Tuesday night, at its first meeting since Hussein Samatar’s death, the Minneapolis School Board shadowboxed its way through a painful vote on the process of replacing him.
Board members also voted 6-2 not to appoint Samatar’s widow, Ubah Jama, who, during a public comments period before the vote, expressed her desire to serve out his term. Jama, who was treated with all appropriate deference, is welcome to apply for appointment by the board.
Unvoiced but hanging heavily in the air: Hussein’s death two weeks ago of complications arising from leukemia left a philosophically and politically divided board with an empty seat that could tip the balance of power.
His funeral was attended by a Who’s Who of state leaders, including members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, other elected officials, education policymakers and African immigrant community leaders.
The first Somali-American elected to public office at least in Minnesota, Samatar was one of the board’s most outspoken members and a staunch advocate of reform. He was elected from the city’s District 3, a swath of south-central Minneapolis that historically suffers low voter turnout and rarely delivers a bumper crop of candidates.
Samatar was the only one of a slate of newcomers elected in 2010 who refused to sign a statement on teachers union letterhead rebuking outgoing board members for their handling of contract negotiations. He also cast one of two votes against the last, controversial contract between Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT).
District and union are back at the bargaining table, with MPS asking for many of the same changes the MFT has rejected during several rounds of talks. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s high-profile “Shift” initiative, which calls for big changes at the district’s lowest-performing schools, hinges in part on the reforms.
Bill English, co-chair of the Council of Black Churches, complained that he was denied the chance to speak during the public comments portion of the evening because there were already too many people signed up.
“We know what the last process was, and it was a sham to get the union-selected person on the board,” said English. “It’s gonna cause a major confrontation if they do not take recommendations from the community.”
Sitting next to English was University of Minnesota student and Students for Education Reform member Kenneth Eban, who said he was allowed to speak even though he arrived a moment after the much more recognizable English.
Eban has attended all of the board meetings this year. He was upset, he told the board members, that the proposal wasn’t put on the board agenda until Tuesday afternoon.
The proposal ultimately approved Tuesday night — to solicit applications between now and Sept. 27, from which the board would choose first five finalists and finally a new board member — is similar to the process used to fill the last two vacancies.
“In some ways this is similar and in some ways it really isn’t,” said board member Tracine Asberry, who raised several concerns. The previous vacancies were created when board members resigned.
“The community has suffered a tremendous loss,” she said, elaborating after the meeting. “This appointment needs to be handled with the utmost respect — and with love. This is unlike anything we’ve handled before.”
Asberry shared Eban’s concern that the proposal was placed on the meeting agenda late, leaving board members too little time to review it. More worrisome, nothing in the plan contemplated community outreach to draw out potential candidates.
Board Chair Alberto Monserrate countered that plans had been made to announce the process immediately following the vote and noting that the two months set aside to review applications and winnow candidates is longer than the selection process used to fill past vacancies.
While true, this obscures an important point: When those replacements were named, the board met every Tuesday night, alternating between work sessions and formal business meetings. The current board has just one regularly scheduled meeting per month, plus special sessions and retreats. This means Samatar’s vacancy will get less public discussion.
Board members will rate applicants on a rubric district staff will compile into composite scores. The top five candidates will get public interviews. Board members may submit questions that Monserrate and Vice Chair Jenny Arneson will choose from.
When Pam Costain resigned in 2010 to take the helm of AchieveMPLS, a very differently configured board appointed a former member, Peggy Flanagan, to serve out the term. Two years later, a less reform-oriented board appointed Kim Ellison to finish Lydia Lee’s term.
After Asberry spoke, board member Carla Bates proposed the group change course and appoint Jama, who has her own history of involvement with MPS as a member of the Seward Montessori community.
“I believe this situation … puts us in a unique situation,” said Bates, the other board member to vote against last year’s contract. There were plenty of precedents suggesting it was appropriate, she added.
Asberry chimed in in support of the idea. “Director Samatar constantly used Ubah, his wife, as an example when he spoke about schools, families and policies,” Asberry said after the meeting. “Because Director Samatar was elected by that district, because we can’t have him, it makes sense to have someone who shares his values.”
Board members Rebecca Gagnon and Josh Reimnitz both said they would reject Bates’ motion to allow the community to weigh in on the appointment. And so while Bates and Asberry lost their votes, Asberry went home pleased that the board is on record — at least rhetorically — supporting outreach to a broad range of potential appointees.
“I am very excited to see the community engagement strategy planned for District 3 that goes beyond technology,” she said. “I am very interested in seeing how the district will engage stakeholders in the way Hussein represented them, and that is transparently.”