While it may take some time for the three new Minneapolis Public Schools board members — Bob Walser, Ira Jourdain and KerryJo Felder — to get acclimated to their roles, they seemed empowered to take an active role right out of the gate.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, they asserted their values and priorities after being sworn in by Hennepin County District Court Judge Pamela Alexander, posed questions during their first official board meeting and vied for board leadership positions.
“We really have never had this amount of interest,” Jenny Arneson, the former board chair, prefaced before the board voted on a new chair, vice chair, treasurer and clerk. “At the board retreat, we had a lot of interest.”
Rebecca Gagnon beat out Nelson Inz to serve as the new board chair, and Kim Ellison beat out Jourdain to retain her position as vice chair. Arneson became the new treasurer and Walser became the new clerk — both nominations went uncontested.
Despite the jockeying for titles, Inz gracefully accepted his defeat to Gagnon and offered some refreshing reflections and perspective on board governance. He began by thanking former board chair Arneson for her leadership during “a very difficult couple of years.” Her first day as board chair, Inz recalled, coincided with former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s resignation.
“Now we have a superintendent sitting in front of us. We have a renewed referendum as well. I think you deserve a bit more appreciation. So thank you for serving two years at great personal sacrifice, and energy and political capital,” he said.
Then he used his defeat to make a point. “You have to be a good loser on the school board,” he said. “If you’re not able to do that … the ones who lose are the students and the families. This is a responsibility to other people. I think we’re in a good place, now, to move forward.”
As summarized by Arneson, at the board retreat held this past Saturday, the board members and superintendent spent the majority of their time talking about tools for governance and setting priorities for the board, including a focus on increased academic outcomes, partnerships — with families, students and communities — and stewardship.
As far as Walser can tell, things seem to be moving in a positive direction, at least for now.
“I’m so pleased with the way the team’s coming together, and the civility … in the context of a contested election,” he said. “I think we’ll have a lot of fun together and be really functional.”
This first bit of insight into the priorities and dynamics of the new board — which also includes a new student representative, Gabriel Spinks — holds promise. But this new mix still has to prove it’s capable of staying focused on students rather than adult politics. For many, that means holding true to many of the leadership qualities that the three outgoing board members — Tracine Asberry, Josh Reimnitz and Carla Bates — brought to the table.
Bates did not attend yesterday’s board meeting, but her colleagues still took a moment to recognize the contributions of the veteran board member who decided not to run for re-election.
“She’s a very strong advocate for all students, especially students of color, children with disabilities. She’s very humble, knowledgeable, brave and always advocates for students of color,” Siad Ali said, noting he’ll miss her as a friend, a mentor, and the “sister who always sits next to me” that he could turn to when he had questions. “Trust me, she will continue to advocate for children of Minneapolis Public Schools. I want to tell her publicly, here, that we love her.”
Bates could not be reached for comment, nor did she provide outgoing board chair Jenny Arneson with any information on her absence.
Reimnitz — who ran for re-election but lost to Walser — received a lot of recognition for the positive energy he brought to his work on the board, his approachability and willingness to dig into the nitty gritty details of board governance, as exemplified by his work on a rewrite of the board policy manual that the new board will review and finalize.
The board’s inaugural student representative, Noah Branch, stepped up to the podium to say thanks to Reimnitz. “Your consistent outreach and willingness to partner with student has really touched me,” he said. “I appreciate that. I think it’s something a lot of board members should get behind.”
Board Member Don Samuels credited Reimnitz for being “part of my inspiration to run for office” and listed a long list of traits he admires in Reimnitz, including his energy, sincerity, approachability and humility.
Reimnitz’s work on policy manual saluted
Samuels commended his work on the board policy manual, which seeks to clarify the roles of board members in the interest of allowing district staff and administration to do their work without being micromanaged.
“In reworking the manual, instead of focusing on the prerogatives of the board, you’re focused on the proper functioning of the board,” Samuels said, commending his ability to sidestep his “own special interests in the interests of others.”
In his concluding remarks, Reimnitz vowed to stay engaged in whatever way possible. “While I do wish I could be part of it, I’m happy to support from the outside. We need a vision. We need to clearly and deeply understand our roles as board members,” he said, adding it should be to the point of specificity where every board member could write out the same definition of their role.
In his last official capacity as a board member, Reimnitz recognized outgoing student representative Shaadia Munye for her leadership in never being too proud to ask a question or use her voice to advocate for students.
Praise for Asberry
In her final remarks, Munye thanked outgoing Board Member Asberry — who ran for re-election and lost to Jourdain by a slim margin — for being her greatest source of support and empowerment.
“Thank you, Tracine, for being Minneapolis Public Schools students’ keeper. Thank you for teaching me to be more bold,” she said. “Thank you for being my board mom and making sure I was always taken care of. Most importantly, thank you for giving me a mentor I aspire to be like someday.”
Her remarks echoed the thanks and praise two other students gave to Asberry during the public comments segment. They, too, had developed a strong appreciation for Asberry’s persistence in questioning everything through an equity lense and bringing a sense of urgency to each board meeting.
Taking to the podium for her final remarks as a board member, Asberry turned her back to the board so she could face the audience and told her supporters, “‘I’m excited to be released, to have no boundaries.” She then took the opportunity to stress the urgency of the unfinished work before the board one last time.
“I am out of the classroom in Minneapolis. I’m off of the board as of tonight. But I am always in the community, always committed to Minneapolis Public Schools. We are not finished,” she said. “Emancipation through education has always been the birthright of black people. These inequities are not a part of who we are. But they have consistently been placed on us. They are not our legacy.”