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How much influence do Twin Cities mayors have on education?

Many still expect the mayor to be a champion of equity and excellence in education. The mayor is, after all, the city’s most public-facing official, equipped with a tremendous amount of social capital.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has made enhancing early childhood education a priority during her tenure.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Mayoral candidates seeking the lead offices in both Minneapolis and St. Paul have spent months touting their qualifications and stances on everything from police reform to job creation. Often these are issues the mayor has some level of direct authority over. Many of the issues facing a city are, however, inextricably linked to a sector the mayor doesn’t hold any formal decision-making authority over: public education.

It’s a division of power that’s not always obvious to voters. While they elect school board members to govern the second- and third-largest districts in the state, many still expect the mayor to be a champion of equity and excellence in education. The mayor is, after all, the city’s most public-facing official, equipped with a tremendous amount of social capital.

In the upcoming weeks, candidates in both cities have been invited to participate in a forum focused on how they intend to wield their so-called soft power to improve outcomes for the state’s youngest citizens. In Minneapolis, a number of education nonprofits and foundations are sponsoring a forum on Sept. 28 at Minneapolis’ North Community High School to assess each candidate’s stance on things like the role of police officers in schools and how they plan to leverage their power to advance equity in education. In St. Paul, a number of nonprofits are hosting a youth-led forum on Oct. 5 at the Mt. Airy Boys & Girls Club to answer questions and share their visions for youth success.

Heading into these events, here’s a look at why it matters what a mayoral hopeful has to say about local education issues. 

Filling in the gaps

To be clear, Twin Cities mayors — as is the case in most communities — have no formal authority over schools. They end up interacting with school boards and superintendents to various degrees. But many end up focusing the bulk of their education efforts on how they can support youth through supplemental education initiatives that operate outside of the school day. Often this means finding a way to bolster preK, afterschool learning opportunities and college and career readiness.

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Through her “Cradle to K” initiative, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has made enhancing early childhood education a priority during her tenure. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman played an integral role in establishing the Right Track program, a program that connects St. Paul youth to paid summer internships. And after serving as mayor of Minneapolis,  R.T. Rybak went on to lead Generation Next, an organization dedicated to closing the achievement gap.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman

In addition to filing in these programmatic gaps in the education landscape, Twin Cities mayors have tried to work directly with school district leadership to foster greater collaboration with other public entities.

It’s something Michelle Walker has observed from multiple angles. As the executive director of Generation Next, she invites mayors from both cities to convene with other local education players focused on closing the achievement gaps. Their participation, as leaders in the community, is valuable, she says.

“Part of the reason why the mayor’s leadership is important is because, in some instances, they run other the children-serving agencies, along with counties, that come into play in children’s lives,” she said.

As the former CEO of St. Paul Public Schools, she says the education leadership team that Coleman established — which brought her, along with former superintendent Valeria Silva and a number of other key players in the schools, police department, parks department, nonprofits and libraries together — was instrumental in moving many education initiatives forward.

“What that created was a focus for all these child-serving agencies and entities to get together and think about how we solve problems,” Walker said, adding the district was interacting with many of these partners already, but more piecemeal. “It meant something to know that the leaders were all coming to this one table and the mayor’s indirect leadership of some of those efforts was key.”

A number of successful initiatives came out of these cross-sector leadership meetings, including the establishment of the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. Sprockets, a network of after-school and summer programs for St. Paul youth that’s become Coleman’s signature education effort, also resulted from the gatherings.

Having district leadership involved in these conversations was also key to Sprockets’ success, says Ann Mulholland, vice president of community impact at the Saint Paul Foundation who worked as a deputy mayor under Coleman his first five years in office. “It didn’t touch directly on schools, but it required a lot of cooperation and data sharing with schools,” she said.

Lending credibility

While mayors have demonstrated how they can leverage their position to bring people together around common goals, some issues are more complicated. Large urban districts are often breeding grounds for controversy and tension. This is where mayors have another unique opportunity to step in — whether it be to lend credibility to district leadership or to take a stand on an issue.

During Coleman’s tenure as mayor, the St. Paul Public Schools district went through a rocky leadership transition. His decision to speak out publicly in support of former superintendent Silva when she toyed with the idea of taking a job offer in Florida didn’t go over well with all of his supporters, says Mulholland. But the move was in line with his commitment to standing behind what he felt was best for the district.

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“I think it was unique that he stood up and engaged others. I think it was bold. Many of his allies disagreed with him and many supported him,” she said, noting he believed in Silva and in supporting stability in the district. “Bold leadership is very important and needs to be supported, even when it’s not politically advantageous.”

R.T. Rybak
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
R.T. Rybak

Coleman took a risk that ended up not panning out. When a new school board majority was elected shortly thereafter, they quickly ousted Silva. A mayor’s ability to handle disagreement with school leadership, then, is often just as important.

In a bout of leadership turmoil in the Minneapolis district, Rybak says he didn’t get involved soon enough at the start of his tenure when it had become obvious to many — himself included — that the then-superintendent was failing.

“Because the charter gave me no authority, I only talked around the edges of it with people in confidentiality. I should have become much more visible, much more quickly, and helped resolve that issues as a political leader with a visible platform can do,” he said.

After that, he made a more concerted effort to stay involved in education affairs. He stood by Bernadeia Johnson’s controversial decision to fresh start Washburn High, for example, by going out into the community and drumming up support.

“One of my regrets is that I didn’t … work directly with the schools earlier,” Rybak said. “You’re the most visible citywide elected leader, and education is the single biggest issue in the city. I don’t care what the charter says. You’re supposed to lead, and education is a place where you can play a huge role.”

Stepping into that role also includes raising public awareness of and involvement in school board elections, he says. That may mean aggressively endorsing certain candidates, or simply shining a light on issues that are hampered by those who would prefer to uphold the status quo.

Leveraging resources

Pam Costain, a former Minneapolis school board member who served while Rybak was in office and went on to lead AchieveMpls, a college and career readiness program serving Minneapolis youth, says she would have liked to see Rybak forge stronger relationships with district leadership earlier as well.

“I think the mayor and the superintendent should have a close and cooperative relationship, a very communicative relationship,” she said. “They mayor should be really well informed about school board issues, even if they can’t do anything directly.”

Pam Costain
Pam Costain

But there are a number of ways a mayor can exercise influence over schools in a more indirect fashion. For instance, there’s a pressing need to diversify the workforce in the district, says Costain, adding that Hodges has made a point of focusing on advancing equity and workforce diversity at a city-level. “I could see a way for the mayor’s office to get more involved with that in the schools, but as part of a broader agenda of diversifying the workforce,” she said.

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Laura Bloomberg, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says that, in some ways, mayors have a better vantage point from which to steer the local education conversation. Removed from the governance of schools, they can step back and ask: “What is our vision for our youngest citizens?”

This sort of question “in some ways forces us to have a broader, more sophisticated conversation about what we want for our schools because they’re not in the weeds over specific bond issues, or curriculum or classroom sizes,” she said.

In the case of Hodges, Bloomberg contends the mayor’s public campaign to raise awareness around the importance of exposing even infants to a large vocabulary — which can put them at an advantage once they start school — successfully generated a lot of public interest around the issue.  

On a more pragmatic level, Bloomberg points out that mayors have a fair amount of power when it comes to things like making it easier, or more difficult, for charter schools to locate building facilities for their students. And having a mayor who’s in support of a district referendum  — and well aware of the rationale behind it —can make a big difference in school funding outcomes.

Reflecting on her experience as a district administrator and principal, she offered one more observation of a lever the mayor has control over: The city employs a lot of people — more specifically, people of color — who could benefit from more family-friendly policies that would allow them the flexibility to attend all parent-teacher conferences.

“Parents of color interact with school in negative ways more than other parents do. That doesn’t mean their kids act out more,” she said, noting this is more a product of inequities in school discipline practices. “What if we said we want to create more conditions where you can be there on positive terms?”

Jim Scheibel, a former St. Paul mayor who now teaches at Hamline University, says “there’s a long history in the Twin Cities of mayors being very interested in young people and education and schools.” Even when things get tense and people start punting the notion of moving to a new governance model where the mayor would run the schools, he says, the leaders involved are able to maintain a certain level of respect.

This semester, he’s teaching a class that’s focusing on the mayoral race. Each candidate is invited to be a guest speaker. As his students vet each candidate, he says, the issue of supporting strong schools is sure to come up. And that doesn’t just mean district schools.

“The private schools, the parochial schools, the charter schools are an important part of that picture today,” he said. “As mayor, I think they can reach across those lines to support initiatives, support teachers, and just do what they can to ensure good education for the students in the two cities.”