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Big money, mean mailers and forgotten races: what you need to know about the Minneapolis school board election

So the stranger-than-fiction Minneapolis School Board election takes place in less than a week. There’s been a river of cash, fleets of canvassers and phone bankers, a breathless, big-bold-type mailer slamming an incumbent and the GIF-besotted, factually suspect beast that is Facebook. And still there are a lot of you out there who are unsure whom to vote for when confronted with an actual ballot.

Sorry, Dear Reader, this ain’t that story — though we will momentarily offer some assistance. MinnPost does not endorse candidates for public office.

And I for one could not be more delighted. It’s been my observation over the years that candidates for an office this hyper-local get better as they campaign. How could they not, after hundreds of hours of conversations with people who care passionately about the community’s future?

So why not let newspaper editorials go the way of the felt eraser? Without them — particularly in a one-party town — candidates might have to engage with voters directly. The exercise makes most of them better, which is especially important given that we are asking people to take on a full-time, mostly unpaid position in which they will make crucial decisions about children.

The ever-contentious race for the at-large board seats

I would wager the current candidate Minneapolis residents have learned the most about is Iris Altamirano, who is running for an at-large board seat. Because of her background — and the dynamics of the race — she has earned support from pockets of voters who agree about virtually nothing else. If she wins, she will be in an enviable position to build bridges.

Iris Altamirano
Iris Altamirano

The daughter of a school janitor, Altamirano worked in agricultural fields in Texas as a child. In part because her mother had no patience for the limiting messages her daughter was given by the school system, Altamirano went on to graduate from Cornell University and to become a political organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Will she win? Because she finished third in the August primary, conventional wisdom puts her in third place in the four-candidate field for two at-large board seats elected by a citywide vote. But conventional wisdom doesn’t account for the fact that in a nonpresidential election year, primaries attract only the hardiest of the die-hards. 

At the same time, Altamirano will have her work cut out to best the first- and second-place finishers, Rebecca Gagnon and Don Samuels, respectively. Altamirano and Gagnon have the DFL endorsement; all three enjoy individual endorsements by numerous DFL elected officials.

Rebecca Gagnon
Rebecca Gagnon

The fourth at-large candidate, Ira Jourdain, enjoys the backing of some of Gagnon’s strongest supporters. It’s unlikely to put him over the top. 

An incumbent, Gagnon has been an omnipresent fixture in Minneapolis Public Schools since her 2010 election to the board. In addition to serving on a number of state and local education-related boards and task forces, she is a frequent attendee at high-profile and school-level events. 

Although she did not seek the endorsement of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) in either of her bids for office, Gagnon’s campaigns have enjoyed strong union support — this year including six-figure spending by labor on the DFL’s coordinated campaign. 

Samuels, meanwhile, demonstrated a deep understanding of education policy in his bid for mayor last year, and made public calls for transparency when the MFT sought to close contentious contract negotiations to the public.

Samuels was a founder of the Hope Collaborative, which played a role in galvanizing support for more effective schools by bringing national leaders of successful effort to the Twin Cities to talk to local leaders. He supports high-performing charters as well as efforts to close persistent underperformers.

Most recently, both Samuels and Altamirano have decried a negative mailer currently circulating that paints Gagnon as beholden to special interests and that links her to the awarding of a shadowy no-bid contract currently in headlines.

‘We need a new conversation’

“A recent negative mailing and negative campaign calls we’ve seen and heard about in the past week are more examples of what I’ve been saying throughout our campaign,” Altamirano stated. “We need a new conversation about education in Minneapolis because the situation for our kids is too urgent. Negative campaigning does not move us in that direction.”

Don Samuels
Don Samuels

Samuels also decried the mailer, adding that he is concerned about the example adults are setting for children. “I am also calling on anyone who supports me, even if they think they are being helpful, to stop focusing on what’s wrong with others so I can focus on telling how I will make schools better for every child,” he said. 

Created and paid for by a new independent expenditure committee, the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, the mailing is more strident than anything on the record so far this year. 

The fund is chaired by Daniel Sellers, who is the executive director of the education advocacy group MinnCAN. MinnCAN’s national affiliate 50CAN is associated with a political action fund that has spent in favor of Samuel’s candidacy.

“We appreciate that [the candidates] don’t support the negative tone, and at the same time we feel that it’s critical that people understand there are clear choices and clear differences between the candidates,” said Sellers. “I’m not surprised the candidates themselves are not eager to engage in negative campaigning.” 

Ira Jourdain
Ira Jourdain

According to Sellers and to registration filings, the fund is made up of MPS stakeholders including teachers and alumni. He has promised financial transparency.

Pre-election campaign finance disclosures are being filed this week. So far, spending by organized labor and the DFL in favor of the party’s slate has outpaced funding by so-called reform groups.

CSI an issue

Last year, Gagnon testified before state lawmakers in favor of funding for the Community Standards Initiative, an effort to promote positive behavior in neighborhoods and schools which was ultimately awarded a $405,000 no-bid contract by MPS in May.

The group that got the contract had no website, phone number or legal structure. It did, however, have the support of state Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion. The two currently are the subject of a GOP-led ethics probe.

Several district insiders have said a number of board members knew about the contract, which was placed on the board’s consent agenda, where items do not receive public discussion. The vote to approve was unanimous. 

There have been nameless attempts to stir the pot, too, though it’s not clear on whose behalf. In recent weeks a number of Minneapolis voters have complained of receiving anonymous “push-poll” calls in which negative messages concerning several candidates are raised.

The forgotten races for district seats

In direct contrast to the roiling debate in the at-large contest, the other three races on this year’s ballot are barely registering. Those seats all correspond to geographic districts that use the same boundaries as the Minneapolis Park Board.

In District 5, two candidates have mounted a polite campaign to represent the swath of south Minneapolis stretching south from 36th Street from Interstate 35W to the Mississippi River.

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On Monday, we profiled the race between teacher Nelson Inz and funeral services provider Jay Larson. Both men are well respected, though Inz has mounted the more active campaign.

In District 1, incumbent Jenny Arneson is running unopposed. In addition to being a staunch advocate for families and schools in the city’s northeast quadrant, Arneson has served as vice-chair of the board.

In District 3, Siad Ali is also running unopposed. The seat is now occupied by Mohamed Noor, who was selected by the board to serve out the remainder of the current term after Hussein Samatar died in August 2013. Noor stepped down to mount an unsuccessful campaign for the state House of Representatives against fellow DFLer Phyllis Kahn.

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

Which is a tidy segue back to the start of this piece. Little ink has been spilled about Ali, Inz and Larson outside of community media. Several community and political groups have, however, compiled voter guides.

One is from Educators4Excellence, an organization of teachers — many of them active in their union — who are seeking a voice in policy matters. The detailed Q&A was compiled before the primary, so a number of respondents are no longer in the race.

Another was compiled by the Coalition for Quality Public Schools, which includes two groups spending in favor of DFL endorsees, the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and the MFT. 

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by BT Thomas on 10/29/2014 - 11:16 am.

    Blurred Lines

    As applied to the writing by Ms. Hawkins, the fig leaf that MinnPost does not endorse candidates is an inconvenient technicality. This space, including this article, is in constant advocacy mode for the agendas of MinnCAN, anti-union forces, Levy-Pounds and Stewart, and others who coalesce around similar sentiments. In the current electoral configuration for the open seats, this has come to mean support for Samuels and Altamirano and opposition to Gagnon and Jourdain. This article is plainly no exception to that agenda, and any veneer of objectivity is exceedingly thin, from the headline on down.

    Judging by the comments on other of Ms. Hawkins’ editorialized “reporting,” many readers of this space are close followers of the debates around MPS and have no trouble identifying which side Ms. Hawkins is on as a product of her own views, funding sources for this space, and otherwise. I read some of what is written by her to understand and consider a particular point of view. For anyone uninitiated to Ms. Hawkins’ writings, however, the notion that “MinnPost does not endorse, but I’m going to help you figure things out” is a misleading attempt to imply journalistic objectivity and some sort of arms-length voter’s guide. Neither is present here or in other of Ms. Hawkins’ writings.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/29/2014 - 01:07 pm.

      Fig leaves…

      I disagree.

      A relative newbie to the MSD and its board races, what I read and heard from candidates suggests that there are four sincere candidates for the pair of at-large seats, two of them relative insiders, with either prior board experience or plenty of experience with city issues, and two of them relative outsiders, both with engaging personal stories.

      Like every other Minneapolis resident, I have a personal stake in this election that’s strictly selfish – I want my neighbors to be civilized, by which I mean educated. I have another personal stake in the form of two grandchildren who are, or soon will be, attending a 1st District school. I’m not totally naive about the issues likely to attract voter interest and support, and there appear to be pluses and minuses for each at-large candidate. I’ve read nothing – at least so far – to indicated that I should be opposed to the reelection of the current 1st District seat-holder.

      “Objectivity” in the purest sense doesn’t exist, but “fairness” certainly does, and while I’ve not always agreed with Ms. Hawkins on specific issues, I do think she adheres closely to “fairness” in what she presents to MinnPost readers.

      • Submitted by BT Thomas on 10/29/2014 - 03:14 pm.


        I agree with you on the illusion of journalistic objectivity, which is why I wrote only that the approach to this article was meant to “imply” it existed. A step further, journalistic “fairness” is also an eye of the beholder concept. “Fair and balanced” indeed.

        Also agree that one on various occasions will agree or disagree “with Ms. Hawkins on specific issues.” That presupposes her views are discernable from her postings, which they clearly are. This article is another in a line of Ms. Hawkins’ expression of them. Indeed, I read this space knowing that. It’s the pretension of “objectivity” or “fairness” that is objectionable, including in the framing of this article. The reality is plain.

        I’ve never even been sure if this “blog” space is supposed to carry a pretension of journalistic “fairness” (if that’s the term). It’s written by an author committed to advocacy (obscured by the occasional fig leaf). That’s all well and good, and I wish MinnPost or Ms. Hawkins would make that clear. Let’s just not pretend otherwise.

        As to the first two reply paragraphs of the personal stake we have in the election, I’ll presume to say that’s something Ms. Hawkins, myself, and every reader wholeheartedly agrees on.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/29/2014 - 01:12 pm.


    Educators for Excellence, like MinnCan and other education “reform” groups Beth Hawkins promotes, is funded by right-wing billionaires.

    Does anyone actually edit Hawkins’ pieces? This is just awful, awful journalism, which would not seem out of place on Fox News, but is just wierd at Minnpost, which purports to have journalistic integrity.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/29/2014 - 02:22 pm.

      Journalistic Integrity.

      Toe the DFL line at all costs.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/29/2014 - 02:51 pm.


        I’m not asking for the bias to go the other way. I’m asking for the bias to be removed. I’m asking for accurate and complete reporting, and that is absent from almost everything Hawkins writes for Minnpost.

        • Submitted by BT Thomas on 10/31/2014 - 10:16 am.

          As a starting point…

          …how about the integrity to make plain whether this space purports to have journalistic integrity (a reporting space) or instead is a opinion blog (outright advocacy for a particular point of view). It seems to parade about like the former, but definitely operates like the latter.

  3. Submitted by Gwen Spurgat on 10/29/2014 - 02:17 pm.

    Hawkins states ‘There have been nameless attempts to stir the pot, too, though it’s not clear on whose behalf.”

    This simply isn’t honest: A journalist would have to name Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund PAC has having supported Samuels and Altamirano, and sent smear ads and phone calls about Gagnon to the tune of $146K. It seems to be pretty clear to me.

    I’m not a journalist, but here’s what I came up with: The Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund PAC suddenly arrived in Minneapolis: (their Campaign Finance Report: ) Here are a few highlights
    Raised so far: $228K
    Spent so far: $146K, look at the file to find out expenses to canvassers and printers

    And for those who want more facts: on MPEF:
    MINNEAPOLIS Progressive Education Fund yet most of their largest funders are NOT from Minneapolis!
    $100,000 contribution from Michael Bloomberg of New York (no intro needed for Mr Bloomberg)
    $90,000 contribution from Arther Rock of California (a tech capitalist from San Francisco or
    $25,000 contribution from Jon Slacker of Massachusetts ( invests in charter schools and education technology companies. – hey, shouldn’t all kids have an iPad for his Apps? maybe more online tests?)
    $1500 contribution from John Graves of Excelsior, MN
    $1000 contribution from Addison Piper of Hamel, MN

    Gwen Spurgat

  4. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 10/29/2014 - 02:59 pm.


    These numbers were posted after press time this morning. We have a comprehensive story about the campaign finance disclosures going up any minute.  

    • Submitted by Gwen Spurgat on 10/30/2014 - 10:21 am.

      Even before this report – most contributors were not “nameless”

      Beth, Even before this report – most contributors were not “nameless” (All of Minneapolis got the three glossy mailers from MPEF. Even the big DFL money that you keep reporting on isn’t nameless.) and it is clear “on whose behalf” they were sent (since the pictures of Samuels and Altamirano were on the mailers, and Gagnon was smeared in other mailers by the same organization and phone calls).

      I would have thought a more honest sentence might have been, “Although we will know more soon when the campaign finance disclosures are available, at this time it appears that Samuels and Altamirano are the perhaps unwitting beneficiaries of a majority of this spending.”

      And then there is this: “Several district insiders have said a number of board members knew about the contract, which was placed on the board’s consent agenda, …” I would think constituates expect that ALL members SHOULD have reviewed the consent agenda prior to vote (perhaps you would do a report on why some members DIDN’T know before they voted).

      Again, this sentence might have read: “Surprisingly there were board members who had not reviewed the consent agenda prior to voting, yet all voted in favor. ”

  5. Submitted by Patricia Milbrath on 10/29/2014 - 07:08 pm.

    Minnpost mispresents the truth. Again.

    Once again, a statement in Minnpost misrepresents what happened during contract negotiations. MFT requested that the state mediator become involved in negotiations, which, by law, meant that the state mediators office had the legal authority to decide if negotiations remained public or went private. Stating that MFT “sought to close contentious contract negotiations to the public” is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. At any time, If either side had requested involvement of the mediator’s office, this would have occurred. The involvement of the state mediator’s office likely sped up the negotiation process so all parties could return to focus on the most important task at hand, educating the children.

    How many times, and why, are writers in Minnpost going to misrepresent this very clear and straightforward part of teacher contract negotiation law?

  6. Submitted by Patricia Milbrath on 10/29/2014 - 07:28 pm.

    Hennepin Co. link re: Outside $ trying to buy our school board

    Here is the link to the Hennepin County documents filed for the Minnesota Progressive Education Fund that show the enormous sums of money coming from out of state to finance some of the most dirty politics our city has ever seen. Mr. Sellers is assisting those outside of Minnesota to buy our school board while I go to work every day to teach the bright and beautiful young people of Minneapolis, while I cheer along the young man in my reading class who was just released from the workhouse, while I ask students to tell me what our reading brings to mind and they tell me about watching someone die in front of them from a gunshot wound, while I teach young adult immigrant students who have never been to school before how to sound out words, while I comfort and encourage students who have been through trauma of every kind. Mr. Sellers wouldn’t last a day as a teacher in an MPS classroom. How dare he fan the flames of an already desperate and divided city.

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/30/2014 - 07:13 pm.

    That CSI matter is going to influence my vote, and…

    …maybe I’m not paying enough attention, but it wasn’t until the outcries about the infamous negative mailers, and getting the mailer myself, that I saw Gagnon’s name in print as an advocate – perhaps the leading advocate – of the hare-brained scheme to funnel money to CSI and its alleged program, which lacked any meaningful definition.

    To me, this attempted misuse of $400,000 is evidence of malfeasance – or worse.

    So for me, all the high-minded principles everyone espouses are secondary when I look at a $400k contract which is a load of air-headed crap. This is something very down-to-earth and practical. It’s enough to drive my vote away from those who championed it.

    It’s all fine and good to complain about negative advertising, and in general I don’t like it either, but in this particular case, I consider it a service.

    I am surprised to find myself voting for Don Samuels, because his stadium vote infurated me. But I don’t doubt the School Board is where Don can really contribute something of value to this community.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/31/2014 - 06:09 am.


    One of the things we need to explain to people and that includes politicians and local folks who have a sad vulnerability to outside cash is that having money doesn’t make you smarter. That the opinion of some outside billionaire willing to throw money around he or she made from some unrelated business isn’t any more and is probably less valuable than your own.

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