Critics of Anoka-Hennepin policy divided over tax voteby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A vote next month in the Anoka-Hennepin school district presents a problem for some critics of the district.
People there have been divided over how the district addresses bullying and harassment, especially involving students who are gay and lesbian.
Now, some of the harshest critics find themselves standing with the district on one matter — the need to pass a tax levy for schools.
Robin Mavis founded a group called the Anoka-Hennepin Gay Equity Team two years ago because she felt the district wasn't inclusive enough of gay students and its school board wasn't transparent.
That has put her regularly at odds with the district. But when she goes to the polls on November eighth, she'll support the district's effort to renew a property tax levy. For Mavis, it's a separate issue that ties back to LGBT matters.
"If the levy does not pass, our district will be severely short of funds, which will then result in reduction of teachers," Mavis said. "And that in turn will reduce safety in schools."
Even so, Mavis said she's spoken with several people who are frustrated with the district and are still wrestling with whether to support the levy.
They're upset that the district policy still requires teachers to remain neutral if the subject of sexual orientation comes up in class. That policy is the subject of two federal lawsuits.
Critics say it creates a hostile environment for LGBT students. The district counters the policy only applies to curriculum and not bullying and harassment.
The conflict is over whether to send the district a message by voting no to the levy.
Mavis hates the neutrality policy, but she's not ready to put $48 million in annual property taxes at risk. That's how much the levy brings in, and will lose if the vote to extend that tax fails next month. The district has presented a scenario to fill that shortfall: increased class sizes, cuts of more than 700 staffers, 20 percent cut of teaching staff, and closing five schools.
The ballot will pose three tax questions in Anoka-Hennepin. The first question will ask voters to renew approval of the existing property tax. Two additional questions seek extra funds that would raise property taxes.
Superintendent Dennis Carlson agrees that a failed levy would make things worse.
"If they think our schools and our hallways and buses and all that is going to be safer with 700 less staff, they'd be mistaken," he said.
Jefferson Fietek is one teacher who's sure he'd lose his job if the levy fails is. He teaches theater at Anoka Middle School for the Arts in Anoka and is a frequent critic of the district on all things LGBT. He's also one of a very small number of teachers who has gone public with criticisms.
Fietek said he's voting to extend the levy, but not because his job is on the line.
"Whether the levy gets passed or not, every member of that school board — they're going to get paid," Fietek said. "The ones who are going to get punished is the kids. And that's the last thing in the world that I would want."
Feitek says he's heard from people who are conflicted. But Melissa Thompson of Coon Rapids has made up her mind.
"I'm a no vote," Thompson said.
She has four children: two of whom are Anoka-Hennepin alums and two who are still in the district. She says she's lost friends because of her critical opinion of the neutrality policy, Thompson believes a prolonged fight will only tear the community further apart.
"The district is wasting money and time, and tax dollars to dig in and fight against a policy that clearly is divisive and, in my opinion, discriminatory," Thompson said.
Thompson calls hers a symbolic vote. She fully expects the levy to pass. Groups such as the Gay Equity Team have been critical of the district, but are supporting the levy.
Also, Thompson is unaware of any group staging an organized and widespread opposition.
- Morning Edition, 10/07/2011, 7:20 a.m.