Commentary: Minneapolis teachers strike illustrates need for school accountability

School boards must never forget that the mission of schools is to educate children.

Minneapolis teachers and supporters participate in a march earlier this month. (American Federation of Teachers/Twitter)

Minneapolis teachers are on strike. Teachers demand wage increases, smaller classes, and more mental health resources for students. Minneapolis leaders respond that they have no money. Who is right?

Minneapolis Public Schools will spend $30,000 per student — more than $1 million for a classroom full of students. The average Minneapolis teacher’s salary is just over $70,000. If the vast majority of school district spending is not going to the classroom, where does it go?

When school leaders claim that they have no money for teachers’ demands, they are really saying, “We already spent it, just not on teachers and their classrooms.” A big cause of this problem is that no one is holding school leaders accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ money.

This is why we need to embrace a culture of accountability and transparency in government spending. Detailed audits are the first step in shining a light on government largess. This is why I am running for state auditor.

The Office of the State Auditor has wide latitude to audit schools, either on its own accord or in response to requests by the school board or petitions from community members. As state auditor I will put an emphasis on ensuring our education dollars are being spent to educate students. And if my office needs more resources or authority to get the job done, I’ll work with the legislature to ensure I have what is needed to protect our kids’ futures by protecting their education dollars.

Minneapolis Public Schools received more than $260 million in coronavirus aid to keep kids learning, yet it was one of the last districts in Minnesota to open for in-person learning. In Minnesota, schools receive over $15 billion per year from state, local and federal funds, yet in recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, Minnesota ranks 18th in the nation for pre-K-12 education — Wisconsin ranks 8th. I cannot emphasize it enough — we must find out where the money is going.

It’s well past time to shine a spotlight on the spending in districts like Minneapolis, where most students spent the majority of the year in distance learning in 2020-2021. After being one of the last schools to return to in-person learning, these kids and their families can’t afford a prolonged teachers strike. A full audit of Minneapolis Public Schools expenditures would ensure teachers and district administration are on the same page as to where the money was actually spent and that it was spent efficiently.

As a former CEO, I know the value of a dollar and the importance of setting and sticking to a budget. I was aware of the traps associated with scale and the need to remain nimble as we grew so that we could continue to deliver on our mission. School boards must never forget that the mission of schools is to educate children. They must support that mission by investing in classrooms and teachers because it is the teachers who are directly tasked with educating students.

We need to demand our school boards direct more of the funding into the classrooms and to those closest to the students, including teachers and mental health counselors, and an audit is a first step in ensuring this will happen.

Other state auditors have performed such audits and found millions of dollars in waste resulting in hundreds of recommended changes by the auditor.

For example, the Kentucky state auditor conducted an audit of that state’s largest school district, and “identified outdated and inefficient operations that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, a school board that doesn’t provide adequate oversight, an inconsistent contracting process, a toothless internal audit system and serious security and privacy concerns.” These findings resulted in over 200 recommendations by the Kentucky state auditor to their largest school district.

This and other examples are why the Minneapolis school system needs an audit and needs one now. It’s too late to avoid the current strike, but a detailed audit is what is needed to prevent future strikes and keep our schools open. We owe it to our teachers and most of all our students to ensure education dollars are being spent on educating our children. As state auditor, standing up for our students will be a top priority for my office.