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

Will community groups rush in to breathe life into the races? Or will the contests drop further into obscurity?

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.

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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.