As part of the Aug. 14 primary election, voters in six public school districts across the state will be asked to help narrow down the candidate pool for open school board seats.
Since school-related voting matters are typically reserved for the November election, it’s a section on the ballot that’s sure to catch many by surprise.
First off, only a handful of school districts in Minnesota even opt to participate in the primary system. It’s a decision made by each district’s school board. On even election years, eight districts have opted to participate in the primary system. Odd election years bring that total up to just 14 districts, statewide.
In order for any of these districts to end up on the primary ballot, three or more candidates must file to run for the same open seat. That’s because only two candidates may advance to the general election, per seat.
This year, only six districts attracted enough candidates to wind up on the primary ballot: Minneapolis Public Schools, Columbia Heights Public Schools, the Red Lake School District, Rochester Public Schools, the St. Cloud Area School District and Winona Area Public Schools. Some of these district will end up running a primary election to eliminate a single candidate.
This tends to be a common scenario for primary school board elections. For instance, this year Minneapolis voters can select up to two of the five candidates running for two open at-large seats. The four candidates who pull in the most votes will advance to the general election.
Likewise, in Columbia Heights, six of the seven candidates vying for three open seats will advance. In Rochester, voters in two of the district precincts will be eliminating one of three candidates hoping to represent them on the school board.
In Winona, voters in District 1 will be eliminating one of three candidates. But the two open at-large seats attracted a larger candidate pool. Only four of these seven candidates will advance to the general election.
Given the low voter turnout for school board elections, coupled with the expense of holding a primary election, Greg Abbott, director of communications for the Minnesota School Boards Association, says that unless a district consistently has a large number of candidates, it doesn’t really make sense to participate in the primary system.
“Not only are most of them eliminating one person, but you’re spending money on this with a really low turnout,” he said. “So a lot of districts have just avoided being part of the primary system, unless you consistently get double the amount of people running for each spot.”
Competitive races in St. Cloud, Red Lake
Two districts holding a primary election on Tuesday have more competitive races: In St. Cloud, nine candidates are running for three open seats; in Red Lake, 11 candidates are running for four open seats.
In both cases, three candidates will be eliminated in the primary.
The candidate pool in St. Cloud hasn’t been nearly as large in recent years, says Jerry Von Korff, a veteran board member who’s decided not to run for re-election. But since there are no incumbents in the mix this time around, the race attracted a larger pool of candidates.
“I think the reason that we had more people this time was simply that people knew they had a chance,” Von Korff said. “They are saying, ‘The incumbents aren’t running, so I’m gonna take a flier at it.’ ”
All three incumbents announced their intentions to retire from the school board early on, he adds, so that candidates had time to consider putting their name on the ballot. Von Korff says he hasn’t told anyone that they should run, but said he has made a few phone calls to notify people that there are three wide-open seats on the ballot this year.
Looking at the candidate pool, he says the race has drawn out a strong batch of candidates — including a number of people with prior experience in government service. That list includes two former school board members and two former state legislators.
Back in 2003, when Von Korff first got elected to serve on his district’s school board, the primary system for school districts was an entirely new concept. Prior to his first bid for a seat, he says the school board was “becoming increasingly unpopular.”
Discontented, more and more people began to run for school board — like 15 to 18 per election — but the incumbents would be re-elected with just a small fraction of the vote, he recalled. Seeking to give new candidates who didn’t have as much name recognition a better shot at succeeding, two local state legislators — a Republican and a Democrat — introduced and passed a bill that required all school districts to participate in the primary system.
Eventually, that law got scaled back. Participation in the primary system became a local school board decision. It’s a change that Von Korff considers a step backward.
“Without a primary, incumbents have tremendous advantage. The more people who run against you, the better,” he said. “That’s probably why there are so few primaries. It serves as a disincentive for new people to run for school board.”
Farther north, in Red Lake, Willie Larson, the district’s business manager of nearly 15 years, says the size of this year’s candidate pool — 11 candidates running for four open seats — is pretty typical. This year, all 11 candidates are residents of the Red Lake Nation, Larson adds.
“I think we’ve had as many as 16 candidates, in my time,” Larson said. “I think there are people within the community that really want to do their civic responsibility and serving on a school board is a really good way of doing that. And I think a lot of candidates we’ve had run over the years really have an affinity for wanting to help our children, as much as possible, be successful.”
Heading into this year’s primary, Superintendent Melinda Crowley says there are two incumbents on the ballot. But that doesn’t seem to have deterred others from running.
“I’m very pleased with all of the candidates that are there,” she said. “I’d be comfortable with any of the four that our community elects. I think they all have wonderful intentions and will do good for our students.”
Meet the at-large Minneapolis candidates
Both Crowley and Larson acknowledge that many districts across the state struggle to attract candidates. Governing a school district is not an easy task, especially in larger districts like the Minneapolis Public Schools district, where board members are responsible for addressing issues like looming budgetary deficits and chronic achievement gaps.
But there’s another deterrent for new candidates at work in the Twin Cities, says Von Korff: endorsements from the city’s DFL Party and local teachers union. It’s something that doesn’t really exist elsewhere, he says.
“When you come from an electoral process where the largest component of our election is endorsement by the employees, that just doesn’t work,” he said, noting it creates a conflict of interest since board members then approve teacher pay increases that are negotiated when contracts are up for renewal. “Even though we want to pay our teachers really well, part of their job is to say, ‘But there are other things that need to be provided.’ And when you have this endorsement system, it really puts pressure [on board members] to not do that.”
All three incumbents who are running for re-election this year, uncontested — in Districts 1, 3 and 5 — have the endorsement of the city’s DFL Party and local teachers union. But for the at-large seats, these endorsements went to two candidates who have never served in government office before: Kimberly Caprini and Josh Pauly.
Ahead of the primary election deadline, here’s a quick look at all five at-large candidates who are looking to advance to the general election, in alphabetical order.
Kimberly Caprini, 53, works as a navigator for a northside nonprofit. She first ran for a District 2 seat on the school board in 2016, without the DFL endorsement, and lost by only 201 votes.
She’s a Minneapolis Public Schools parent with ties to schools all across the district, through serving on several site councils and as a co-founder of the North-side Schools Collective. Professionally, she spent years working in the service industry.
Her advocacy in the district began over 12 years ago, when her oldest daughter enrolled, she says. Since then, she’s become a self-proclaimed “board room junkie” — attending countless board meetings, as well as the lesser-attended committee meetings, to gain a deeper understanding of how board policies are created.
Listing some of her priorities for the district, she says transparency, consistency and stability are at the top. She’s also focused on school safety, bringing families who have left back to the district, making sure all students have access to advanced classes and reducing principal turnover. Over the last year and a half, she says district leadership seem to be moving in the right direction — as exemplified by an in-depth budget discussion that unfolded over this past year. But there’s more work to be done.
“One of our biggest issues, in my opinion, has been being consistent, and allowing for work to be done authentically. We’re reactionary. We’re too quick to stop before we’re able to see any real outcomes,” she said, noting she’d be in favor of renewing Superintendent Ed Graff’s contract, so he has enough time to reach the goals he’s established under the direction of the current board.
Sharon El-Amin, 47, works in a clerical role for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and as a social coordinator for her mosque. She’s also serving as president of the parent organization at North High School and sitting on the school’s site council. Two of her children graduated from this school and the third is still enrolled there.
Formerly, she owned and operated a northside business, El-Amin’s Fish House, for 15 years. She says they still do some catering, but she’s retired from the restaurant business.
Asked why she felt compelled to run for an at-large seat on the school board, El-Amin credits a specific incident for drawing her in. When she called her son’s foreign language teacher to find out why her son was struggling in class, she says the impression she got was that this teacher had stopped trying to teach because she didn’t think the parents really cared what was happening in her classroom.
“That shows our students are just getting pushed through the system,” she said. “That’s what kind of led me to wanting to be on the board. I’ve always had a problem with the transparency, when it comes to communicating with our parents.”
If elected, she says she’d push for greater accountability — from school administrators who are overseeing what teachers are doing in their classrooms, all the way down to parents, who need to be actively involved in their children’s education.
She unsuccessfully tried for the DFL endorsement. But that doesn’t concern her much. She says she’s been relying on her citywide business and faith networks to build her own voter base.
Rebecca Gagnon, 47, is the mother of three, whom she’s stayed at home to raise for nearly 23 years. Simultaneously, she’s served nearly eight years on the school board and is currently serving as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. During her tenure as a school board member, she’s served as board treasurer and board chair.
She dropped out of a Minnesota House of Representatives race earlier this year and entered the school board race as a late entry in June. She’s endorsed by the city’s mayor, Jacob Frey, and a handful of other elected officials and teachers.
As the only incumbent in the at-large candidate pool, she’s highlighting her “institutional knowledge and experience” as two assets that set her apart. “I think the best thing we could do as a school district and board is to create some stability,” she said. “It’s hard to do that when you have a lot of new people coming in and seeing change as a shiny new thing.”
Part of that mission entails keeping the superintendent around long enough to create real change. To this end, Gagnon says, “I do support his leadership.”
If re-elected, she says her biggest priority would be the “fiscal sustainability and stability of the district.” Part of that plan will be shaped by the districtwide assessment that’s currently under way and she’d like to see it to completion.
Another priority, she says, would be creating clearer career pathways, so students graduate ready to step into trades jobs with the certifications and associates degrees they need, if they so choose to pursue these jobs.
Doug Mann did not reply to MinnPost’s request for an interview. He’s unsuccessfully run for a seat on the Minneapolis Public Schools board in every election cycle since 1999. He’s endorsed by the New Progressive Alliance. He also unsuccessfully sought endorsements from the Green Party and Democratic Socialists of America.
According to his campaign website, his bid for a school board seat is centered on one main objective: reducing teacher turnover.
“Reducing teacher turnover and exposure of students to less experienced teachers can produce better outcomes for students and less need for special [education] services for students identified as having social, emotional and behavior disorders,” he wrote on his website.
Josh Pauly, 31, worked as a teacher in the district — at Sanford Middle School — for three years, teaching global studies, Minnesota studies and an AVID class.
He and his wife are currently working through the adoption process and hope to enroll their own children in district schools. Pauly credits his desire to build strong schools for his future children as one factor that motivated him to run for a board seat.
He also says he felt it was time to stop complaining about “poor leadership” with his colleagues and “step up and run.” So he stepped away from the classroom this year to prioritize running his first ever campaign for a publicly elected position. He’s also spent time launching two nonprofits — one that’s focused on building more civic engagement and another that’s focused on getting culturally relevant books in the hands of elementary students.
“I’ve been crazy busy. This is another full-time job,” he said of running for a board seat. “I’ve never done politics before. Talking to voters in Minneapolis, they’re excited for new leadership.”
In his opinion, Graff walked into a tough situation, with the cuts and budget crisis. At this point, he feels it’s “important that we have stability at the top,” as far as the superintendency is concerned.
Regarding his priorities for the district, Pauly says he’s focused on making sure classrooms are adequately resourced. That includes addressing class sizes by looking at teacher-to-student ratios and increasing the number of wrap-around services available at all schools.