In July, Gov. Tim Walz directed local school districts to craft their own pandemic school format plans, in close consultation with county-level infection rates. Those plans — along with any major subsequent format changes — are approved by each individual district’s school board.
It’s a highly contentious responsibility that many voters are tracking closely. In that regard, the impact of school boards has never felt more immediate. But their work extends far beyond pandemic school formats — to finance allocation, grade configurations, discipline policies and more.
With 301 independent school districts across the state currently holding school board elections, it’s a major education election year in Minnesota. In a scenario where new board members beat out incumbents, that could mean anywhere from 400 to 500 new board members on-boarding this winter, says Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association. (In odd years, the remaining 31 districts in Minnesota hold their school board elections.)
In addition to balancing student and staff safety with things like students’ academic needs and sports seasons, school board members elected this fall will have to reckon with the financial ramifications of the pandemic.
“The state’s going to be looking at a budget deficit, so they’re probably not going to get any help from the state in the next two-year biennium,” Abbott said. “So they’re going to have to make some tough budget decisions. And they’ll need to set their priorities and match them to what they want to spend the money on. It is really going to be a tough year.”
On the school referendum front — for both operating levies and bonds — it’s a quieter year than normal, he said. “They’re the lowest amount that school districts have gone out for in probably a couple decades,” he said, adding many sidelined these financial pitches because they were already swamped with figuring out how to reboot school this fall.
Only three districts are seeking a building bond. Nine others are asking voters to approve a capital projects levy, for more technology resources. Federally allocated pandemic dollars aren’t stretching far enough to cover all of the tech-related expenses needed to pull off distance and hybrid learning, Abbott said. The costs extend far beyond laptops, to include added expenses these districts are seeking more support with: servers, training for teachers, more tech staff to help troubleshoot, hotspots to expand internet access, and more.
Only 33 districts are seeking operating levies — nine of which are simply asking voters to renew an expiring levy. Two districts are actually asking voters to approve an operating levy decrease, to offset an increase that their building bond or capital projects levy ask would bring to taxpayers. That leaves just 22 districts looking to increase their operating levy.
There’s a pandemic-related nuance in that batch of referendums, as well. Four districts seeking an operating levy increase — Shakopee, Owatonna, New London-Spicer and Cambridge-Isanti — are proposing a phased increase, only asking for a slight increase for the first few years. That’s an approach Abbott says he’s never seen before in Minnesota.
Navigating the pandemic — and much more
Since most governors, across the country, have given local school boards the authority to decide on an alternative school format during the pandemic — whether it be in-person learning, remote learning, or some form of hybrid learning — these locally elected officials have been thrust into the public spotlight.
“I think, at this particular time, in most parts of the country, there is a very heightened awareness of who the school board members are and of their importance,” says Charlie Wilson, president of the National School Boards Association.
The role — and impact — of a local school board, however, has always been significant. In most areas of Minnesota, the local school board will be controlling a budget larger than that of the local city council. And it’ll be responsible for employing more employees, and more directly affecting local taxes, said Wilson. They also hire the superintendent, and oversee everything from transportation and building configurations to academic and extracurricular offerings.
Perhaps even more important, those elected this November will be tasked not only with responding in the midst of the pandemic, but also with crafting a long-term vision.
“I have no doubt we are going to have a new normal after this pandemic end. Education — I think our whole society — is going to be different than it was pre-March 2020,” he said. “Can we do more virtually? Can we do more personalized, individualized education? These are the kinds of issues that folks elected in November are going to have to decide.”
In some instances, candidate research can be a pretty heavy lift for voters. Take, for instance, the board race in Mankato, where voters will be asked to select up to four school board candidates, out of a list of 18, to fill four open seats. The vetting process can be even more time-consuming since school board races are technically nonpartisan. That means voters won’t find any party endorsement next to school board candidates’ names, as they move down the ballot. (In the Twin Cities, however, voters might be influenced by the name-recognition boost some candidates receive through an endorsement by the local DFL Party and teachers union.)
Former Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Bernadeia Johnson says it’s not enough to be a well-meaning candidate. Voters need to unpack each candidate’s motives — to assess whether they’re running to represent the needs of their own children, or the needs of all of their constituents. “The most important thing is to make sure you have someone who understands that they’re representing all of the children in the community, or however their district is set up,” she said, adding that diversity in board representation matters as well.
It’s the sort of thing that voters need to be more intentional about, if they want school boards to be more representative of the students that they serve. In a recent study, researchers found that there’s a growing disconnect between the students in our public school systems and the school boards who are making decisions that impact the quality of their education. “Most of the voters who elect school boards don’t actually have kids themselves. And they really look nothing like the kids who are being educated in the schools, in terms of race and ethnicity,” says Vladimir Kogan, a professor at Ohio State University. “This is true even in districts where the student body is overwhelmingly non-white.”
He and his colleagues also found that in districts where the electorate looks least like the student body, education gaps between white students and students of color are the largest.
Four competitive Twin Cities school board seats
Minneapolis voters will be filling a total of four seats. The District 6 seat has only one candidate: incumbent Ira Jourdain. The District 4 race pits two newcomers — Adriana Cerrillo, a community organizer who owns a consulting business; and Christa Mims, a Hennepin County education support manager — against each other.
In the District 2 race, one-term incumbent KerryJo Felder will compete with Sharon El-Amin, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat in 2018. Felder works as a community and education organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. El-Amin is a small-business owner.
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. She’s running against Michael Dueñes, a policy analyst who worked before as dean of liberal arts and global education at North Hennepin Community College.
Candidates participated in two candidate forums at the start of the month. Cerrillo, Mims, Dueñes and Ellison all participated in an Oct. 5 forum held via Zoom by the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, which can be viewed here. All six candidates vying for competitive seats participated in an in-person Oct. 8 forum (with no in-person audience), hosted by the League of Women Voters Minneapolis, which can be viewed here.
In St. Paul, Jim Vue — a Hmong cultural educator — joined the board, after getting appointed to temporarily fill Marny Xiong’s seat after she died from COVID-19 in June. Next year, the seat will be back on the ballot so that voters can elect someone to serve the next four-year term.
Vue is running against five other candidates to finish out Xiong’s term: Charlotte Castro, a systems analyst and adjunct professor in the Minnesota State University system; Keith Hardy, an IT project manager for Wells Fargo; James Farnsworth, executive director of the Highland Business Association; Jamila Mame, an organizer for TakeAction Minnesota; and Omar Syed, a small-business owner.