In the midst of all the confusion and controversy surrounding back-to-school planning in the midst of a pandemic, five districts have managed to land items on the primary ballot.
Both the Minneapolis Public Schools district and the Red Lake School District are holding school board races that have attracted enough candidates to trigger a first round of elimination during the Aug. 11 primary election. Only two candidates, per open seat, are allowed to advance to the general election.
In Minneapolis, five candidates are competing for one open at-large seat. And three candidates are vying for a District 4 seat — which includes downtown, the Isles neighborhoods and Bryn Mawr. The candidates who prevail in the general election will join six others on the board at the start of January, taking on not only the challenge of leading the state’s third largest distinct in the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn, but also rolling out a controversial new strategic plan.
School board races
Incumbent Kim Ellison — who was first appointed to the board in January 2012 to fill a vacant at-large seat, then served a full term in the north Minneapolis seat and a full term in the at-large seat — is seeking re-election. Although the race is technically nonpartisan, Ellison is endorsed by the city’s DFL Party. (The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers did not endorse any candidates on the primary ballot.) This spring, she voted in support of the comprehensive district redesign, also known as the CDD — the new strategic planning process that began in December 2017.
Ellison has four challengers: William Awe, Lynne Crockett, Michael Dueñes and Doug Mann. Awe appears to have no formal online campaign presence. According to his LinkedIn profile, he works for the state Department of Revenue.
Crockett is a North High graduate who’s stayed involved as three more generations in her family attended district schools. Her campaign materials highlight her community and parent advocacy work. She’s a critic of the district’s new strategic plan; and she’s spoken in favor of keeping school resources officers (which the current board voted to move away from this summer).
Dueñes worked as dean of liberal arts and global education at North Hennepin Community College through 2018. His campaign materials list his top priorities: supporting students and families in crisis, equitable programming, financial transparency and student retention and recruitment. This spring, he released a 9-part series of videos explaining his opposition to the comprehensive district redesign plan.
Mann has 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. One of his top priorities is addressing teacher turnover; his social media activity indicates he opposes the use of face masks.
Cerrillo has been deeply invested in advocacy work on the behalf of undocumented immigrants. She’s also an educational advocate with personal ties to the Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center. In order to close the racial achievement gap, her campaign materials talk a lot about focusing on more equitable school funding.
Mims comes to the race with a background in social work, specifically serving Indigenous children and families involved in Hennepin County’s child protection system. She’s also endorsed by the city’s DFL Party. Her priorities, if elected, include amplifying the voices of underserved youth and addressing inequities in the school system. In regard to the new strategic plan, she pledges to demand transparency, accountability and community collaboration throughout the implementation phase.
Shain is an entrepreneur-turned-teacher, who’s been actively involved in the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers for the past five years. Some of his top priorities include advocating for full funding for public schools, better pay and benefits for paraprofessionals, ensuring the financial sustainability of the district, and community oversight of the district redesign rollout.
The District 2 race only had two candidates, so it’s not on the primary ballot. Later this fall, one-term incumbent KerryJo Felder will compete with Sharon El-Amin, who ran unsuccessfully ran for an at-large seat in 2018.
In Red Lake, seven candidates are running for three open seats. In the primary election, voters may vote for up to three of the seven candidates. Only one candidate will be eliminated in the primary.
The list of candidates includes two incumbents — Michael Barrett and Christopher Jourdain, the current board chair and vice-chair, respectively — and five challengers: Patricia Neadeau, Tina Stately, Susan Ninham, Rob Pemberton Sr. and Jack Desjarlait. Douglas Desjarlait is not seeking re-election.
When it comes to holding a primary election for school board candidates, only a handful of districts, statewide, opt to partake. That’s largely driven by two factors: historically low voter turnout for school board elections, coupled with the expense of holding a primary election.
It’s a decision made by each district’s school board. And during even election years, only seven public school districts currently participate: Alexandria, Columbia Heights, Minneapolis, Red Lake, Rochester, St. Cloud and Winona.
Three other districts have a stake in this primary election as well — but in the form of a referendum ask, rather than a school board race.
Voters in McGregor and Ely will be asked to vote on bond questions. These asks focus on building renovations and new construction and are the type of referendum asks that can appear on the ballot in February, April, May, August or November. This fall, however, could be a quieter year on this front, given all of the financial uncertainty voters are facing surrounding COVID-19.
More specifically, the McGregor Independent School District has two bond questions on the primary ballot. Ballot question 1, for $13.2 million, includes a number of safety and security improvements (including the addition of secure entry vestibules), updates to various learning spaces (including adding an early childhood education classroom and adding STEM and life skills labs), and some required maintenance items. According to the district website, if approved, this ask would not increase current property taxes because the district is paying off old debt. Ballot question 2 — a request for an additional $2 million, which can only pass if question 1 passes — would include a property tax increase to build a new community fitness center.
Voters in the Ely Public Schools district will be asked to consider a $10 million bonding request to expand upon some initial safety and security enhancements that the district started with state grant dollars, including the construction of an addition that would link existing school buildings. The new dollars would also go toward new and improved learning spaces for things like Career and Technical Education classes, physical education and other offerings.
Additionally, voters in the communities served by the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop Schools district are being asked to decide on a proposed 10-year operating levy request that would revoke the $302 per pupil amount, for taxes payable in 2021, and replace it with a new authorization in the amount of $1,104 per pupil. Because of a combination of factors — including declining enrollment and operating costs that have outpaced state and federal funding for years — the district is currently in statutory operating debt. This is the only condition under which a school district may put an operating levy on the primary ballot. Others seeking operating levies may bring those requests to voters in the general election.
If the operating levy does not pass, the district will be looking to make further budget reductions primarily in staffing; it will likely seek another — perhaps modified — operating levy referendum this fall. As stated on the district’s website, in a worst case scenario, the district could face dissolution or closure. In that case, taxpayers would then pay higher taxes associated with the neighboring district that they are assigned to and still be saddled with paying off the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop district’s existing debt.