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A ‘crazy’ amount of money is being spent on Minneapolis school-board races

Cash and services raised this year by groups spending heavily on the board races — and there are just two red-hot contests — amount to nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Cash and services raised this year by groups spending heavily on school board races — and there are just two red-hot contests — amount to nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Remember 2012? 

That was the year we wailed and moaned over the arrival of big money in Minneapolis School Board races. Specifically, some $45,000 spent on behalf of District 4 candidate Josh Reimnitz and $21,000 in cash and services on behalf of his opponent, Patty Wycoff. 

Ah, what a gentler, more innocent era it seems now.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court took a back-loader to campaign finance disclosure laws, the full extent of spending in this year’s Minneapolis School Board race may never be known. But whatever the final total it will make 2012’s expenditures look like chump change.

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Cash and services raised this year by groups spending heavily on the board races — despite the fact that there are just two red-hot contests — amount to nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

“That’s incredible,” said David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University and an expert on campaign finance. “That’s an amazing amount of money for the school board.”

Schultz estimated that the amount eclipses spending in 95 percent of state legislative contests, where such big-money battles take place are those “that affect the balance of power in terms of who controls the Legislature.”

5 board members to be elected

At stake is the composition of the nine-member board that oversees Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), which has the power to approve or reject policies that could have far-reaching implications for the district’s teachers union.

The five members elected this year will have a say in everything from the district’s future as a charter authorizer to whether MPS can insist on changes in instructional practices and other strategies many feel are necessary to close one of the worst racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in the nation.

In comparison to 2012, some $41,000 of the money and in-kind donations reported to date is from two education advocacy groups calling for change. The rest has been generated by labor unions at the local, state and federal levels.

The budget for the coordinated campaign on behalf of DFL endorsees — an effort concentrated on the hotly contested four-way race for two at-large seats — is $140,000, according to campaign workers.

In that race, incumbent Rebecca Gagnon and Service Employees International Union organizer Iris Altamirano have the DFL endorsement. They face former City Council member Don Samuels, who has deep support among education advocates, and Ira Jourdain, who trailed by a wide margin in the August primary.

The primary’s third-place finisher, Altamirano shares supporters with both Gagnon and Samuels.

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Two other DFL endorsed candidates are running unopposed while a two-way contest in the south-central District has remained sleepy in terms of spending and controversy.

Doesn’t include all expenditures

The amount reported to date this year does not include outside expenditures to influence races that fall outside campaign-finance reporting requirements and money and services donated after various mid-September reporting deadlines. In most instances, the next reporting deadlines fall after the November election.

And while it doesn’t approach the $1.7 million spent on last year’s mayoral contest in the city, it does suggest to Schultz that Minneapolis has become very important to outside groups.

“What this is suggesting is that something fundamentally has changed in Minneapolis in terms of spending,” said Schultz. “Even if it is roughly a one-party city, within that one party it’s become very competitive.”

Indeed, there appears to be just one Republican-identified donation of $2,500 in the races, which is likely being spent to support at-large candidate Don Samuels, whose backers are mostly DFLers.

Education Minnesota has the largest coffer

The largest coffer, $1.5 million, has been amassed by Education Minnesota, which has not made cash donations to the Minneapolis contest. The state teacher union has given $10,000 in cash and $24,000 in donated labor to the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation (MRLF).

The regional federation has generated $138,411 so far, including $2,400 in in-kind services from the Minneapolis DFL and $100,000 from its members. It has given $43,000 to state and federal DFL committees.

On Sept. 16, with nearly seven weeks remaining before the election, the MRLF had $88,000 on hand.

The Minneapolis DFL took in $35,000, nearly $31,000 of it from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) political fund. It had a little more than $41,000 on hand at the end of the filing period.

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In turn the local union received $35,000 from the American Federation of Teachers. The MFT spent $15,000 on canvassing and efforts to turn people out for city caucuses and the convention, and contributed nearly $20,000 to state and federal party units.

SFER’s donations

The Student for Education Reform (SFER) Action Network Fund reported receipts of $26,000, $23,500 of which was a single donation from Adam Cioth and the remainder from Ben Whitney.

An investment banker, Cioth sits on SFER’s board. He is active both in the charter and traditional public school sectors, as well as the nonprofit startup NewSchools Venture Fund. Ben Whitney headed up George Bush’s 2004 Minnesota campaign and chairs the board of the education advocacy group MinnCAN.

According to the disclosures, the SFER effort donated $16,000 worth of canvassing to MinnCAN’s political committee, the 50CAN Action Fund. It also paid for $4,350 worth of 50CAN literature and spent $5,000 for voter files and organizing software.

In addition to SFER’s contributions, the 50CAN Action Fund reported receiving $4,305 in cash from the student group and $10,000 from Arthur Rock, a San Francisco venture capitalist who sits on the board of Teach for America. (Teach for America Co-CEO Matt Kramer is the son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer; none were involved in assigning or reporting this article.)

The 50CAN Action Fund took in a total of $35,000 and spent some $13,000 on campaign materials.

Most of the state reports are here, alphabetically; the MFT is under Local 59. The ones governed by local rules are here.

When former board Chair Tom Madden ran in 2006, a war chest of $15,000-$25,000 was perceived as formidable. This year’s numbers strike him as preposterous.

“It’s absurd from an expectations standpoint,” he said. “There’s nine people on the board. If one person thinks they are going to come in with their ideas and get them done, they’re wrong.

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“To spend that kind of money battling in your own zone? It’s crazy.”

This article has been updated to include the fact that donor Arthur Rock is a member of Teach for America’s board of directors, information that came to light after publication.