Minneapolis School Board member Pam Costain today announced she will not seek another term on the board. One of the most energetic forces behind the reform efforts that have marked the current board’s tenure, Costain cited the position’s low pay and long hours and an atmosphere of “negativity” concerning public education.
She is the second board member to announce they will not run again next fall. Last month Chris Stewart said he would not seek another term on the board.
In her statement announcing her decision not to run again, Costain cited a “climate of negativity,” which she attributed to critics as diverse as the governor and Minneapolis parents.
“It has taken a toll on me,” she said. “The negativity is both external (the governor and other politicians’ favorite sport is bashing the Minneapolis Public Schools), and it is internal (parents, teachers, board members, administrators and the community spend far too much time pointing fingers at one other). I do not believe we can make the breakthroughs we need in our district without stronger unity and a mutual commitment to problem-solving on behalf of the children.”
In an interview this morning, Costain said the roots of the finger-pointing are political. “We’ve lived through 10 to 20 years of battering of public education for political reasons,” she said. “I know why the school board became people’s target. But when you make a series of difficult decisions like we’ve done, it’s especially hard.”
A former campaign aide to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Costain was training director at the political organizing group Wellstone Action. Because board service has essentially become a full-time commitment, she was forced to leave that job 18 months ago and has been unable to take another, she told MinnPost.
“The fact is I can no longer afford to be a school board member,” she explained in her written statement. “The combined salary and expense stipend of less than $14,000 a year does not even cover the cost of my health care and professional expenses, let alone provide a modest wage.”
Several school board members have struggled to juggle full-time jobs with board duties, but Costain is the first to talk publicly about the challenge.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Costain served two stints as director of the Resource Center of the Americas. In between she traveled to Nicaragua on a human-rights fellowship from the University of Minnesota.
Costain and Stewart were part of a reform-minded slate elected to the board at a time when the district faced crises on several fronts and the public had lost confidence in its leadership. MPS was in its seventh consecutive year of massive budget deficits and had lost a fourth of its student body. Fully half the children on the city’s predominantly African-American north side had departed for charters, suburban districts and other alternatives.
“The board that came in in 2007 tackled issues that previous boards hadn’t been willing to look at,” Costain said. “This district was in a really deep hole. Day-to-day people were doing great things, but the system was in real trouble.
“We really did set the district on the path of reform that a number of other urban districts have been on for years,” she said. “My regret is I feel like we laid the table for what are going to be some good years ahead and I wish I were going to be around for that.”
With freshman Costain as its first chair, the board renegotiated a 22-year-old teacher’s contract to allow principals greater leeway to hire the teachers they felt their schools needed, not necessarily those on the top of the seniority list. It closed a number of schools where classrooms were sitting empty and has been working to address funding inequities among the remaining schools.
Perhaps most notable, the board accepted McKinsey & Co.’s offer of pro bono consulting to help sketch out a path to reform. The district has systematically worked to implement many of the recommended changes.
“Despite enormous budgetary challenges, we have built a stronger and more transparent financial framework and have tried insofar as possible to put more money directly into the classroom,” Costain said in her statement. “We have worked hard to regain the trust and confidence of our community and continue to celebrate the passage of a remarkable, voter-approved referendum in 2008.”
The current board has made some $200 million in cuts, Costain said. Despite the belt-tightening, MPS appears to have staunched the decade-long student exodus. Last year, even with a drop in the birth rate, enrollment was down by fewer than 200 students, she said.
“I think we’re going to have the ability to win families back to Minneapolis,” she said.
So why leave now? “No decision we make is not extremely important and emotional to our parents,” she said. “We are making decisions about the most precious things in these parents’ lives.”
One of the recent reforms was the redrawing of the district’s attendance map. When board members announced the change, part of an effort to improve integration and save on busing costs, they came under heavy fire from virtually all parts of the city.
As for her future plans, Costain said her first priority is finding a job. After that, she said, she’ll be watching anxiously to see whether Minneapolis can elevate the tenor of the discourse about the district’s future.
“Change doesn’t happen because you’re fearful,” she said. “Change happens because we’re hopeful and we see possibilities.”
Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.