.

As a result of these decisions, the unassigned fund balance will be under $8 million by the end of the year, facing a need for $5 million in cuts in 2020-21. Still OK, right? Well, no.

District policy (Policy 714) requires maintaining an unassigned general fund balance greater than 5% of general fund expenditures. (Incidentally, this policy represents a low figure compared to peer districts – the Minnesota School Board Association recommends a policy of a 10% reserve, while Eden Prairie and Shakopee maintain 8% reserve policies and Minnetonka is at 6%).

By the end of this school year, our reserves will be down to about 6% of general fund expenditures. This means that most of our headroom and ability to use reserves to cover spending needs will be gone – at most, we could perhaps squeeze out another $1 million, but as our district grows that reserve will need to grow with it. With a total of $10 million in cuts projected between now and 2023, it’s clear that there are going to have to be serious cuts in spending, and there’s almost no way to avoid classroom impacts from that level of cuts.

The anti-referendum groups continue to throw smoke in the air to try and hide the fact that the “no” vote on Q1 last November is going to have real and serious effects on students. We can and should work to find ways to minimize these impacts, but fudging the numbers ain’t acceptable.

2020 Focus Area #2: TECHNOLOGY

The district spent two years largely ignoring the sirens and warning lights on Empower before finally announcing that it was pulling the plug on it last spring. (It’s a slooooow plug-pulling, though, as elementary school students and their families are still stuck with software we know doesn’t work this year.)

The return to Parent Portal was an obvious tactical move which for the time-being is adequate, but it doesn’t address the larger issues here.

The district’s Technology page offers only the most general roadmap for the next decade — and like many other district initiatives, offers no indication of how we are measuring if our technology usage is providing the value we expect. (For instance, how are we determining if giving Chromebooks to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders is effective?)

The district’s technology strategy needs to be more clearly defined and communicated. Is Portal the long-term solution or do we need a new learning management system, for instance? How do we determine what the requirements for that system are? Do we have the right resources to carry out these large system rollouts? How do we collect and respond to feedback from students, teachers, and parents? Have we done enough to ensure data privacy? (There seems to be broad agreement, for instance, on tightening up district policies that allowed e-mail addresses to be requested by pro- and anti-referendum groups last fall.)

2020 Focus Area #1: EQUITY

Happy New Year! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about six focus areas for the district in 2020 and what we should be trying to accomplish in those areas.

Focus Area #1 is EQUITY

There’s been a lot of talk about equity over the last year or so, and a lot of misconceptions about what equity is or isn’t. So let me begin by giving a quick description of what my vision of equity is (and isn’t).

Equity means that all students are welcomed and valued. Equity means that the curriculum in our schools reflects the diversity of experiences that shape our world. Equity means that we have a diverse cohort of teachers, administrators, and other staff. Equity means that all students are held to high expectations and all students are treated fairly when discipline is required.

Equity is not shaming children because of their racial or religious background. Equity is not giving kids of certain backgrounds a “free pass” to misbehave or be subject to lower academic standards. Equity is not indoctrinating children into a particular mindset.

The reality is we’re essentially starting at ground zero here from a district perspective. (Yes, I know folks in the administration love to point out that they’ve been “doing equity” for the last decade. If that had truly been the case, district- and school-level leadership wouldn’t have fumbled the ball so badly during the events of last year.) One thing the district has failed to do is to deliver a coherent and consistent “elevator speech” on why equity work is necessary and why the scare tactics deployed during the referendum campaign are invalid.

In February, the district is expected to roll out its 3-year equity strategic plan focused on five areas identified in the equity audit. It will be critical to track how the strategic plan gets translated into practical, implementable steps at all levels of our schools.

A key component of the plan is expected to be the concept of Building Equity Capacity. This is a critical early step — giving staff at every level of the school a base level of knowledge (and authority) to be able to handle situations with appropriate level of sensitivity and to break down the notion that equity is only the job of certain administrators.

$8 million in land?

(This post originally appeared on the Even Better Eastern Carver County Schools Facebook page on November 25, 2019)

You’ve probably seen some references lately to the school district owning $8 million in land that isn’t used for K-12 education. Sounds pretty scandalous, huh?

Well, as has sadly been true of many things we’ve heard from folks regarding our schools lately, there’s a whole lot less to this than meets the eye. [long post incoming, buckle up]

Let’s first break down the land that presumably makes up this $8 million figure (although the folks making the allegation have never specified the particular properties).

Property and Value (per Carver County):
* Family Learning Center (and surrounding land) — $6.480,000
* Undeveloped land in SW Chaska — $480,300
* Undeveloped land in Victoria — $1,696,300
* Land currently being used as Firemen’s Park II in downtown Chaska — $194,500

TOTAL — $8,851,100

Let’s start with the undeveloped land first. The SW Chaska land was acquired as part of the 2015 referendum vote and is the designated location for the district’s next elementary school. The Victoria land, meanwhile, appears to have been acquired as part of a 2000 referendum; however, current district leadership does not deem this to be a good site for locating a new school because of road access. The district has had discussions with the city of Victoria to locate a new site within the city for future school development and this property would likely be involved in a land swap arrangement or sold with the proceeds going towards the purchase of the new site.

As both of these sites have been purchased via referendum funding, the district would be limited in what it could do with proceeds from a sale. Those funds could only be used to retire referendum-incurred debt or be applied to certain capital projects.

The downtown Chaska property (currently being maintained and used as Firemen’s Park II by the City of Chaska) is for sale and has been for several months. This property has long been in the district’s hands, not transferring to the SouthWest Metro Educational Cooperative when the original Chaska High School building did.

So that leaves us with the Family Learning Center. The FLC is located at the former Jonathan Shopping Center and the entire site consists of 16 parcels of land. The district controls 14 of the 16 parcels – everything except for the northern of the two main buildings on the site (the two parcels are the building itself and the area just in front and to the side of the building). This building had been vacant for years until it was purchased earlier this year by Mis Amigos, a Spanish Immersion preschool with three other metro locations that is planning to open in 2020.

What would it mean to sell the FLC? Today, the FLC hosts a wide variety of programs — early childhood programs, early childhood special education, adult basic education, adult programming, community education offices, early childhood screen, early childhood family education, school readiness, and preschool.

It’s not K-12 education, but these programs are pretty important to the district’s overall mission. Study after study has shown that it’s vitally important for kids to enter kindergarten with a good foundation under them. The ECFE and parent education programs are critical to helping as many kids as possible be ready for school. The subsidized preschool programs give low-income families that might not otherwise get the chance to send their kids to preschool that opportunity.

By suggesting that the district essentially make these programs homeless — kicking preschool out of the elementary schools and selling the FLC — the people making these recommendations would be putting the most vulnerable learners in our district at risk.

Yes, the district needs to be prudent with our tax dollars. However, selling the FLC with no feasible backup plan to support these programs is not a step in that direction.

Lessons from the referendum’s failure

(This post originally appeared on the Even Better Eastern Carver County Schools Facebook page on November 6, 2019)

What lessons do we take from the failure of questions 1 & 2 of the referendum last night?

As tempting as it is to treat the misinformation and appeals to racial and religious identity as the sole cause of the defeat, the district needs to face the facts that there are reforms it needs to make.

First, the district’s practice of one-way public communication needs to stop. We need authentic two-way public conversation. Residents should be able to ask questions, get answers, and have dialogue with the school board and senior leaders. If the district is committed to the 45-minute cap at board meetings, then it needs to go to the community and have true public forums. And when I say go to the community, I mean go to the community and hold these events in Carver, in Victoria, in Chanhassen – not just at the DEC. The school board already holds many of its worksessions at schools, yet there is no avenue for public input at these meetings. What’s the point of going there if you’re not going to engage that school’s community?

Second, the school board needs to decide if they really believe in what they’re doing. For months, folks came to the school board meetings and questioned their facts and their character. Where were the school board members in response? Nowhere to be found. Not one of them used their social media platforms to fight misinformation. Not one of them wrote a letter to the editor in the newspapers. One week before the election, Lisa Anderson essentially threw up her hands and said the vote was “out of our hands” instead of you know, trying to set the record straight and advocate for what she had voted to put on the ballot. Well, a bunch of folks worked their butts off for that week (and months before) trying to pass her referendum, which she apparently wasn’t willing to publicly fight for. Why was everyone else carrying their water? If the seven members of the board aren’t up to doing this work, they should resign now and let somebody who is take their job.

Third, the district needs to tighten up how they communicate on these issues. Sloppiness in how enrollment was reported created confusion which was exploited by the “Vote No” groups. If a backlash against equity work was part of the cause of the vote results, part of that can be laid on the district’s year-long history of tiptoeing around this issue and failing to make a short, coherent, consistent, and strong message about why this work is necessary.

Like all of the other problems this district has face over the last couple of years, these go back to the same root problems: a lack of leadership, a lack of proactivity, and failure to communicate effectively.

2019 Eastern Carver County School Referendum Master Thread of Misleading Claims

(This post was originally published on Brick City Blog, with the most recent update on November 5, 2019)

Six days away from the 2019 referendum in Eastern Carver County Schools, I thought it would be a good idea to centralize some of the real facts and data about points of contention as it relates to the 3 referendum questions.

We’ll be updating this post with new information between now and Tuesday, so bookmark and check back! New information will be at the top of the post.

UPDATE #3 (11/5):

Today is the day! I encourage you to seek out factual information and make your own judgments. After doing my research, I voted Yes on all three questions.

Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tues., Nov. 5. Here are the polling locations:

Residents living in Carver
Carver City Hall
316 Broadway, Carver
This includes Dahlgren Township,San Francisco Township and the City of Carver

Residents living in Chanhassen
Chanhassen Recreation Center
2310 Coulter Blvd., Chanhassen
This includes City of Chanhassen, Precincts 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3, 4 and 5

Residents living in Chaska
Chaska Community Center
1661 Park Ridge Dr., Chaska
This includes Chaska Township and the City of Chaska, Wards I, II, III, and IV

Residents living in Victoria
Victoria Recreation Center
8475 Kochia Ln., Victoria
This includes Laketown Township and the City of Victoria, Precincts 1, 2 and 3

And, just for good measure, here are a couple of last-minute claims to evaluate:

CLAIM: The district holds referendum elections in odd-numbered years in order to confuse voters, drive down turnout, and have a better chance to win

Various social media posts, like this one.

This one is a little more complicated. Let’s first start by understanding why – excluding reasons surrounding electoral strategy – school districts would find it necessary to go to the expense of holding a separate election in the odd year.

State funding represents 73% of the district’s General Fund budget this year ($91.9M out of $125.6M). The state works on a biannual budget cycle, completed in May of the odd year. This makes the need for odd-year referendums by the district clear, as changes in state funding can have significant budget impacts.

Eastern Carver County Schools 2019-20 General Fund budget by revenue source. Data source.

Why is this important? Because state funding has failed to keep up with inflation since the Ventura Administration. Here’s a graph that shows the base K-12 formula funding trends.

Funding per student is hundreds of dollars below where it would have been had it merely increased at the rate of inflation. Data source.

As a result, districts have had to raise operating levies to make up the gap. In fact, on average, school districts have increased their levies by over $1,000 per student over this time.

Waiting until 2020 puts school districts 18 months behind changes in state funding levels.

As for whether or not, having referendum votes in the odd year increases the chance of success, well, there is some evidence to support that. In 2013/2015/2017 referendums, requests for additional funds (bond or operating levy) passed at a higher rate than similar requests in 2012/2014/2016, while renewals of existing levies were strong in all years.

CLAIM: “They want an avg INCREASE of $700 per household per year for at least the next 10 years”

Carver County Conservative PAC

This is not true. The district has provided a tax calculator which will enable you to estimate the impact on your individual taxes.

The average home value in Carver County is $350,000 — such a home would see an increase in taxes of $36.25 in the first year of the referendum should all three questions pass. That’s $435 per year, not $700. The amount you pay will depend on the value of your home, so the higher value your home the more you will pay.

It’s also worth noting that your tax hit on Q1 and Q2 will be the highest in year 1, and decline from there. As the district grows and the tax capacity grows with it, the costs of the referendum will be spread across a wider group.

Let’s look at what happened with out last referendum as an example:

How much a property with certain values pay to support school levies in Eastern Carver County Schools. Data source

In the image above, I’ve highlighted the row for a home with a value of $400,000. You can see that in 2014, such a home would pay $2,857 to support our schools. The value dipped in 2015, then ticked up again in 2016 after the 2015 referendum passed. In 2019, this home has actually seen its share of taxes fall by more than $300 since the first year of referendum funding in 2016.

UPDATE #2 (10/31):

CLAIM: There is a lack of integrity because the School District is administering the election

Public forum speaker Laura Skistad, October 28 School Board Meeting and various Facebook posts, like this one.

Plain and simple, the district is following the law.

Per Celi Haga, the district’s Director of Communications and Community Relations:

“As was the case in previous elections when there are no other questions on the ballot, the responsibility for running the 2019 special election is that of the school district.  The school district follows both statute and practice as outlined by the Minnesota Secretary of State, and is responsible for administering all election duties as is the case for all other school districts in the state during elections where only the district is on the ballot.

School boards are responsible for the conduction of all school district elections.  The school district clerk is the election administrator for the district.  During absentee voting, the place of business (school district) is the voter’s polling place, as outlined in the Secretary of State’s guidance.

Election guides, including school district elections and absentee voting administration, can be found here: https://www.sos.state.mn.us/election-administration-campaigns/election-administration/election-guides/

Eastern Carver County Schools has always been committed to following the law and maintaining the integrity of the voting process, and continues to do. The district clerk and all election judges have gone through the certification process, as is required by law.  We have worked in close partnership with our county and city clerks to make sure we are following every process as outlined by statute and best practice.”

Paid election judges (from outside the district) are administering the early voting process at the District Education Center. On Tuesday, the Election Day voting will be staffed in the various communities by paid election judges as in all other elections.

UPDATE #1 (10/30):

CLAIM: Between 2014 and 2019, the district only gained 156 students.

Current elementary program capacity is 5,203 students, meaning there are over 900 empty spaces available.

“The District ‘repurposed’ two elementary schools and now wants you to build them a new one.”

Video posted on Eastern Carver County Schools Watchdogs, October 30

Let’s look at some claims about enrollment and capacity in our schools at the elementary school level. There’s been a lot of confusion here, and some of that is the district’s fault. They have not consistently reported enrollment in the same way from document to document. Some of that is because compliance with various state programs requires tracking enrollment on certain dates while some require averages for the entire school year. Other programs — for funding purposes — count some kids as more or less than one pupil. Even the district’s own referendum information (in the June 24 School Board Packet) had presentations from two consulting firms that had mismatched enrollment numbers.

So in September, I asked the district for one set of consistent actual enrollment numbers, taken on the same date each year– October 1. The only exception, obviously, was this year’s numbers which are as of September 10. Here’s how they look:

Eastern Carver County Schools K-5 enrollment history, 2014-19. Data source.

This data shows a growth of 249 students over that time, or about 1.2% a year on average.

Let’s bring capacity into the equation. The video claims a program capacity of 5,203 students at the K-5 level. That number is just impossible to reconcile with the district’s own numbers.

Eastern Carver County Schools K-5 enrollment and capacity history, 2014-19. Data source – enrollment. Data source – capacity. Data source – capacity 2.

The only way to get to a program capacity of that level is to double count the former Chaska Elementary/current La Academia and Kinder Academy building. This relates to the repurposing comment — here’s what actually happened. In 2017, Carver Elementary school opened (capacity 706). The ECFE programs that were housed primarily at Chaska High School moved to the Kindergarten Center (capacity 280), which was taken out of service as a K-5 school. Meanwhile, the La Academia (from the Kindergarten Center) and Kinder Academy (from Bluff Creek) programs moved to Chaska Elementary (this building went from a capacity of 540 to a capacity of 517 because there are more kindergarten classes there now).

It should be noted that La Academia and Kinder Academy are programs that serve students in the K-5 range. You may hear folks imply that both the former Kindergarten Center and former Chaska Elementary are being used for non K-5 purposes, and that isn’t true — only the former Kindergarten Center is no longer used for K-5.

And why is that? Because the former Kindergarten Center is ill-suited for elementary school usage because its lack of a gymnasium and a substandard kitchen.

When you accurately calculate program capacity for K-5 level, you get a capacity of 4,546 versus an enrollment of 4,310 — or 236 empty seats. However, it’s not practical to combine regular K-5 classes in with La Academia and Kinder Academy, especially considering you could only fit two sections in the building with only 49 seats available. The available capacity of the remaining elementary schools is 187 seats.

If the district grows just at the 1.2% rate of the last five years, and not the accelerated rate projected by the district, you still need a new elementary school in less than five years.

For additional thoughts on capacity issues, see my previous post on this topic.

CLAIM: There is a missing $90M in the district’s referendum request.

Video posted on Eastern Carver County Schools Watchdogs, October 30 and lots of other places

The district provided a coherent explanation for this already. But here’s the quick summary:

When you see $121.7M referred to as the referendum’s cost, that figure is only reporting the Year 1 impact of the referendum

$211.7M is the full 10-year cost of the referendum.

Confusion has ensued based on how the media has reported these figures. Most media sources only report the “Year 1” impact versus the full 10-year cost.

ORIGINAL POST (10/30):

CLAIM: “Eastern Carver County has the highest median property tax in the state of Minnesota!”

Parents for D112 website

Yes, this is true — if you’re talking about median property tax amounts. But there’s more to the story.

The primary reason residents of Carver County have the highest median property taxes is because we have the highest property values in the state. According to SmartAsset, median home prices in Carver County are $287,200, over $15,000 higher than second-place Scott County. But on a tax rate basis (tax paid per dollar of property value), Carver County’s rate of 1.15% is slightly below the state average of 1.19%

It’s also true that residential property owners in our district pay a higher share of the bill because of lower amounts of commercial development in our four communities than typically found in the metro area.

According to 2017 data from the League of Minnesota Cities, 64% of our district’s property tax capacity is residential homesteaded property, compared to a metro average of 50% (and 48% in Minnetonka). Only 19% of our tax capacity comes from commercial property compared to a metro average of 29% (and 34% in Minnetonka).

CLAIM: “Our administration is extremely heavy”

Public forum speaker Gwen Michael, October 28 School Board Meeting

According to figures from the Minnesota Department of Education’s School District Financial Reports for 2018, Eastern Carver County Schools spends $856 per pupil on district and school level administration. That’s $234 per pupil less than the state average, and $137 per pupil less than Minnetonka. It’s the third-lowest of the peer group the district uses for benchmarking.

Eastern Carver County Schools with the third-lowest administration costs of peer districts. Data source.

What is included in “administration”? Per the Minnesota Department of Education, district administrative costs include the cost of the school board, superintendent, administrative staff, and all centralized operations of the district — including finance, IT, purchasing, human resources, etc. School administrative costs include the salary and benefits of the principal, dean, counselor, administrative staff.

CLAIM: “The district currently has a staff of 1,432  of which 730 are teachers. This is a 1:1 ratio, does this seem excessive?”

ParentsforD112 website

The district’s 2019-20 budget lists 714.8 FTE teachers out of 1108.2 total FTE (64.5%). That is NOT a 1:1 ratio. For comparison, Minnetonka’s 2019-20 budget shows 799.25 FTE teachers out of 1326.4 total FTE (60.3%).

Eastern Carver County Schools 2019-20 budget showing FTE by role. Teachers highlighted in yellow. Data source.
Minnetonka Public Schools 2019-20 budget showing FTE by role. Teachers total highlighted in yellow. Data source.

CLAIM: “The school is using space for K-12 for a FOR PROFIT pre-school? This is NOT what we had agreed to and now they claim they need more space?”

Parents for D112 website

Two points to discuss here. First, “for profit preschool”. This isn’t really true. The preschool program is run as a break-even operation — projected to run about $8,000 in surplus on $1.7 million in revenue in 2019-20.

Eastern Carver County Schools 2019-20 budget showing the projected $8,427 surplus in preschool programs. Data source.

The second point is about whether it is appropriate to host preschool in elementary schools. The short answer is: Yes! Many districts do the same thing, particularly districts like our own who serve multiple communities. Here are just a few metro-area districts that host preschool programs in elementary schools:

  • Elk River (also serves Rogers-Otsego-Zimmerman)
  • Anoka-Hennepin
  • South Washington County (Cottage Grove-Woodbury-Newport)
  • Apple Valley-Rosemount-Eagan
  • North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale.
  • Burnsville-Eagan-Savage
  • Bloomington

And why is there preschool in Chanhassen and Victoria Elementary schools in the first place? Because residents of those communities asked for it! The district was being responsive to families with young children who didn’t want long drives for half-day programs and to have their child be accustomed to the elementary school they would be attending once they turn 5.

CLAIM: “The Cost of Educating a student in Minnetonka is Approx. $10,800. The State Average is $11,000”

“The District 112 School Board (Eastern Carver County Schools) pays $1000/yr more per student than the Minn average – and they want lots more by way of a BIG tax increase.”

Video posted by Eastern Carver County Schools Watchdogs, October 27 and by Carver County Conservative PAC, October 28

These figures appear to be outdated. According to figures from the Minnesota Department of Education’s School District Financial Reports for 2018, Minnetonka schools spend $12,238 per pupil from their General Fund. The state average is $12,596 per pupil. Meanwhile, Eastern Carver County Schools was at $12,089 — less than Minnetonka and the state average. Looking again at the peer group of districts, ECCS’s spending was 11th out of 15.

Eastern Carver County Schools with the fifth-lowest general fund spending of peer districts. Data source.

CLAIM: Equity work is about Islamic indoctrination

Ad in the Chaska Herald from Parents For D112, October 24

Schools are covered by extensive federal and state laws prohibiting promotion of any particular religion. Secondly, we don’t need to take anyone’s word for it. We can look at the equity work the district has done. We can look at the full report from the equity audit performed by “Vote No”‘s favorite boogeyman, Dr. Muhammad Khalifa.

None of the work done by the district or its contractors to this point displays any favoritism or promotion of Islam, or any religion for that matter.

CLAIM: Equity work is about treating races differently when it comes to academics and discipline

Alpha News video posted on Eastern Carver County Schools Watchdogs, October 4 and Child Protection League post linked to by Eastern Carver County Schools Watchdogs, October 6

“Vote No” groups point to examples of other districts that they believe have lessened academic rigor or changed discipline policies in order to hold different races — specifically blacks and Latinos — to a different standard than white students. But, again, we don’t need to look at other districts. We have the work being done in our district.

The equity audit points to a need for our district to raise — not lower — standards and academic expectations for minority students. The equity audit also suggested no changes to our district’s discipline policies.

8 days, 3 questions and 13+ months: talking about the state of ECCS

(This post was originally posted on Brick City Blog on October 28, 2019)

The vote on the Eastern Carver County School District referendum is in 8 days — on November 5. There are three questions on the referendum:

Question 1 increases the district’s operating levy — the funds used for the everyday operations of the district: salaries, supplies, transportation, etc.

Question 2 is a capital levy that would build a new elementary school, perform deferred maintenance projects, and acquire a new bus garage.

Question 3 is a continuation of the security and technology levy originally passed in 2013.

For more on the referendum itself, see the district’s webpage. Review the information and cast an informed vote. After carefully reviewing the information — and despite my misgivings about how school leadership has handled some issues (more on that below) — I have come to a “Vote Yes” position.

But I’d like to talk more about how the discussion around the referendum and equity have evolved over the last few months.

For the first time in recent history, this referendum has faced an organized “Vote No” campaign. If you’re a parent in the district, you received an e-mail from this group “Parents for D112” on October 14.

Similar groups, such as the “Eastern Carver County Schools Watchdogs”, have been operating for months, and they have aligned with partisan groups like the Carver County GOP and Carver County Conservative PAC as well as agenda-driven news sources like Alpha News and blogs like the Deplorable Housewives of the Midwest to spread a consistent message of misinformation and division in their efforts to undermine the referendum and work on equity. Their campaign is slick and apparently well-funded.

Let’s briefly address their address two of their equity-related arguments:

Argument #1: Equity work is really just a cover for Islamic indoctrination.

Not true. For starters, schools are covered by extensive federal and state laws prohibiting promotion of any particular religion. Secondly, we don’t need to take anyone’s word for it. We can look at the equity work the district has done. We can look at the full report from the equity audit performed by “Vote No”‘s favorite boogeyman, Dr. Muhammad Khalifa.

None of the work done by the district or its contractors to this point displays any favoritism or promotion of Islam, or any religion for that matter.

Argument #2: Equity work is really just a way to hold different races to different standards.

Not true. “Vote No” groups point to examples of other districts that they believe have lessened academic rigor or changed discipline policies in order to hold different races — specifically blacks and Latinos — to a different standard than white students. But, again, we don’t need to look at other districts. We have the work being done in our district.

The equity audit points to a need for our district to raise — not lower — standards and academic expectations for minority students. The equity audit also suggested no changes to our district’s discipline policies.

This is precisely the sort of “equality not equity” that the “Vote No” groups claim to endorse, yet they are fighting this work tooth-and-nail.

Why is this the case?

It’s been nearly thirteen and one-half months since the first of many highly publicized racial incidents during the 2018-19 school year in our district: when three Chaska High School students wore blackface to a football game. While some have focused on whether or not this event was overblown, what it clearly foreshadowed was that the district was not equipped to handle these sorts of incidents — a pattern of dropping the ball that continued through the every one of the long string of racist events that followed last year.

In December 2018 (after another racial incident that was mishandled, this one at Chaska Middle School East), parents began showing up at school board meetings to criticize the district for their failure to take these events seriously and to treat racism as a real problem.

These parents were there in January, too. And February. And March. And April. And May.

You know who wasn’t at those meetings? Any of the people leading the “Vote No” campaign today. Alpha News wasn’t there to cover those meetings. None of those people made YouTube videos decrying the racism directed at black children in our schools.

It wasn’t until June that these “Vote No” folks parachuted on to the scene. They only showed up to protest the fact that the district hired Dr. Khalifa to perform the equity survey.

The reality is that many of the people behind this “Vote No” effort aren’t residents of the district. And to be frank, some have long histories of targeting Muslims or promoting conspiracy theories.

Like here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. (I could go on, but you get the idea.) OK, two more — the parent video that “Parents for D112” promotes is done by a guy who claims to be a member/supporter of conspiracy-minded group QAnon. (At least this guy lives in the district!) And last week, there was a blog post that claimed that all this equity work in the district was part of a sinister plot financed and masterminded by George Soros.

Here’s how Alpha News advertised their “Eastern Carver County Schools Exposed” video:

Screen capture of Alpha News video, as taken from the Carver County Conservative PAC page.

This is nothing more than an appeal to prejudice against Muslims. What other explanation could there be for advertising this video using a shot of a woman in a burka?

That’s par for the course for Alpha News, though. One need only look through their archives to see how they’ve handled issues of race and religion in the past. Here, for instance, are the stories filed by a now-Chanhassen City Council member (and State Senate candidate) while she worked there.

The “Vote No” folks have had nothing to say to the victims of racism in our schools, other than to accuse them of trying to make a quick buck out of it, all while trying to cash in on it themselves.

Screen capture of a Facebook comment by the Chair of the Carver County GOP on a Chaska Herald article
Letter from the Carver County GOP fundraising off of their opposition to equity work and the referendum.

I got involved in the equity work more deeply because of an experience I had earlier this year. This conversation opened my eyes, and led to many other conversations that showed me that the problem didn’t just emerge this year, but had been simmering for a long time.

In April, I sat at a meeting organized by the school district to discuss equity issues where minutes after district leadership promised transparency on equity issues, two black girls sitting at my table passed around their phones showing us the “Negro Hill” image which had been circulating for days but had not yet been communicated by the district. I was appalled and angry and embarrassed. But what really broke my heart was the reaction of the girls, who — while upset — seemed sadly resigned to this sort of thing as a regular part of life in our schools. They didn’t trust that the leaders at the school would stand up for them because they had been let down before. No one should have to feel that way at Chaska High School or anywhere else.

Breaking Points: Jim Bach and ROAR

The people I’ve come to know and work with on these efforts — district employees and citizens alike — aren’t the least bit interested in indoctrinating anyone’s child into a particular religious belief. Nobody is looking to give children of a particular race a free pass to not do their school work or asking for children not to be disciplined if they do something wrong. I’ve talked to leaders at multiple schools in the district and in the administration office. They say that none of the leaders of the “Vote No” movement have come to their schools to meet and see what is really going on in our schools.

I’ve talked to parents of children who were targeted in the incidents last school year. Their experiences are real. Their pain is real. It’s no longer acceptable for our district to compound the damage of the incident itself with insensitivity and disregard in how it responds. It’s also no longer acceptable for the rest of us to ignore this reality.

All we’re asking is for a district that truly values every student equally, and consistently responds with care, compassion, and justice when children are targeted by others.

If I saw evidence that this work was leading us down the paths the “Vote No” group suggests, I wouldn’t support it. But I don’t see it. And I’ve certainly got a better view on what’s happening in my child’s school than folks from North Oaks or Norseland or Anoka or St. Louis Park or Prior Lake. Those folks aren’t going to be around once this vote is done — they’ll be on to the next perceived outrage — but the rest of us will have to live with what comes in its wake.

There are areas where I could find common ground with the “Vote No” folks. With my group Even Better Carver County Schools, we’ve been trying to push reform in how the district operates for the last two years. We’ve pushed for real transparency, and to have them stop measuring effort and instead focus on measuring results. We’ve pushed for better leadership on personalized learning and Empower. We’ve questioned why test scores are declining and achievement gaps are not closing. We’ve said that the school board isn’t doing enough to hold the leadership team accountable for all of the above. (Other groups, like the Concerned Citizens for Eastern Carver County Schools, have been working on this as well.)

(The “Vote No” people haven’t been there for those fights, either, sadly.)

And while I disagree with the “Vote No” conclusion on whether a new elementary school is necessary, there is no doubt the district has been inconsistent in how it has reported and explained trends in enrollment and capacity in recent years. They’ve created confusion where none should exist.

And yes, the idea that 5th grade band should be on the chopping block should the referendum fail is ridiculous. The cost-cutting ideas proposed by the district need to be dragged back to the drawing board and completely redone, if they are needed.

The “Vote No” group rightfully chafes at the district’s change in policy to limit the public forum at school board meetings to 45 minutes. For a district that goes out of its way to manage public feedback and control the message in every forum, this is a bad look — and it prevents the board from hearing publicly from its constituents at a time when it needs to hear it the most.

But it’s hard to get to common ground when folks choose to lead with misinformation and scare tactics. Hopefully, after the referendum is over, we can cool the temperature down and get back to the real work of making our schools Even Better.

That’s what this work is all about — and has always been about. Empowering teachers to do their best work every day. Ensuring that parents, students, and teachers have technology that makes tracking progress easier, not harder. Changing the mindset of the district to one that seeks feedback on a more timely basis and then having a predisposition to fix problems and not just wait to see if they go away. Closing achievement gaps and raising academic performance across the board. And, yes, making sure those girls I talked with last spring — and all students in this district — feel valued, welcomed, and supported in their own schools.

Whether you are “Vote Yes” or “Vote No” on Election Day, I hope you’ll be there after the referendum to do this work. We need all hands on deck, and a more united community to make our schools better for all students.



Looking at the capacity question of the 2019 Referendum

(This post originally appeared on Brick City Blog, last updated on September 18, 2019)

Question 2 of the 2019 Eastern Carver County Schools Referendum is a request to spend $111.7 million on capital projects – the largest of which is $35 million on a new elementary school to built on district-owned land in southwest Chaska.

Opponents of the referendum have indicated that there is already enough capacity in our schools to handle the projected growth in our district, and that a new school is unnecessary. Let’s start our analysis by looking at the district’s actual capacity, rolling back the clock to before the 2015 referendum and seeing how that compares to today.

Capacity Over Time

“Program capacity” as defined here is the capacity of the school based on the current use of its space. So, as an example, an area used for special education purposes would have a lower program capacity than a similarly-sized area used for a typical classroom setting.

Historical program capacity by building

As you can see from the numbers, program capacity since the 2015 referendum has every level of the district. At the elementary level, La Academia and Kinder Academy have relocated from their previous locations at the then-Kindergarten Center and Bluff Creek elementary to the former Chaska Elementary building. Carver Elementary has opened, and additions created more capacity at Clover Ridge and Victoria (while allowing some common spaces to be reclaimed). Changes at the secondary level occurred as well, most notably Chaska High School reclaiming one of its houses which was previously being used for early childhood education.

Where are we at today from an enrollment perspective?

Current enrollment and capacity by building

Based on enrollment figures, there are about 185 open seats at the elementary level (excluding the specialized programs of La Academia and Kinder Academy), and comfortable capacity numbers at the middle and high school level. Which brings us to the projections for growth.

Under the district’s projections (done by consulting firm Davis Demographics), elementary school enrollment will top current elementary school capacity by the end of the 2020-21 school year and be nearly 800 students higher than current enrollment by 2024-25.

Even less optimistic estimates of growth (such as a somewhat discounted growth rate on the Davis projections or using the last five-year trend of just over 1% growth) show that the district will be over capacity at the elementary level in less than five years.

The bigger question

Opponents of the new school have pointed out there is significant capacity at the middle and high school levels. Why can’t we just move kids there, they ask? Even under the most optimistic projections of growth, the district would not risk being over capacity in total until nearly a decade from now.

Enrollment projections and capacity by school levelyellow cells indicate where enrollment is larger than capacity

Well, we’ve answered this question before. From 2012-2014, I worked on a district facilities task force that dealt with the same sort of question – how to deal with rapidly rising enrollment at the elementary level.

The task force produced three options for the School Board and senior administration to review.

The first option was called “Cram”. It involved not building any new schools but just redrawing elementary boundary lines to balance enrollment across schools. Class sizes would get progressively larger, but boundaries could be redrawn – yearly, if necessary — to spread the pain evenly.

The second option was called “Shuffle”. It too, involved not building any new schools, but instead solved the elementary school problem by shuffling kids – among the options looked at were moving some 5th graders to middle schools and moving some 8th graders to high schools.

The third option was “Build”. This was the option selected at the time, and after the 2015 referendum passed, Carver Elementary opened in 2017.

Most people probably don’t remember the public feedback around those three options, but as a member of the task force, I do.

The “Shuffle” solution, which referendum opponents seem to be favoring in some fashion, was broadly unpopular. It was even more unpopular if people discovered that it was their kids who were going to be “shuffled” as opposed to someone else’s kids. The reality is that it’s easy on a spreadsheet to shuffle kids and balance enrollments, but there are real world consequences to doing so.

Middle school buildings are not equipped today to deal with elementary school students. Even if there is classroom space, scheduling of common facilities is problematic. For instance, Chaska Middle School East struggles with physical education space during the 3+ months that the dome in not available during the school year and adding several sections of fifth graders to the mix wouldn’t make it any easier.

Other parents balked at their fifth graders riding the bus with eighth graders or having to share school start and end times with middle schoolers. In the end, most folks agreed that a “shuffle” plan was not the best answer for our kids, and the 2015 referendum to build a new school earned 69% of the vote.

I’m not telling you to vote “yes” here — that’s up to you. I’m just suggesting that the question of whether the elementary capacity is needed goes a lot deeper than just putting the numbers on a spreadsheet and seeing if Column B is less than Column A.

UPDATE (9/18):

I was alerted to some comments on Facebook by referendum opponents regarding this post, and just wanted to post some clarifications and additional comments.

  1. One of the complaints was that I did not include the current Family Learning Center (former Kindergarten Center) in the current elementary school capacity. Yes, it is true that we could choose to put elementary school students back into that facility. However, I don’t feel that would be prudent. That building is lacking two critical components: a gymnasium and a kitchen. It is better suited to its current use housing early childhood and preschool programs that don’t require those amenities. Besides, if you do move those early childhood and preschool programs, you still need to find somewhere else to put them and would incur additional expense to utilize that space.
  2. Accusations were made that the data above did not come from the district. That is not true, with the exception of elementary school enrollment projection scenarios #2 and #3, which were generated by me as described in the original post. Some of the enrollment figures in these files received from the school district on September 12, 2019, are either more recent or pull enrollment at different dates than what has been published in other district documents. In the interest of transparency, I have attached the three source files received from the district below.
  3. The issue of program capacity versus absolute capacity was raised. It is true that program capacity does not reflect the maximum capacity scenario for a particular school. What is does reflect is the reality that not every space in a school — whether a traditional classroom or a special education room or a science lab or a music room or an art room — has the same practical capacity per square foot. Not every inch of the school is going to be able to be maxed-out from a capacity perspective.



Superintendent’s performance review and bonus sends wrong message

(This post originally appeared on the Even Better Eastern Carver County Schools Facebook page on June 27, 2019)

At Monday’s school board meeting, the board decided to give Superintendent Clint Christopher a positive performance review and a 2% bonus. In announcing the decision, Board Chair Tim Klein cited Christopher’s positive performance in the four areas of evaluation: “exceptional, personalized learning”, “safe, nurturing environment”, “prudent management of public resources”, and “culture of communication”.

This sends the wrong message after the year this district has gone through. I don’t think Superintendent Christopher is a bad person, but there have been too many problems this year to receive an unfailingly positive public performance review and a financial bonus. Let’s look at three of the evaluation areas:

Under “exceptional, personalized learning”, Klein cited the fact that Christopher and his staff made the difficult decision to move the district away from Empower. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that Christopher is the one district employee most responsible for the failure of the Empower implementation in the first place. Before becoming superintendent in 2017, he spent three years as Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, which oversaw the rollout of Empower.

As for “safe, nurturing environment”, the spate of racist incidents in the district this year, combined with the slow and insufficient response of the district until pushed by parents over the period of months. At the April school board meeting Christopher himself said “Our students need to see a difference and feel a change in their daily lived experience. So do you. We can do better. We must.”

Regarding a “culture of communications”, most of the school year was marked by the district failing to live up to its promises to be open and transparent and then apologizing after being called on it. Most notable among these was the district’s failure to acknowledge the now-infamous “Negro Hill” image while promising transparency at a district equity meeting.

Significant effort has been expended to improve across all of these three areas has been made over the last couple of months. That said, it doesn’t excuse the district badly missing the mark for most of the year.

And it’s only fair for us as citizens to expect results — not effort — to be rewarded. Until we see results sustained for a longer period, the Board should be holding Christopher and his staff accountable for delivering.

Breaking points: Jim Bach and ROAR

(This post originally appeared on Brick City Blog, last edited on June 12, 2019)

To say it was a challenging year in our Eastern Carver County School District would be a major understatement. A spate of racial incidents – most at Chaska High School — has alienated many minority students and their parents and left them feeling unsafe. For the past six months — since December — those parents and their allies have been appearing at school board meetings to demand action.

After months of promises that weren’t followed up with action at both the school and district level, these community members organized themselves into a group called ROAR (Residents Organized Against Racism). In April, ROAR introduced an eight-point petition calling for specific steps to reform how our school district and its schools handle equity issues.

One of those eight points, a call to “change the leadership of Chaska High School” has become a flashpoint. A counter-petition on change,org was started and a contentious debate has begun on social media. This issue merits additional conversation in full context. That’s my purpose here: to discuss why some parents and community members have reached a breaking point with the current leadership of Chaska High School.

The school’s response has been problematic, here are some examples:

In September, three Chaska High School students attended the football game versus Chanhassen wearing blackface (one of these students also wore an Afro wig). Despite the presence of school- and district-level employees at the game, no action was taken in the moment to prevent the display of this harmful racial stereotype. Even after a second blackface incident in February — both being called “teachable moments” by Principal Jim Bach in media reports — there has yet to be a schoolwide discussion of the history and meaning of blackface.

In February, black students at Chaska High School approached school leadership about doing a series of posters celebrating Black History Month, because it is otherwise not memorialized at the school. Principal Bach rejected some of the poster themes, suggesting that they required additional context and dialogue. For a district that prides itself on “personalized learning”, this was a failure to give the necessary support to a self-initiated activity designed to help educate others — one that would have been especially valuable given that by that point in the school year, Chaska High had already suffered the two blackface incidents and a highly-publicized racial incident at Chaska Middle School East. A few weeks later, an overflow crowd filled the Chaska Event Center — which had been rented out by the parents of the black students who created the posters — to view the exhibit in its entirety. While many teachers and staff members were there, no members of the school- or district-level leadership teams attended this event.

In April, two white Chaska High School students were responsible for the creation and distribution of a fake Google Map that featured the faces of about 25 black students on a location labeled “Negro Hill”. The pictured students were subsequently called down to the office via the loudspeaker, where they were required to listen to a forced apology from the students responsible for the image — thereby further disrupting the students’ learning and not affording them the agency to decide whether they wanted to participate in such a “restorative justice” session. A few days later, one of the pictured students who did a media interview about the incident was subject to retaliation, where an obviously photoshopped social media post was reported as a threat by a parent of one of the students who distributed the “Negro Hill” image. Despite recognizing the threat report as not being valid, members of the Chaska High leadership team reported it to the police anyway, resulting in the student losing an entire day of learning and being needlessly subjected to the stress of being questioned by police investigators.

These are just three examples of how the school’s responses to these incidents – not the incidents themselves – have been less than optimal. Members of ROAR have identified several more such school-level responses that they feel have been similarly handled inappropriately.

Unintended harm is still harm

Much of the discussion surrounding these events by community members has focused on the unintentional nature of them. It is frequently referred to on social media that the boys dressed in blackface at the football game “just went too far” and “there were no racial intentions whatsoever” and “calling it a racial incident implies that it was done with intent”.

We need to dispel those mistaken notions.

When you dress in blackface (and, in one case, wear an Afro wig as well), you are engaging in racist behavior. Whether your intent was malicious or not doesn’t lessen the pain that the perpetuation of that harmful stereotype inflicts.

Similarly, decisions made by the Chaska High School leadership team may not have been made with malicious intent, but still caused harm. The failure to remove the three students dressed in blackface at the football game is to me the clearest example of this, but not the only one. Choosing to deny certain Black History Month poster topics may seem defensible to some people when viewed in isolation, but when placed in a larger context (such as the other racial incidents earlier in the year and leadership’s past support for other potentially divisive student-led initiatives like the pro-gun control protests after the Parkland shootings) one can understand why many would feel that this decision was not a wise and consistent application of a principal’s broad discretion to limit speech within a school setting.

Accountability must be modeled

A lot of the focus following these incidents from school leaders has been directed at making sure students have clear expectations for their behavior and an understanding of what the consequences will be going forward. That’s all well and good, but it only addresses part of the problem at this point.

As detailed above, the decisions made by Chaska High School leadership have opened up a trust gap between it and a significant portion of the students and parents in our community. Moving forward requires the administration to model the behavior it claims to expect of its students.

These issues are difficult, and we all should have the grace and space to make well-intentioned mistakes. But this requires more than the bland “we can always do better” sort of responses that the Chaska High School leadership team have offered so far.

At a minimum, this means a forthright accounting of where the Chaska High School leadership team has missed the mark in its handling of these incidents, an acknowledgement of the pain those actions have caused, an action plan for addressing those gaps next school year and beyond and clear evidence that the plan is being deployed. For a district and a school that has promised proactive communication and transparency on equity issues, this would be one useful step on a long road to where we need to be as a community.

Regardless of who is the principal at Chaska High School, real reform is required

As we finish the school year, the district administration and school board is facing hard decisions about how to move the district through the controversies that have marked the last few months. 

At a personal level, I struggle with the call to replace the Chaska High School leadership. Like many white people in the community, I too have had several good interactions with Jim Bach. I served on the district’s E-8 Facilities Task Force from 2012-2014, when he was still principal at Chaska Middle School East. I found Bach to be open, inclusive, and a strong strategic thinker over my time on the task force. At the time, I was excited that my kids were slated to go to CMSE (and still felt that way when Bach took the job at Chaska High).

But I can’t stop fielding questions from friends, relatives, and work colleagues who see our schools splashed on the news all too frequently for racial incidents.

And I also can’t unhear what other parents and students have told me about their experiences this year – experiences that don’t correspond with what I thought I knew.

In April, I sat at a meeting organized by the school district to discuss equity issues where minutes after district leadership promised transparency on equity issues, two black girls sitting at my table passed around their phones showing us the “Negro Hill” image which had been circulating for days but had not yet been communicated by the district. I was appalled and angry and embarrassed. But what really broke my heart was the reaction of the girls, who — while upset — seemed sadly resigned to this sort of thing as a regular part of life in our schools. They didn’t trust that the leaders at the school would stand up for them because they had been let down before. No one should have to feel that way at Chaska High School or anywhere else.

In recent months, I’ve heard variations of that story from many other parents and students. Some parents have pulled their children out of our district because they fear for them. Others are worn down from fighting this battle for years. And some worry about retaliation if they tell their stories publicly. If you haven’t talked to someone who has had one of these experiences, you should. Watching the April school board meeting is a good start. Once you’ve heard these stories, you can no longer deny the seriousness of this issue.

If no one in the school or in the district office is going to have the back of those two girls who sat at my table, all their black and brown classmates and their families, then it’s up to us — all of us — in the community to do so. For these reasons, I’ve joined with these parents and community members in ROAR to help lift the voices of those who have been ignored for too long and to call for real reform in how our district operates.

The other points on the ROAR petition (measurable accountability, restructured equity leadership & advisory groups, anti-racism policy & protocols, trauma-focused & victim-centered protocols, updated curriculum, more diverse faculty & staff, and monthly updates from the district) have received broad support – even from many of those who have signed the change.org petition. I’m glad they are supportive of measures to improve the equity in our schools, and wish they had been there since December (or even since April), too. The district’s response to the ROAR petition shows that they now understand that these steps are necessary.

No, the school district and Chaska High School leadership are not solely responsible for these incidents happening. (Although, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the early incidents had been handled more effectively.) But it’s not acceptable for minority students to suffer additional damage every time because the staff at our schools don’t know how to respond to these incidents properly. These students should not be further victimized by leaders who are behind on the learning curve.

We must demand better for the sake of the entire community. The trust gap must be closed. It is up to the district to take any and all necessary steps — including personnel changes, if needed — to ensure that the leadership team at Chaska High School is properly equipped to handle such incidents and that they will no longer engage in behaviors that make the problems worse instead of making students feel safe and welcomed.

And it’s up to us — all of us — to hold the district accountable for doing so.

[ROAR logo from the group’s public Facebook page. Edits for clarity on 6/7, 6/9, and 6/12]