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The sea of cash in the Minneapolis school-board race just became a tsunami

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $100,000 to The Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

The sea of cash being poured into a Minneapolis School Board race just officially became a tsunami. According to campaign finance disclosures filed Tuesday, spending in the blazing hot four-way race for two citywide seats likely has surpassed $500,000.

The most astonishing donations on the disclosures, the last due before next week’s election: The Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund has received $100,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $90,000 from Teach for America board member Arthur Rock and $25,000 from Jon Sackler, who sits on the boards of the education advocacy groups 50CAN and Students for Education Reform.

Other donors to the independent expenditure campaign, which reported receipts of $228,300 include $10,000 from Mike Ciresi, who is active in Minnesota education circles, as well as $1,000 from Piper Jaffray board member Addison Piper.

Along with six-figure spending by state and local unions, the eye-popping donations bring the total amount of cash going to influence the race to easily twice what many candidates for state office spend on competitive races. It’s a level of interest seen to date only in a handful of large urban districts where board members elected will face similar decisions about the future of public education.

Other groups spending to influence the race include the 50CAN Action Fund, which has raised $15,000, and Students for Education Reform Action Network Fund, which raised $36,000.

In favor of Samuels and Altamirano

The three aforementioned funds have all campaigned in favor of at-large candidates Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano. Because they are independent groups, they do not coordinate their activities with the candidates. Earlier this week Samuels and Altamirano were quick to criticize a negative mailer circulated by the newest group slamming their opponent Rebecca Gagnon.

It’s not the first time independent expenditures such as those being made by the new fund have taken place in a Minneapolis school-board contest. But it dwarfs past expenditures and, for the first time, may match or exceed teacher union efforts.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers had raised and spent more than $80,000 on state and local races as of its October state filing deadline. According to previous disclosures, many of its donations come from the national American Federation of Teachers.

The Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation (MRLF), which has spent heavily on the DFL’s coordinated campaign for the party’s endorsed school-board candidates, took in almost $176,000.

Education Minnesota has also taken in national contributions and dedicated funds and staff time to local elections, although its contributions have been made to DFL Party units and to other labor groups, including the MRLF.

Labor and individuals’ spending

The spending by labor has gone to support DFL endorsees Altamirano, Gagnon and Nelson Inz (running in District 5), and to oppose Samuels. Gagnon did not seek labor’s endorsement and has been silent on the fact that union money is supporting her campaign.

In terms of donations from individuals to candidates, former Minneapolis City Council member Samuels leads the pack with $65,000 in donations. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) political organizer Altamirano has raised $41,000. Gagnon has raised $17,000 and spent $20,000. Also running in the four-way citywide contest for two at-large seats is Ira Jourdain, who has raised $3,000.

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Running unopposed in geographic races are Jenny Arneson in District 1 and Siad Ali in District 3. Arneson has raised $8,000 and Ali $10,000. In District 5 Inz has raised $7,000, while opponent Jay Larson has no campaign fund.

As reported earlier by MinnPost, the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund was started this year by a group of Twin Cities residents headed by Daniel Sellers, who is the executive director of MinnCAN, which is the local affiliate of the education advocacy group 50CAN. 50CAN has its own political fund, which has been active here.

Other fund board members include parent activist Seth Kirk, children’s rights activist Tiffany Flynn Forslund, 50CAN’s Vallay Varro, who used to serve on the St. Paul School Board, and Washburn graduate and attorney Josh Iverson.

The group disclosed smaller contributions from three other individuals, including the executive director of Charter School Partners, Al Fan, Edina real estate agent Doug McElrath, Daniel Sellers, who chairs the fund, and John Graves, who owns a tax reporting firm.

As of the filing date the group had spent almost $150,000 of the money on items usually associated with state and federal campaigns such as polling and strategy development, as well as mailers and phone banking.

Wanted local group

If 50CAN is also active in the Minneapolis contest, why create a new independent expenditure committee? “We felt like it was important to have all decisions made by a local group with local issues in mind,” said Sellers.

The group sought national resources, he said, “but the decisions about what candidate to back and what strategy to use were made entirely at the local level without national influence.”

Whether those decisions will be as effective as the size of the bankroll behind them remains an open question. Initial reaction to the group’s negative mailer, reported by MinnPost Wednesday, was shock at the idea that high-level campaign tactics are playing out in such a local race. 

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/30/2014 - 06:43 am.

    A Modest Proposal

    I think all candidates in all elections should pledge to reject outside money, both coordinated and uncoordinated, and should urge media not to run ads paid for by outside dollars.

    And I think voters should pledge not to vote for candidates who do not disclaim either coordinated or uncoordinated campaigns paid for with outside money.

  2. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 10/30/2014 - 08:06 am.

    Horses vs. Horse race

    When will MinnPost report about issues in the school board election? What are the specific issues? What are the positions of the candidates? This story is all about the horse race and nothing about the horses.
    Thousands of Minneapolis residents without children in the schools – like me – are clueless about what candidates want to do about problems in the district and how candidates plan to solve them.

    Very disappointing coverage of Mpls school district race.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/30/2014 - 08:31 am.

    Rejecting outside money

    I do, too, Hiram. I also think the chances of such proposals being adopted are approximately equal to the chances that I’m going to grow wings and learn to fly.

    Along those same lines, there’s this: “…The group sought national resources, he said, ‘but the decisions about what candidate to back and what strategy to use were made entirely at the local level without national influence.’”

    This statement strikes me in much the same way as rejecting outside help altogether: getting “resources” (I love those euphemisms for ‘money’) from a national organization or group without there being any pressure at all from said organization or group about how to use those ‘resources’ is the fantasy of many a local group. It’s just that – a fantasy. Outside groups, some laudable, some sleazy, provide campaign money in elections because they want to influence those elections. At the very least, they want a friendly ear when it comes to policy suggestions.

  4. Submitted by Blaire Hartley on 10/30/2014 - 09:16 am.

    What do these big donors want?

    Try to answer the big questions about the outside donors. I just don’t see that information being presented here. “Ed reform” is a term thrown around as if it has some discernible meaning, clear to everyone. It doesn’t. Does it mean vouchers, or more charters, or no unions, or school autonomy or what?
    Now a local group, hoping to further its own agenda which includes nasty, negative, incomplete and expensive mailers, goes outside the state to solicit big bucks from national donors in order to gain traction on the School Board. This information was bandied about weeks ago when it was clear big bucks were at play, but the information was discounted by Ms. Hawkins. I attended MinnPost’s Education “get-to-gether” a few weeks ago to hear more and I raised the issue. I was literally shouted down for questioning the source of the funding in the race and Ms. Hawkins constantly circled back to money raised by the DFL. I feel like I understand what unions are after and what teachers are concerned about. I want to know what the agenda is that drives outside donors – some with ties to computer ed tech companies – to bankroll this race. This is the reporting that needs to happen.

    • Submitted by Crystal Brakke on 10/30/2014 - 01:37 pm.

      I was there too!

      And I remember both the question and Beth’s response. There was no shouting (literally or figuratively), and as I recall you were asked where you had found evidence that the Koch brothers were funding the Minneapolis school board race as you asserted they were. Beth asked for more detail since she had looked into it but not found any connection. Have you found a connection, and if so, where?

      I completely agree with the importance of going deeper into the policies that are at the heart of this election–what is leading all of the major funders to contribute, but MOST importantly what positions the candidates themselves are taking. I get frustrated when the default assumption (running rampant on message boards around town) is that candidates are unable to think for themselves and merely puppets of others; I think that narrative is insulting to all four of them.

  5. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 10/30/2014 - 10:15 am.

    There’s a larger context here (of course)

    A passable article on the flow of money, but devoid of context. ‘Why’ is big money being poured into this race? -That is the question voters need to know about.

    Reform and ideological interests are clearly at work. But what do they stand for?

    Take Joe Sackler, mentioned in the article as sitting on the boards of 50CAN and Students for Education Reform. From the newschools.org website Sackler’s bio reads:

    “Mr. Sackler is the Managing Partner in North Bay Associates and Kokino LLC, and a co-founder of TRQ Management Company, all investment management businesses.  He was a past president and remains active with Cheyenne Petroleum Company, an oil and gas exploration and production company, and he was a co-founder of Soundview Real Estate Partners, a real estate investment company.  In addition, he serves on the boards of various companies in the pharmaceutical industry.
    Mr. Sackler has been active in the nonprofit sector with a particular focus on public education.  He is a Trustee for Achievement First, a growing charter management organization operating twenty public charter schools in four cities serving over 6,000 students.  He was the founding Chairman and is currently a Director with ConnCAN (the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now) and is a Director with 50CAN and Students for Education Reform, all organizations focused on researching, communicating, and advocating for sound research-based public policies in the field of primary and secondary education.”

    Does founding an investment management firm give one some special insight into the kinds of minds we need in the future? Or, is being the past president of an oil company a sign of visionary educational leadership? Perhaps Sackler has put a lot of reading and reflection into education and has arrived at key insights about what needs to change. Who knows.

    The point is this. There is a growing movement in the US to privatize public schools, to expand the voucher system, to use more technology in the classroom (some of which is truly promising, some of which is illusory—but will make some people wealthy), to entrench the panacea of “competition” and school choice with test scores as the central measure of a school’s success, and to create low-risk opportunities for investors.

    Reading about this movement of hedge fund managers, tech companies, and others, leaves one with a mixed response, or at least it did me. (Of course, any time big money interests set out to “reform” anything it’s utterly reasonable if your first impulse is to reach for your gun.) Surely, a number of practices need to be shaken up in the schools. There needs to be more room for innovation. Technology continues to amaze with its possibilities. However, it’s all too easy to see how this movement threatens to remake education into its own narrow image and turn a public good into yet another honey pot for a new class of capitalist grifters thirsty for their share of your tax dollars.

    What this article and others like it are missing is that Minneapolis is apparently ground zero, or, another ground zero, in an ideological debate about the future of public education. It’s a debate we’re not having. Outside money wants an ideological toehold in Minneapolis public schools.

  6. Submitted by Amy Bergquist on 10/30/2014 - 12:22 pm.

    Strategic decisions made locally?

    Sellers, head of the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, asserts that “the decisions about what candidate to back and what strategy to use were made entirely at the local level without national influence.” But there’s little evidence of local involvement in the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund. I received a robocall a few weeks ago from the “Minneanapolis” (or maybe “Minndianapolis”?) Progressive Education Fund. The caller, who had a slight southern accent and consistently botched the pronunciation of our city, bashed Rebecca Gagnon and then urged me to support Don Samuels and Iris “Altamirinon.” I understand they’re not supposed to coordinate with the campaigns, but they come across as an organization with little clue about what’s actually going on here in flyover land.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/31/2014 - 06:01 am.

    I also think the chances of

    I also think the chances of such proposals being adopted are approximately equal to the chances that I’m going to grow wings and learn to fly.

    My suggestion is to make it very clear to each candidate, that you will vote against him or her unless he or she repudiates outside money. Just a suggestion.

  8. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 10/31/2014 - 08:25 am.

    Schools For Sale

    It is naive to say that national funding groups that have put millions behind their specific programs “do not coordinate their activities with the candidates.” Mr. Bloomberg and TFA do not drop $100K on strangers, but on mutual agendas. I find the tone of this piece strangely passive. It has been clear for months that the Minneapolis School Board race was drawing considerable resources from far-flung groups and that Don Samuels has been the primary beneficiary of a significant effort to put him on the board of a school system unfamiliar to most of the big money bags. A non-passive headline would say: Samuels School Race Draws Major Money From Bloomberg, National Groups…” The story is not that there is a “tsunami.” The story is who launched it, and what its target may be.

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