Parents taking school concerns to Capitol

/ 19 December 2007 / Parents United

Norman Draper, Star Tribune, December 19, 2007 –

It wasn’t enough for Beverly Petrie and her fellow school activists to help the Stillwater district reap some funding in the Nov. 6 election. After they fought for the levy, they figured there was more to be done. So, they decided to set their sights on lobbying the Legislature on behalf of the district this winter.

“One of the things we heard a lot during the [levy] campaign is people believe it’s the state’s responsibility to pay for public schools,” Petrie said. “So, hearing that so often during the campaign, it’s hard for us to let it all collapse at this point.”

Thus began Stillwater schools’ legislative action committee, still without an official name or agenda.

Around the Twin Cities, parents are banding together to take the cause of their school districts to the Capitol. Often, they’re trying to help secure more funding. With the beginning of the legislative session about two months away, such groups are now holding their first meetings and formulating legislative platforms.

As the session opens, their job will be to meet with legislators and call them, network with other parents about school issues, and testify at legislative education committee hearings.

Organizers say they are nonpartisan and often like to sprinkle their membership with parents who have opposing views. Many groups are relatively new, though some, such as the one in the Hopkins district, have been around for years.

Often, such volunteer efforts are anchored by a core of fewer than a dozen parents. But they can be linked by e-mail to hundreds of others who want to be kept in the loop and who could be called to action when the situation warrants.

“Hopkins has been at this for a while,” said Mary Cecconi , executive director of the statewide Parents United for Public Schools . “Other districts that have been equally successful are much less organized. They might have four or five people involved, but they might have databases of anywhere from 600 to 6,000 people.”

Such parent activism has been on the rise in most districts over the past several years, Cecconi said.

“It started in a more organized fashion five to seven years ago,” said Cecconi, who cut her teeth running a Stillwater levy campaign in 1994, then ran for school board. “Prior to the mid-’90s you didn’t find many districts with organized lobbying groups.”

‘Part of the fabric’

Districts such as Anoka-Hennepin, South St. Paul, and Lakeville are among the Twin Cities districts with active parent legislative organizations, she said. Sometimes, such organizations produce legislators.

Rep. Denise Dittrich , DFL-Champlin, started out with a then-new Anoka-Hennepin legislative action group in the mid-’90s. Now, she said, the Anoka-Hennepin parent lobbyists have become “part of the fabric of our education community.”

The Hopkins parents group, called the Hopkins Legislative Action Coalition, has a five-person executive committee, a business task force, a steering committee, a two-person liaison team, and 400 members representing nine schools. Members of the steering committee are each assigned to bird-dog a legislator who represents the district. Members call it a “legislative buddy system.”

“Our job is kind of twofold,” said Ward Eames , a district parent who serves as a co-chairman of the coalition. “One is to make sure the legislators know what’s going on in the schools, both good and bad. … The second is to advocate for legislation that we think will benefit public schools in general and Hopkins specifically.”

Goals for the Hopkins group are tentative now, Eames said, and are subject to board of education approval. Still, the lobbyist-parents will likely push for change in the way schools are funded and strive to eliminate such federal requirements as the No Child Left Behind school performance standards.

Motivated by failure

A failed levy campaign can galvanize parents to political activism. In Robbinsdale schools, where a proposed 10-year levy of $23 million a year was shot down by voters, and the district is considering $5 million in budget cuts, as many as 400 parents have signed up for information about joining the district’s Legislative Action Coalition, said Andrea Wiley, a Robbinsdale district parent is now being paid to work 10 hours a week as the coalition’s coordinator.

“There’s lots of anger and lots of parent involvement to tap into,” Wiley said. “We’re getting more and more people involved because of the failed referendum. There are lots of angry parents because of all the cuts being made.”

Not all districts have such organizations. Mounds View doesn’t. Neither does Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan.

Minneapolis schools have plenty of active parents, said district lobbyist Jim Grathwol , but there is no organized legislative action group. In part, he said, that’s because the legislative delegation representing Minneapolis schools is in accord with the district.

“The Minneapolis delegation has an impeccable voting record on education and everyone knows that,” Grathwol said.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547