If recounts are the new normal, the Minneapolis School Board election is right in step with the times. With fewer than 1,200 votes separating her from challenger Rebecca Gagnon, late last night Chanda Smith Baker said she felt she owed her supporters a recount.
The race, where four candidates sparred over two at-large seats on the board, was one of the most hard-fought of recent memory. As was widely anticipated, newcomer Dick Mammen handily won one of the seats, with almost 31 percent of the vote. Incumbent T. Williams lost with 18 percent.
If Gagnon survives the recount, the new board will be the first in at least 40 years without representation from Minnesota’s native-born African-American community. In recent years, Minneapolis Public Schools have struggled to rebuild relations with disaffected black families, which have left the district in droves.
Race was just one reason this year’s race offered an unusual mix of candidates and politics. Voters in 2008 passed a referendum expanding the size of the board from seven members to nine and phasing in a system that elects some board members from geographic districts.
The geographic districts follow the same boundaries as Minneapolis Park Board districts. As a result, this year Minneapolis residents elected three candidates from odd-numbered districts as well as two at-large candidates, bringing the number of board members to eight.
In the 2012 general election, the board will grow to nine members, with elections in the three even-numbered districts and one member elected citywide.
Because of the expansion and the decision by three incumbents not to seek re-election, the new board will include just three incumbents. Only one of them, Lydia Lee, has served throughout the current massive district restructuring begun three years ago.
Running unopposed on the south side, Hussein Samatar became the first Somali immigrant elected to public office anywhere in the United States. The founder of the African Development Corporation, Samatar grew frustrated with campaign debate over whether an African immigrant can adequately represent the interests of locally born African-American pupils, and has asked supporters not to describe him as Somali-American.
As expected in the south side Fifth District, Latino publisher Alberto Monserrate beat John Saulsberry. The Puerto Rican Monserrate has long been a fixture at school board meetings, where he has been a frequent advocate of reform.
In the First District, in Northeast Minneapolis, Jenny Arneson bested Mike Endrizzi. Arneson is a school social worker in MPS and has three young children in the system.
Mammen was the first director of Minneapolis’s Youth Coordinating Board and is currently the director of citywide recreation for Minneapolis parks. Gagnon moved to Minneapolis two years ago and quickly began volunteering in the schools, most recently serving on the district’s parent advisory council.
Mammen’s wide margin of victory was widely anticipated, but Gagnon’s lead over Smith Baker is more elusive. Gagnon has less experience and far fewer community connections than Smith Baker, but Gagnon lives in vote-rich southwest Minneapolis, in the Fulton neighborhood.
By contrast, Smith Baker, the granddaughter of the late Richard Green, a beloved Minneapolis schools superintendent, lives on the near north side, where voters traditionally turn out in much smaller numbers. At campaign events, she has said she concentrated her door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods populated largely by poor and minority families whose children attend MPS’ most challenged schools.
Both Mammen and Gagnon are white, which became an issue last spring during the DFL city endorsing convention, where numerous labor unions and DFL caucuses snubbed Smith Baker and Williams, who are native-born African-Americans. The most powerful of the groups, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, did not explain its decision, but education-watchers are confident incumbent Williams was rejected because the current board has been locked in a painful contract impasse with the teachers.
Smith Baker is chief learning officer with Pillsbury United Communities, which sponsors charter schools. Her supporters suspect this history cost her the MFT’s endorsement.
Whatever the results of the recount, the winner will take office at a particularly tough time. Parents in the city’s affluent southwest quadrant are upset about rising class sizes and still trying to adjust after a painful redrawing of the school attendance area boundaries.
In addition to a yawning achievement gap, MPS is struggling to deal with declining enrollment and bare-bones budgets. In coming months, the district must decide whether to shutter North High School, which serves a fraction of the number of students it was built to hold, and possibly another high school.