In the midst of a Republican Party victory — from the Trump presidency and control of both the U.S. House and Senate all the way down to the Minnesota House and Senate — one elected office in the Twin Cities remained a DFL stronghold: that of the Minneapolis and St. Paul school boards.
In those races, all winners had the endorsement of the DFL Party. Jeannie Foster won a seat on the St. Paul school board with nearly 38 percent of the vote. She’ll be joining a DFL-backed slate of newcomers who joined the board last year. In Minneapolis, where two incumbents and one newcomer ran without the party endorsement, the victory margins were a lot tighter — down to 201 votes in the case of KerryJo Felder’s victory over Kimberly Caprini for District 2 representing north Minneapolis. (Doug Mann ran for the at large seat on the Green Party ticket, but lost to incumbent Kim Ellison with less than 20 percent of the vote.)
These weren’t races that pitted a Republican education agenda against a Democratic agenda, as this contentious election season may lead voters to believe. The vast majority of the candidates were DFLers, whether they were endorsed or not.
So what, exactly, does the DFL endorsement signify in a one-party town? That depends, in part, on whom you ask. But it’s worth taking a step back from all of the campaign rhetoric to better understand what it means at the school board level. It’s a relatively brief lull, after all, from now until the endorsement process for the next cohort of school board candidates begins in the spring. Next fall, in the midst of a mayoral election, St. Paul voters will also be filling three school board seats.
Why is there no party affiliation next to school board candidates on the ballot?
According to state statute, school district offices are “nonpartisan and therefore don’t reflect a party on the ballot.” However, in practice, the St. Paul City DFL and the Minneapolis DFL have a long history of endorsing school board candidates. Given their canvassing power, it’s likely most voters have a sense of which candidate in their district has the DFL endorsement before they enter the voting booth.
In effect, the party endorsement politicizes something that was intended to remain neutral. Back when the state was formed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that providing an equitable education for all students was a nonpartisan goal. “The whole spirit behind setting this up in the state constitution as a nonpartisan position is that it doesn’t matter what party you’re for — if you’re thinking about the future of the state, you want your kids to be well educated,” Greg Abbott, spokesperson for the Minnesota School Boards Association said. “I do think they [school board elections] should stay nonpartisan. It’s a shame that they have become party-endorsed.”
As far as he’s aware, it’s rare to find political parties endorsing school board candidates outside of the Twin Cities. “I think you vote for a school board candidate because you think they’re going to do the best job in helping students achieve. You don’t vote for them because they’re Democrat or Republican or whatever party affiliation they are,” Abbott said. “I’d still like to think that, because 330 out of the 332 school districts still have nonpartisan races.”
So what, exactly, does the DFL endorsement stand for, when it comes to education?
The DFL Party endorsement of school board candidates creates a false dichotomy. Given the divisive nature of party lines, especially during this year’s presidential election, a prospective voter might assume those who don’t have the DFL endorsement are, by default, Republican. But that’s simply not the case. Incumbent Minneapolis School Board Member Josh Reimnitz, who lost his bid for re-election this year, can attest to the confusion this creates for voters.
“One guy said he wasn’t voting for me because he didn’t want any Republicans on the board,” Reimnitz said, noting he’d often have to explain to people that he had also sought the DFL endorsement but didn’t get it — and it has nothing to do with liberal values.
There’s a deep division within the education sector that pits education reformers against union folks. The narrative paints reformers as a threat to public education who are trying to corporatize the education sector. In the same vein, union backers are cast as defenders of the status quo, unwilling to compromise adult interests to improve student achievement in districts with some of the most glaring achievement gaps. It’s worth noting that the teachers union endorsement often goes hand in hand with the DFL Party endorsement, and board members negotiate teacher contracts.
Of course, it’s hardly that simple.
Libby Kantner, chair of the St. Paul DFL Party, says the point of endorsing school board candidates is twofold.
“The caucus and the board convention really give neighbors a chance to come together and hear directly from the candidates,” she said. “Not only does it make sure that people are heard, but it actually improves the candidates because they’re able to hear what the frontline issues are and really refine their ideas and policies.”
Dan McConnell, chair of the Minneapolis DFL Party, acknowledged the division within the DFL Party when it comes to education. But, ultimately, he says, delegates decide whom to endorse. “The people that show up, they endorse a candidate that most closely reflects the values that they believe in,” he said.
Having benefited from the power of the DFL endorsement when she successfully ran to serve on the Minneapolis school board in 2006, Pam Costain has since become openly critical of the endorsement process and what it stands for. During her tenure, she says, the board was very reform-oriented. They supported things like closing schools with low enrollment that were a drain on district resources, allowing partnerships with charter schools, and prioritizing teacher evaluations over seniority in making hiring and firing decisions. By the end of her four-year term, she says, union folks were pining to “get a more complacent board back.”
“The way we now elect school board members, it privileges adults over kids,” Costain said. “When there is a conflict between what kids need and adults need, adults win in this system, because that’s who’s sitting on the boards that negotiate the contracts.”
How accessible is the endorsement process?
Reimnitz contends that anyone who wants to have a real say in whose names get on the DFL ticket needs to tune in long before campaign efforts amp up in the fall. Because the endorsement is considered so essential, many candidates drop out of the race after the DFL city convention. In general, he says, only candidates who are willing to run against their own party because they feel strongly about the issues — and who have the resources to run a competitive campaign — stick with it.
“It’s almost like that [the convention] is the election. It happens in April, rather than the one that actually happens in November — the one that people actually run for — because it comes with so much power, or at least perceived power,” he said.
But if he and Tracine Asberry — the other incumbent Minneapolis board member who unsuccessfully ran without the endorsement — would have dropped out in April, the school board election likely would have received even less attention than it did during this year’s presidential election. “I think that the endorsing process does a disservice to overall civic dialogue, especially in nonpartisan races,” he said.
Costain fears the endorsement process, itself, is deterring high-quality candidates from even throwing their hat in the ring. In her experience, no more than 800 people show up at the Minneapolis DFL convention. It’s an extremely long day, filled with delays while people argue over arcane rules and make lots of “backroom deals” with their votes, she said.
“It’s a war of attrition, oftentimes,” she said. “People who are party people, they just know this process. They know how to do it. They get there with their book and lunch and they just sit here. Whereas for younger people who might be interested, or second language (learners) … it may be hard to hold their people there.”
Given the cumbersome nature of the endorsement process, the St. Paul DFL Party is taking steps to figure out how to make it more accessible to a more diverse body of participants. In response to an online survey the party issued this year, the party has already committed to making a few key changes for the next round of caucuses and conventions: All endorsement events will be held on the weekend instead of a weeknight; caucuses and ward conventions will be held at the same event; and caucuses will be on staggered days to maximize the number of trained volunteers and interpreters available.
“It’s built to serve a small amount of people and be long and arduous, and it helps people who understand the rules and how to manipulate the rules,” Kantner said of the current endorsement process, noting the typical crowd it draws is predominantly older and white. “We’re trying to do everything we can, incrementally, to make the process more inclusive.”
For those who manage to endure, many newcomers are caught off guard by the hostility they encounter at the convention. Both Reimnitz and Asberry reported that they were booed and hissed at when they went on stage at the convention. It’s a clear sign of just how divisive the education sector has become in recent years.
Asked about the tone of the convention this year, McConnell said, “Sometimes people do or say things to elicit a response, either positive or negative. We can’t control what everybody says and what everybody does and how everybody reacts. But we certainly encourage everyone to be respectful and to treat people the way they would like to be treated.”
In St. Paul, the DFL Party is taking some concrete steps to address this. “We hear people are feeling intimidated or scared,” Kantner said.
In response, they are looking at having people serve as “endorsement ambassadors” at the convention next year. “Their role is to answer questions and be a smiling face and really break down that insider feeling a lot of conventions have,” she said.
How powerful is the DFL endorsement?
Given the narrow victory margins in the Minneapolis school board race this year, Asberry’s supporters interpreted it as a sign that the DFL endorsement may be losing some of its influence. Likewise, Reimnitz feels things may be reaching a tipping point.
“Even with the DFL endorsement, there’s still these really hot races around education, specifically. And all the power and resources that come with that were still counterbalanced by other messages,” he said.
Those in favor of the DFL endorsement have a different interpretation of how things panned out this year. “I think it’s pretty hard to unseat an incumbent,” McConnell said. “Given the endorsement, I think is definitely very valuable in that it allowed the candidates to access the infrastructure and supports that we give them and allows them to compete and ultimately prevail.”
The infrastructures and supports provided through the DFL Party include things like door knocking, phone banking, hosting events and sending out literature on behalf of the DFL-endorsed school board candidates. When the party doesn’t have enough volunteers on hand, they pay people to do this campaign work. Since the DFL Party is a well-oiled machine, endorsed candidates also benefit from having access to a coordinated campaign and a comprehensive voter database.
Perhaps the most significant advantage of having the DFL endorsement, however, comes down to one piece of paper: the sample ballot. “That is the lynchpin of why people win, especially if you look at this year. There was no interest in the school board race. So what really matters is if your name is on that sample ballot,” Costain said, adding most people default to that recommendation when they’re scrambling to figure out whom to vote for in a race that’s been drowned out by the presidential race.
Then there’s the financial support. When it comes to tracking how much money each candidate spent on the campaign trail, however, there are some significant limitations to the campaign finance reports. With the DFL-backed candidates, there are resources these candidates benefit from that never get disclosed.
“Whether those are mailers sent out on their behalf, volunteer support, access to information — all these things aren’t widely understood,” Reimnitz said. “So we don’t actually know how much was spent on their campaigns.”
Are there any alternatives to the current system?
School board elections in Minnesota didn’t always happen in November. Decades ago, these elections took place in the spring. It’s a bygone era that Abbott looks upon favorably. “The big fear of moving nonpartisan races to November was that they, too, would become politicized. Because once upon a time, they weren’t,” he said.
He suspects the change happened for logistical reasons — to ease the burden on county auditors who were, at the time, running separate township elections, school board elections and general elections.
The recent shift away from odd-year school board elections is another change he considers a drawback. Prior to 2005, about half of all school board elections were odd-year elections. “One thing’s for sure — your voter turnout it going to be lower,” he said. “But the other thing was that you didn’t have any undervotes [ballots cast without a vote for school board] that you had in even-year elections. People kind of knew who’s running and what they stood for a lot better than in an even-year election.”
When the Help America Vote Act came along in 2002, the odd-year districts were burdened with additional expenses, like paying for optical scan equipment and holding a public trial run at the ballots. Today, only about 45 districts continue holding odd-year elections, Abbott said.
In terms of countering the dysfunction of the DFL endorsement process, Costain proposes moving toward something like a citizen’s advisory committee that could help vet candidates. “Maybe they could interview candidates and take it out of the polarized battle,” she said. “They used to have some sort of committee in the early ’70s that really got invested in school board races. I think, if that happened, you’d have more debate among the candidates because you don’t decide it early and it’s all over.”
If more people thought they stood a legitimate shot at serving on the school board, without needing droves of financial resources to front a competitive campaign, she suspects voters could have the opportunity to elect a board with a more diverse skill set in areas like finance and human resources.
“There’s no sense of the need for those skills on the school board,” she said of the current system. “I think we need to talk about governance, quality candidates and how does the public have the opportunity to get to know these people and make their own decisions?”