On Election Day, Minneapolis voters will be asked to select two citywide school board representatives. These board members are tasked with keeping a pulse on the needs of all schools and families — not just those in their neighborhood area.
They have their work cut out for them, as the Minneapolis Public Schools district works to resolve a chronic budgetary deficit and address longstanding educational disparities. They’ll also be faced with two major tasks just a few months into their term: fine-tuning the district’s new strategic plan and deciding whether to renew Superintendent Ed Graff’s contract.
At-large board member Kim Ellison ran unopposed for her seat in 2016. This year, however, the two open at-large seats generated more interest.
Based on the primary election results, there’s one clear front-runner: Kimberly Caprini, an active parent who’s spent years studying up on board policies and practices. She secured 30 percent of the total votes cast.
Caprini stood nearly 10,000 votes ahead of the next top contender: incumbent Rebecca Gagnon. But the margins between Gagnon and the two other contenders who advanced to the General Election — Josh Pauly and Sharon El-Amin — were much slimmer.
In addition, three board members representing certain areas of the district are running for re-election unopposed: Nelson Inz, Siad Ali and Jenny Arneson.
They’re not having to compete for a seat on the nine-member board this time around. But they’re still preoccupied with the fate of another district-related item on this year’s ballot: a two-part referendum, totaling $30 million.
Minneapolis voters will be asked to consider an $18 million increase to the existing operating levy — which is used to pay for everything from staff salaries and benefits to classroom supplies and special student support services — and to establish a $12 million tech levy to support technology upgrades and maintenance expenses that the district currently covers with dollars from its general fund.
While the referendum doesn’t seem to have generated a whole lot of attention, compared to the clamor produced by organized opposition in years past, the at-large school board race has been defined by a couple of flash points.
Gagnon has had to answer, time and time again, for her move this past spring to reallocate $6.4 million to secondary schools, which got blowback from many — including other board members — who considered the decision inequitable. Meanwhile, El-Amin got called out for anti-LGBTQ comments she’d made on social media a few years ago and has been working through apologies and reconciliation both online and in-person with those concerned about her old posts.
Through a combination of one-on-one interviews and insight gleaned from the Oct. 15 candidate forum hosted by ISAIAH and a handful of other groups at the Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, here’s a look at how the four at-large candidates have positioned themselves heading into the home stretch.
On a cold Saturday morning earlier this month, Caprini, 54, joined Pauly at Lake Nokomis to thank a handful of volunteers who’d shown up to go door knocking on behalf of the duo. The two have partnered up on a number of campaign activities because they share two key stamps of approval: endorsements from the DFL Party and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.
Even though school board races are supposed to be nonpartisan, these endorsements give recipients a distinct advantage in terms of support on the campaign trail — a factor that likely came to bear in 2016, when Caprini ran for a District 2 seat without both endorsements and lost by just 201 votes to the recipient of both: Kerry Jo Felder.
After that loss, Caprini notes, she continued to show at up school board meetings, where she is a regular attendee. Her advocacy in the district began over 12 years ago, when her oldest daughter enrolled in the district. And she’s confident that all of the groundwork she’s done over the years — studying up on board policies, participating on board committees, meeting with the district’s chief financial officer to better understand the budget, and even watching archived board meeting videos — will help secure her a seat on the board this time around.
“I do have a higher level of trust than I did before, with the district. I think a lot of it has to do with being so present, and being in those spaces,” she said. “But I feel like I have this watchdog mentality, because I know where we’ve been.”
She intends to hold office hours across the city to ensure she’s hearing from all parents. This commitment ties into her top priority: restoring trust in the district while still pushing for greater financial and academic accountability.
“I’m a great negotiator. I’m an awesome collaborator. And I’m a damn good listener,” she said, noting she doesn’t have patience for board members not doing their homework prior to making important decisions.
Her other priorities include raising expectations for all students and empowering parents to help bring additional resources into their schools. This means building new community partnerships that can help keep students — especially middle-schoolers — engaged through extracurricular activities.
A newcomer to the ballot, El-Amin, 47, came out of the primary with about 20 percent of the total votes cast — enough to secure her a spot in the General Election and give her a strong confidence boost.
El-Amin entered the race a bit later on and unsuccessfully sought the DFL and teachers union endorsements. But her family’s name recognition on the northside — through being a former small-business owner and active member of the Muslim faith community, as well as being related to the pro basketball player from North High School, Khalid El-Amin — helped her build a base of loyal supporters.
While she’s not the only district parent in the candidate pool, she’s made her identity and experiences as a parent advocate, who’s actively engaged at North High School, the pillar of her campaign.
“We need parents to understand that we should be stepping up and wanting to be part of the board, and not letting them go uncontested,” she said. “Parents have to get back involved. Our investment is our children. And we have to protect our investment.”
She’s promised to make herself available to constituents to hear their concerns. More specifically, she says she’d pushing the district to “over-communicate” to parents, to ensure everyone is well-informed and equipped with the information they need to weigh in on important decisions made by the board. At the school level, that means checking in with parent groups at each school, she says. And helping to create parent groups at schools that don’t currently have formal parent representation.
“Even if it’s one or two parents, we have to start something,” she said, noting this all too often a “huge piece that’s missing” when it comes to representation in the district.
A few anti-LGBTQ posts she’d put on her social media accounts in 2015 and 2016 resurfaced after the primary, threatening to derail her campaign. In response, she engaged with those who had raised concerns about her archived comments — through both online conversations and in-person meetings — to apologize and reassure them she’ll be an ally for all students.
“I was [caught] off guard because I know I’m not a person who tries to hurt anyone,” she said. “But, from that, I have met a lot of really strong people in our community, built some relationships, and continue to go strong.”
Seeking a third term on the school board, Gagnon, 47, has served as board treasurer and board chair. Beyond this role, she has additional governing experience, including her current role as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board.
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.
On the campaign trail, she often grounds her answers in examples that point to her track record of board actions and constituent services — something that sets her apart from her competitors who are looking to secure a foothold on the board.
For instance, when asked to respond to the transportation hardships placed on highly mobile families, she talked about expediting a solution for a family that had reached out to her directly.
“We have to be way better at customer service. It is very helpful when my name is passed to constituents. I get calls nearly every day, and transportation is a lot of it,” she said, noting this work holds her accountable “because you know if one person is experiencing it, it’s not just one person.”
Gagnon continues to say that her top priority is “financial stability and sustainability of the district.” She’s proud of the work she and her colleagues have done thus far, in hiring Graff and kick-starting the creation of a new strategic plan. But she wants to create a system that’s more “stable and predictable.”
She’s also focused on bringing wrap-around services in to the schools that need them, and better aligning academic offerings with workforce needs.
While she’s built inroads with lots of voters, she’s also found herself in the center of controversies during her tenure. Most recently, her move this past spring to reallocate $6.4 million to secondary schools sparked a communitywide debate over what equitable budgeting in a district with schools serving a spectrum of affluent and impoverished families should look like.
Gagnon says she doesn’t mind if people disagree with what she did. But she says it’s been mischaracterized as a “loud south issue” — something she’s continually asked about while door knocking or otherwise talking with voters.
Seeking a seat as the only millennial on the school board, Pauly, 31, has sailed through election season without having to respond to any strong criticisms. This is his first try at an elected office, so he decided to step away from the classroom this year to put a full-time effort into his bid for a school board seat.
“People have really coalesced around this message and vision I have — of good governance and leadership,” he said, noting he’d bring a “fresh perspective” and “on-the-ground experience” as a former teacher in the district.
In addition to participating in all of the standard campaign strategies — door knocking in neighborhoods across the city, holding meet and greets and showing up at community events — Pauly has been diversifying his campaign efforts to reach new voters. For instance, he’s been connecting with younger voters through a mobile texting app and has been intentional about going door knocking in apartments, on local college campuses and out in the community.
From his conversations with voters he says a general theme has emerged: At the hyperlocal level, the general stance is “I love my school, but what’s going on with the district?”
Outside of the school board race, he’s involved in two nonprofits — one aimed at building more civic engagement and another that’s focused on getting culturally relevant books in the hands of elementary students.
When it comes to setting himself apart from the competition, he’s leaning heavily on his three years of teaching experience, gained as a teacher at Sanford Middle School, to convince voters that he’d work in the best interests of students, teachers and families. Along these lines, he’s talked about adequately — and equitably — resourcing classrooms, reducing class sizes and increasing the number of wrap-around services available at all schools.
“I’ve seen what happens when you don’t have them [wrap-around services],” he said in an interview, noting the teacher may be highly qualified, but if their students don’t have access to basic necessities like stable housing, “they’re not concerned about the math test.”
It’s a reality he experienced growing up in a single-parent household, he said at the forum. Additionally, if elected, in an effort to address deeply entrenched racial discipline disparities in the district, he says he’d push to make restorative-practices training mandatory for all teachers.