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With 3 seats likely open, Minneapolis School Board could see shift in dynamics

Alberto Monserrate

The announcement over the weekend that Alberto Monserrate will not seek re-election brings to three the likely number of this Minneapolis School Board races with no incumbent. Suddenly, the balance of power on the sharply divided nine-member body is anybody’s guess.

“There’s a big chance for a shift in dynamics on that board,” said David DeGrio, a board campaign veteran. “It makes it so a much more diverse group of people could be involved.”

Monserrate’s announcement came days after incoming board Chair Richard Mammen announced he would not seek a second term. Mohamud Noor, appointed last month to fill the late Hussein Samatar’s chair, announced three weeks later that he was running to unseat Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a Minneapolis DFLer.

“It is more important than ever that voters in 2014 support school board members that will support the current direction the district is heading towards,” Monserrate said in a message to supporters. “They must also at the same time support candidates that will act with a sense of increased urgency.”

New talk about model of governance

In addition to igniting speculation about horse races, the news sparked fresh discussion about whether the board, as currently configured and chosen, is the best model of governance for a large urban district. Many local public-education advocates have long feared that the political process deters good candidates and punishes board members who push for change.

The last time there were three open seats was 2010, when a trio of incumbents who had pushed hard for big changes in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) declared themselves exhausted and stretched too thin by board service to hold down paying jobs.

Monserrate, too, attributed his decision to a need to focus more attention on his Spanish-language media network. Before his appointment Noor made no secret about his political ambitions. In announcing his decision, Mammen said he wanted to focus his energies on the work of board chair this year and not on a campaign.

“It’s just a really hard job,” said Lynnell Mickelsen, a longtime DFL delegate and one of the founders of the Contract for Student Achievement, a group pushing for changes to the district’s contract with its teachers. “They earn stipends of $14,000 a year. It takes at least 20 hours a week. It’s hard to put time into a family or a job.”

‘It just burns people out’

And with voters polarized over high-profile issues involving race, equity and labor, every seat is potentially hot all the time. “You get yelled at a lot,” Mickelsen added. “And no one talks about how little power you have once you are actually there. It’s not a stepping-stone to higher office. It just burns people out.”

Add to this the fact that in recent electoral cycles candidates in tight races have raised tens of thousands of dollars and have benefited from independent campaign expenditures from outside groups with sharply divided agendas. The litmus test at the top of them: Whether the candidates elected will vote in favor of long-sought changes to the teachers’ contract.

DeGrio was a teachers union-endorsed candidate for the board in 2010 and chair of the 2012 campaign of freshman board member Josh Reimnitz, who was bitterly opposed by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT). The tone of the more recent electoral cycle was uglier and more personal than just a couple of years before, he said.

“It’s less attractive to run,” said DeGrio. “There are a lot of people I’ve talked to who I think would be good candidates and good stewards of the public trust, and they’re not interested.”

The stakes? The district has 60 percent more employees as the city of Minneapolis and a $719 million budget, said Mickelson: “You can ask, is this the best way to govern?”

Now CEO of AchieveMpls, Pam Costain was one of the board members who chose not to seek re-election in 2010 in large part because she needed a living wage. “Being a member of the Minneapolis board was the most important work I did in my life,” she said Monday. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to actually make a difference.”

Costain was quick to add that she’s not sure what the answer is, but the current juncture is a perfect opportunity to reassess the existing leadership model. “Our community needs to step back and say whether our current system is working,” said Costain. “That includes the endorsing process, the election process and the structure of the board itself.”

Some large urban districts have shifted — or shifted back — to systems where mayors or other elected officials appoint some or all of the board members. Others have seen six-figure campaigns — most famously in Denver.

The all-important convention

In the past, board contests have been all but nailed down during Minneapolis’ spring citywide endorsing convention, a forum in which the will of labor — the L in DFL — has traditionally determined the outcome.

The 2012 convention ended with no endorsement in one hot race when the MFT-endorsed frontrunner in one district couldn’t win over enough delegates. The ensuing campaign season was expensive, with education-reform groups and the union pouring on record levels of support for their favorites.

A number of nontraditional groups hosted candidate forums that drew unusually large crowds. Two “outsiders” were elected, Reimnitz in a very narrow contest. Contrary to the heated campaign rhetoric, he has been perhaps the quietest member of the board during the last year.

Monserrate’s announcement came three scant weeks before the DFL caucus, the place where delegates to the endorsing convention are chosen. Had either Monserrate or Mammen wanted to make life difficult for candidates likely to challenge the MFT’s power, they could have waited until after the caucus, when it would have been impossible for newcomers to participate in the endorsing process. 

As it stands, the nontraditional groups that got involved in the 2012 election and portions of the equity-focused coalition that propelled Mayor Betsy Hodges to victory can get in on the process should they so choose. Or coalition politics, DeGrio noted, could block an endorsement.

The contract

The big unanswered question: When during the election cycle will the district and MFT announce a new contract and how will its contents affect the contest? The union has not publicly indicated a willingness to adopt any of the proposals in Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s Shift initiative, which the entire board has said it supports.

Monserrate ran as a reform-oriented candidate, but along with virtually all of the board except for Samatar and Carla Bates, did not push hard for big changes in the last round of talks, according to Mickelsen, who has listened to tapes of the board’s executive sessions.

No matter the outcome of the contract negotiations, he’s on the firing line. The same can be said of Mammen.

“You can’t win,” said Mickelsen. “It’s a tough job.”

Which troubles second-termer Bates, among others. “If people really want to close the achievement gap it means boots on the ground, it means being a teacher, it means being a board member, it means being involved,” she said. “It’s a crisis, and who is going to step up?”

She’s particularly hopeful that people of color and people with a stake in the district will explore running: “I’d like to encourage everyone who has ever considered running, because there’s probably not a more important job in the city.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect figure for the district’s budget; it has been corrected.

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