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Minneapolis School Board Chair Monserrate disputes ‘political’ divisions

He took exception to the piece, disputing two factual assertions and taking issue with the overall frame of the story.

Alberto Monserrate

On Wednesday, I reported on the Minneapolis School Board meeting the night before where a process was decided on for replacing board member Hussein Samatar, who died two weeks ago. The story described some angry public comments and contentious debate among board members about transparency and community engagement.

Board Chair Alberto Monserrate took exception to the piece, disputing two factual assertions and taking issue with the overall frame, which suggested that tensions ran high because the person appointed to fill the seat may end up casting pivotal swing votes on hot-button issues.

And he did not say this but I will: I suspect it didn’t help that the conversation at issue involved finding a successor for a board-mate with whom Monserrate shared much. Elected together in 2010, both were the first representatives from their respective ethnic communities to serve on the board.

Both were passionate advocates for English-language learners and immigrants. Both were entrepreneurs, and played important roles in helping their communities create strong businesses. And so I imagine the piece I wrote stung on a personal level.

I’ll elaborate on Monserrate’s concerns momentarily. But I need to say at the outset that the board chair and I are in firm agreement about one thing: In the current environment, pretty much any discussion that involves the achievement gap runs the risk of devolving into a shouting match in which people are painted — with overly broad strokes — into camps.

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I am often one of them, as is he. And he’s the founder of a local Spanish-language media company, so we have both had the unique privilege of experiencing the nuances of this false dichotomy both as critics and as supposed members of the aforementioned camps.

I have not had the experience he has of becoming first a member and then the chair of a body he used to warn, loudly, that its feet would be held to the fire. But I have watched him in both roles and wondered whether he has rueful moments.

The first factual assertion I made that Monserrate disagrees with is that Council of Black Churches Co-Chair Bill English was denied the chance to address the board on the appointment process. Monserrate looked into English’s complaint and was assured by staff that English asked to address something else that was on the agenda for later in the evening and was given time to speak to that issue after the vote on the appointment process.

Monserrate also said staff told him a statement made to me by student activist Kenneth Eban, who said he arrived after English and was allowed to speak, was not true.

Each of the men involved is quite capable of speaking for themselves. And in my experience, none is given to falsehoods.

Monserrate’ second factual challenge is to a statement I made that the current board will meet fewer times during the appointment process, creating fewer opportunities for public discussion before a new board member is selected.

This is trickier. The board now has one business meeting a month, preceded by a time for the general public to be heard on any topic it wishes, as well as times for “delegations,” e.g. people, to be heard on agenda items.

It has met with this frequency since Monserrate took office in January 2011, which means it considered the appointment of Kim Ellison on the same schedule it will use to consider the current vacancy. So he’s right about that.

The board Monserrate’s replaced, however, met twice a month, with working sessions on off weeks. They considered the 2010 vacancy created by Pam Costain’s resignation, which I covered, on that schedule. The times when people could voice their thoughts were as complicated, but there was, in general, more time for people to hear what board members were thinking and to act accordingly.

For the record, then, candidates’ applications are due to the district by 4 p.m. Sept. 27. There will be a regular board meeting preceded by public comments on Oct. 8; whether the topic will be on the agenda is not yet known.

Interview invitations to the top five candidates, selected via their cumulative rankings by board members, will go out Oct. 16 with the interviews taking place at a special board meeting on Oct. 22. A board vote will take place at a public meeting Nov. 12.

In terms of tone, Monserrate is frustrated that I described the board as politically divided. I stand by that as my analysis, but I’m happy to convey his perspective in his words. Most of the votes cast during his two and a half years of service have had wide margins, he noted.

And some of those votes have been on controversial issues where a supposed pro-union phalanx has voted for big changes. One example was the decision to contract with charter school operator Eric Mahmoud to open three new Mastery schools over the next 10 years.

Another was the board’s decision to sell the former Northrup school building to charter network Hiawatha Academies. Samatar cast the lone dissenting vote on that decision. Monserrate and Josh Reimnitz abstained, the former because he used to serve on Hiawatha’s board and the latter because his partner will lead the school taking over the building.

(As long as we are disclosing relationships, I’ll repeat my Standard Kramer Disclaimer: Hiawatha’s three schools are headed by Eli Kramer, who is the son of MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer.)

As to the fear that Samatar’s replacement could cast swing votes on thorny topics, Monserrate had this to say: The current board is absolutely committed to pushing he Minneapolis Federation of Teachers for the large, structural changes — longer days, more autonomy and greater hiring-and-firing latitude at a number of struggling schools — contained in the district’s Shift proposal.

“This is the board’s proposal, this is not the superintendent’s proposal,” Monserrate said. “One hundred percent of the members of the board right now are focused on the gap … [The superintendent] would not have advanced Shift if we hadn’t had a united board.”

The last contract talks — which ended without most of the reforms the district had asked for — were settled at the superintendent’s request, he added. The board wanted to hold out, but Bernadeia Johnson felt it would be months more spent at the table.

“I come from a long tradition of culture change,” said Monserrate. “I’ve never been involved in a culture change where you didn’t get buy-in from employees.”

And from the community. Samatar’s District 3 is the most racially and ethnically diverse of the three, and MPS community engagement staff will be reaching out to community groups and ethnic media to invite discussion.

“I’m someone who believes representation matters,” he said. “It is important to hear directly from the community.” If there are organizations that want to be heard, they should invite board members to community meetings, he added.

A last, opinionated observation of mine: In 2006, at possibly the lowest moment in the recent history of Minneapolis Public Schools’ credibility with its community, plain old citizen Monserrate stood in front of a board whose members who were ushered out of office as a result. Care had better be paid to how the district rebuilt after the spectacularly bungled — and racially inflamed — hiring and firing of Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles, he warned.

“It would be almost humorous if the consequences weren’t so bad,” Monserrate told the board. “I have talked to so many people who have given up on our schools and here was Peebles, a person who maybe was abrasive but who obviously wasn’t giving up. It doesn’t matter what the board says. They either hired the right person and they didn’t like what she was doing, or they hired the wrong person. Either way, the school board has failed.”

So there you have it. From the mouth of a man who knows as well as anyone what the stakes in all of this are for a board and its chair, a commitment to engaging the community in Samatar’s replacement and of standing firm on the reforms at the top of the district’s agenda.