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MPS School Board poised to pick Samatar replacement from field of 4

Hussein Samatar

If you thought election season was over, there’s one more round of ranked-choice voting still to take place. The Minneapolis School Board is scheduled to vote Tuesday night on a replacement for Hussein Samatar, who died in August of complications stemming from leukemia.

The eight sitting board members will rank their choices from a field of four candidates that includes Samatar’s widow, Ubah Jama, and Mohamud Noor, who ran for school board in 2010. The winner will be sworn in at the board’s December meeting.

With several high-stakes initiatives on the agenda for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) in coming months, the appointment has been the source of anxiety within education circles. Presumably, the new board member will have an influence on the outcome of the district’s push for changes to the teachers’ contract that would enable the overhaul of MPS’ lowest-performing schools.

Will have advantage of incumbency

And he or she would enjoy the tremendous advantage of incumbency during the 2014 election — something that has a number of board-watchers discussing changing the way midterm vacancies are filled.

The seat in question, District 3, encompasses downtown and the northernmost half of South Minneapolis that stretches from Interstate 35W to the Mississippi River. Voter turnout is often low, and historically few file to run for local offices from its poorer neighborhoods.

The other candidates are Nicque Mabrey, the associate director of policy for Outfront Minnesota, and Ira Jourdain, a community activist and support worker for a Division of Indian Work fatherhood program. A fifth candidate, Rochester charter school operator Abdulkadir Abdalla, withdrew before public interviews took place Oct. 22.

Jama’s and Noor’s candidacies have generated the most discussion. In addition to her work on Seward Montessori’s site leadership team, Jama has worked for St. Paul Public Schools for 15 years, the last 10 of them as a bilingual education assistant. Before that, she worked for MPS.

‘I see the issues … every day’

“I have helped thousands of immigrant families throughout the years understand the educational system and make the necessary education and cultural adjustments,” Jama wrote in her application. “I see the issues facing MPS, families and students every day in my involvement as a parent leader and education professional.”

At a meeting in September, Jama told the board that she wanted to be considered for her late husband’s seat because she had lived his vision for the schools during his time in office. A motion by board member Carla Bates to appoint Jama at that time failed.

A systems administrator at the state Department of Human Services and the executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, Noor sought office on other occasions. In addition to a bid for school board three years ago, he ran in 2011 for the state Senate seat vacated by Minneapolis DFLer Larry Pogemiller.

Noor served as an adviser to Andrew

During the recent mayoral contest Noor served as an adviser to Mark Andrew, who had the backing of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) and who flip-flopped on education issues. Board Chair Alberto Monserrate served as co-chair of Andrew’s campaign committee; his candidacy also enjoyed the support of board members Jenny Arneson, Dick Mammen, Rebecca Gagnon and Kim Ellison, all of whom voted in favor of the most recent MFT contract.

Monserrate, it must be noted, has taken exception to the notion that there is a split on the board between MFT supporters and reformers. The current board is firmly committed to seeking longer school days and years and other contract changes Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has asked for in her Shift proposal.

Noor ran for Senate with the MFT’s endorsement, but education advocates are divided whether that telegraphs how he might serve. He also campaigned for board member Josh Reimnitz, a former Teach for America corps member who the union worked hard to defeat. Noor is described as smart and analytically minded.

Concerns have been raised that he may have squeaked in under the statutory guidelines for residency in District 3. Candidates for the board’s geographic seats must live in the district for at least 30 days prior to being selected. Noor moved into the district from Northeast Minneapolis in early October.

Seen as longer shots: Mabrey, Jourdain

Seen as longer shots, Mabrey and Jourdain both supplied such short answers to board members’ questions at the public interview that lengthy breaks had to be taken between candidates. The longest resident of the district, Jourdain served as vice chair of the Minneapolis American Indian Parent Committee from 2006-2008.

In her work for Outfront, Mabrey has lobbied on behalf of anti-bullying legislation. She moved into District 3 in late September.

At the September meeting where the appointment process was solidified, board member Tracine Asberry raised concerns about the district’s community outreach efforts. Specifically, Asberry said she wanted to know what “non-electronic” means would be used to encourage people to apply.

Not only was the window to apply just two weeks long, there was no plan for soliciting community input outside of allowing people to address the board during meetings and working sessions, she said.

“The community has suffered a tremendous loss,” Asberry said after the meeting. “This appointment needs to be handled with the utmost respect — and with love. This is unlike anything we’ve handled before.”

According to district staff, the opening was publicized in neighborhood and ethnic news publications, in addition to the MPS website, its e-mailed “Leader Letter” and social media accounts.

Some hoped for interim appointment

Some local education advocates had hoped that the board would do its best to appoint someone who would serve out the remainder of Samatar’s term and not run for re-election. Voters would then have an entire campaign season to test candidates, who would not have the incumbent’s advantage.

With this in mind, when Pam Costain ended her term six months early in 2010, former board member Peggy Flanagan was appointed. Already steeped in MPS issues, she had no learning curve.

When Lydia Lee resigned a year later, a differently configured board rejected the approach — as well as the application of T. Williams, a former board member who had sought changes to the MFT contract. Appointee Kim Ellison ran unopposed for re-election in 2012.

Here are the candidates’ letters to the board and résumés.

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