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MPS school-board races: All the usual dynamics are missing

In comparison to electoral cycles of the recent past, the 2014 Minneapolis School Board contest has been as cool as this year’s summer. Five seats — the majority on the nine-member board — are up for election, yet the usual dynamics are nowhere to be found.

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It feels like a watershed moment. On the one hand, the emerging community groups that have worked hard in recent years to crack the door open a little could come rushing in and breathe life into these most local of elections.

On the other, the seeming departure of the usual power poles could signal that school board contests will sink further into obscurity, neither drawing dynamic players nor igniting the imaginations of the electorate.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which in the past had an outsized amount of control over the outcome, appears to have stepped way back. Thus far it has made no endorsements, something that typically would have happened last spring.

Indeed the “labor” candidate on this year’s ticket is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has a laser-like focus on equity questions.

A threatened wave of “outside reform” money has not materialized, nor have the candidates who were expected to run on it. Also mostly AWOL: community activists with deep ties to Minneapolis Public Schools who have pondered runs in years past.

Privately, many are blunt as to why not. The last decade has shown that board service chews up and spits out many of those who take it most seriously.

There’s plenty of speculation that organized support will appear after the primary winnows the field. But it’s also possible that this might end up being grassroots politics in its purest form — candidates seeking out and attempting, with a handshake and an elevator speech, to connect with voters.

Some at-large, some geographical

First the basics. The 2012 election completed a shift that added two seats to the board and began electing six members from geographic areas that correspond to Park and Recreation Board districts. The other three are elected in citywide “at-large” contests.

The rationale for tying two-thirds of the seats to geographic districts was to make school board members more accountable to specific pockets of voters. The jury is still out on whether this move was a good idea. Perhaps in the wake of this year’s election a local social scientist will be persuaded to take up the question.

Three of the five seats up for grabs this year are geographically based. In two of them candidates are running unopposed. Incumbent Jenny Arneson faces no challenger in District 1 in northeast Minneapolis. Said Ali is the only candidate in the south-central District 3, which encompasses Seward and Cedar-Riverside, among other neighborhoods.

A former MPS employee, Ali has been a constituent advocate for Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He was born in Somalia, and lived and studied in India for eight years before immigrating to the United States.

In District 5 in south Minneapolis teacher Nelson Inz is running against district advocate and parent Jay Larson. Both men have impressive rosters of supporters.

The remaining two seats are at-large. Incumbent Rebecca Gagnon is vying for a second term; the other seat is being vacated by outgoing Board Chair Richard Mammen.

Gagnon is one of seven candidates for the two seats. The Aug. 12 primary will narrow the field to four hopefuls who will go on to the November general election.

Highest profile: Don Samuels

The highest profile individual in the at-large contest — and possibly in the entire field — is former Council Member Don Samuels. Samuels’ 2013 mayoral candidacy generated a great deal of enthusiasm in education circles.

Before the citywide DFL endorsing convention in May, it was thought he might see board service — a full-time job, done well, with a paycheck only charitably described as a stipend — as a step down. He is married to Northside Achievement Zone President and CEO Sondra Samuels, which means his election would make the Samuels household something of an education power base.

A former SEIU political director, Iris Altamirano has a résumé that includes a stint weeding cotton in Texas as a child, registering voters on St. Paul’s west side and as immigrant-rights organizer. She and Larson have been visible fixtures at education events since the race kicked off in late winter.

Andrew Mink has been described as a “reform” candidate, possibly because he is a former Teach for America corps member. His campaign is not garnering the support among education policy advocates as the last supposed reformer, Josh Reimnitz, who has turned out to be anything but a firebrand.

The other three candidates in the at-large race are Doug Mann, Ira Jourdain and Soren Christian Sorensen. All three have relatively low public profiles. Mann has run for the board numerous times. Sorenson ran for a City Council seat in 2009. Jordain has long experience in social services.

In the past “down ballot” races such as school board, an endorsement from a local union – the L in DFL – was everything. Arneson, Ali, Inz, Gagnon and Altamirano have the DFL endorsement.

A generation ago both Minneapolis and St. Paul had political committees that vetted school board candidates. At least in Minneapolis, the members of this committee were DFLers. The notion was that good school board service requires a certain level of expertise that typically isn’t asked of candidates running in races so far down the ballot.

Will citizens step up?

And so a really good question is: Will the citizenry step up to fill the void? Candidate forums so far this year have been very sparsely attended.

The bottom line is that if you care about the city schools you really ought to stop what you’re doing right now and put the next and last candidate forum on your calendar. At-large candidates — and will get to who that is momentarily — will talk about their positions on Wednesday, Aug. 6, at the Capri Theater at 2027 W. Broadway Ave., Minneapolis. Doors open at 6:00 p.m.; the forum begins at 6:30.

Child care and dinner will be provided, along with a school supply giveaway, but you must RSVP in advance.

Ballot optical scanner photo by Flickr user Steve Rhodes and used under Creative Commons license.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 07/22/2014 - 02:34 pm.

    RT Rybak is holding a fundraiser for Don Samuels later this month.

    It occurs to me that folks who still want or need to have some sort of referendum on the Vikings stadium deal should vote for folks other than Samuels for the at-large seats.

    Showing Don that he already crossed the threshold of the door out of public service may be the best you can get.

  2. Submitted by ira jourdain on 07/22/2014 - 05:19 pm.


    While I enjoy reading your articles I wanted to clarify as a parent of MPS students since 2003-04 I have been a visible fixture at many district/education events. Long before my candidacy for a At-Large seat on the board. I was on the Title VII American Indian Ed Committee that helped develop the first Memorandum-Of-Agreement in partnership with MPS, fellow Native American parents, and local community members and leaders. As a parent first and candidate second I have also attended numerous events such as the MPS 2020 Strategic Planning meeting held at Green Central School in February, the PREP workshops MPS offered, as well the MPS End of Year Celebration at the Brian Coyle Center. I would like to point out that Director Gagnon has been present at these events as well as many others I have encountered her at even before this campaign season. These are just a few of the many events that I have attended as a parent of MPS students and will continue to attend long after this campaign has ended.

    Ira Jourdain
    MPS Parent
    MBE Candidate At-Large

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/23/2014 - 03:58 pm.

    My problem with the school board races is that

    almost everyone makes the same bland public statements. “I believe in a quality education for all our children,” etc. etc. Well, yes, who would get up and say, “I want the children of Minneapolis to be ignorant” or “I don’t care if some children fall through the cracks”?

    Who is ready to talk honestly and a bit radically about the ways in which business as usual is working and not working?

    Who has honestly considered and is willing to talk about the way poverty affects schooling, not just as an excuse but as a challenge?

    Who has looked at the effects of way the schools are administered and consolidated and broken up ?

    Who has looked at the school budget and has specific opinions about needs to go and what needs to stay? Are there cuts in non-essentials that would allow the Minneapolis Public Schools to break away from the soul-killing rounds of high-stakes testing?

    Are there perhaps some retired teachers who will speak frankly about the circumstances and people who may have stymied their efforts?

    Who is willing to point the finger at anti-intellectual parents who think that the only purpose of school is to prepare their child for a job or parents who are so besotted with their own children that they raise a ruckus if a teacher reprimands one of them?

    Who is willing to confront the (mostly Republican) types who squawk endlessly about teachers’ unions as THE problem? (The candidate should challenge them to spend a week teaching seventh graders in a mixed-income school or even an affluent one.)

    Who is willing to promote not just proficiency but love of learning and intellectual curiosity as goals?

    I have not looked at these things myself, since I have never been either a public school teacher or a parent.

    However, it would be a refreshing development if someone broke away from the standard spiel that school board candidates tend to deliver and talk frankly about the real merits and challenges of the Minneapolis system.

  4. Submitted by Doug Mann on 07/31/2014 - 08:47 pm.

    School Board candidate forum update

    “The People’s Forum” for at-large school board candidates
    Wednesday, August 6, 2014
    Capri Theater at 2027 W. Broadway
    Doors open for Dinner at 5:30 PM
    Forum runs from 6:30 to 8:30 PM

    Get your free tickets here:

    At least 4 candidates have confirmed that they plan to attend: Iris Altamirano,
    Ira Jourdain, Doug Mann, Don Samuels.

    I already got an email with details about the format. In my 2 minute
    introduction, I will surprise no one. It will go something like this:

    My goal is to make a quality, public K-12 education available to all on an
    equal basis in the City of Minneapolis. The actions needed to get us there
    include: Bringing teacher turnover rates to low levels in every school by
    allowing most teachers to complete their probationary period and to become
    tenured, by increasing classroom support for teachers in high poverty schools,
    by preserving due process, seniority, and tenure rights for teachers, and by
    strengthening due process and tenure rights for teachers who have not completed
    their 3 year, post-hire probationary period. We must evaluate ability grouping
    practices, and eliminate those found to be harmful (I believe that “ability
    grouping” is generally harmful).

    I am also opposed to the school reform agenda that the district is
    carrying out under pressure from the federal and state governments. The
    district perseveres in keeping a large pool of probationary teachers, in large
    part by firing and replacing them. The district hires green teachers through
    Teach For America on a short term basis. The district has introduced a
    scripted, test-prep curriculum, and an evaluation system that puts green
    teachers under great pressure to follow the script. Selected high poverty
    schools get longer school days and a longer school year in order to do more
    “drill and kill” in order to boost those test scores. More seat time, with the
    same or lower quality of instruction. The district promotes and sponsors
    charter schools.

    -Doug Mann, Green Party candidate for Minneapolis School Board

  5. Submitted by Emma Piorier on 08/01/2014 - 10:19 am.

    Neson Inz is endorsed by Keith Ellison, Jeff Hayden, the Minneapolis DFL, Elizabeth Glidden, AFSCME, and almost every elected official who serves District 5. I’m not sure of anyone that is supporting Jay Larson, and his website doesn’t list any endorsements.

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