Ear Service

Editorial by Jeremy Stratton

The Minneapolis School Board’s decision to close Tuttle Middle School and merge its K–5 program with Pratt School shook the foundations of both the Como and Prospect Park neighborhoods. It was a decision that warranted more than three weeks of consideration, and the residents affected deserved more than the brief episodes of public hearing they were given.

Several times during the three weeks between the March 20 announcement and the April 12 vote, School Board members and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) staff apologized to the community for the way the process was handled. “We understand … why people at Tuttle might have felt blindsided by the lateness of this information,” School Board Chair Pam Costain told the crowd that gathered at Tuttle on March 28 to make a collective plea to save their school. “I can assure you that we are listening,” she said.

But the April 12 vote — at which only one director voted no — seems to show that the decision to close Tuttle was a fait accompli, and that the public hearing was little more than an inverted form of lip service.

Tuttle supporters brought not only emotional pleas and success stories to the March 28 public hearing, but also some concrete ideas about how to remedy the situation. Several asked that the School Board and MPS at the very least take more time to consider the options and logistics of the monumental decision.

School officials left Tuttle’s questions unanswered — as well as some they should have asked themselves. School officials have been unable to say how much money the merger will save, or how much money it will cost.

Nor have they made it clear how the smaller Pratt building will accommodate the tripling of its enrollment. On March 28, MPS Chief Operating Officer Steve Liss told the Tuttle community that Pratt would need only “an insignificant investment” to handle the merger. Soon after the decision, however, there was talk of renovating an entire floor at Pratt, with a cost unknown but large enough to warrant funding from a public/private partnership.

It’s not the conversation itself — or even the decision — that is most troubling. With rapidly declining enrollment and the related budget shortfalls, there is no denying that difficult decisions need to be made, and members of both communities rose to the challenge, even on three weeks’ notice.

The trouble is that it’s a conversation we should still be having. These are questions that should have been answered — or at least given more consideration — before the decision was made.

While it is not the rule, the Tuttle/Pratt process is a model that has become too common in a city that has formally taken up the task of “community engagement.” With other even larger decisions looming on the horizon — like the future of NRP and the updating of the city’s Comprehensive Plan — it should serve as a lesson to residents and city officials alike.

The message is simple: If you don’t want to hear what people have to say, don’t ask them.

But do ask them, early and often. Ask and listen, and let them know, somehow, that you’ve heard what they said.