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The sea of cash in the Minneapolis school-board race just 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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.