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Costain leaving Minneapolis School Board because of low pay, ‘negativity’

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.

Low salary
“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.”

Pam Costain
Pam Costain

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.”

Major cuts
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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/22/2010 - 01:07 pm.

    Pam simply adjusted the same old talking points. Instead of “We (union schools) don’t get enough money” she now cries “I don’t get enough money.”

  2. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 02/22/2010 - 01:30 pm.

    Well, I applaud her service but this is just one more data point to suggest that we need to get rid of the school board, as TPaw suggests.

    I’ve heard from someone that works with the board that it’s totally dysfunctional. That doesn’t surprise me, any highly politicized effort like this run by a committee most likely would.

    Get rid of the board and hire one good, accountable administrator that reports to the mayor.

    Can you imagine if the police department was run by a committee?

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 02/22/2010 - 02:15 pm.

    A sad and cogent commentary on public education in America. As Costain points out, the “bashing” is easy for a target like the Minneapolis schools with incredible challenges. Yet the bashers offer simplistic, and usually fallacious arguments (“it’s the unions…we keep poor tenured teachers too long…teachers are overpaid…money is not an issue…etc”).

    I see nothing wrong with ahving a School Board, it is a link between the public and the system (and schools are not analogous to the Police Dept which does have some review boards). The problem is (as Costain notes), inner city shcools have special and unique problems (language, parenting, too large class sizes among them). I regret seeing her leave.

  4. Submitted by Linda Miller on 02/22/2010 - 02:25 pm.

    First, I am the parent of a child in the mpls public school district, it is a very big district, with needs as diverse as its student population, no one person can possibly represent the entire population of the student body.
    Being on the school board seems to be a thankless job, I attended many meetings last year as the board debated closing schools and changing transportation options – they did make efforts to let the community speak up – this meant that meetings went from 6 PM until 10 PM, night after night, week after week… Do you really believe that the board shouldn’t be compensated for their time?
    We pay the bus drivers who drive my kid to hockey games for every hour the driver is sitting there, why don’t we believe the board members deserve the same?
    I am no big fan of Ms. Costain’s; while I think she has the best interest of the city and the school district at heart, I felt like she was protecting one part of the city and was less interested in hearing how other neighborhoods and some high schools would suffer under the new boundaries, but I do think she should be commended for serving and also, the board should be recognized for their efforts to make very hard decisions and to set the stage for the district to be more successful in the future.

  5. Submitted by Eddie H-J on 02/22/2010 - 03:45 pm.

    If T-Paw really believes in realigning the school district and giving the mayor more oversight, then there is actually ONE issue with which I agree with him. Wow. It’s working in Baltimore and NYC, I think city-controlled rather than board-controlled schools could benefit Minneapolis.

  6. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 02/22/2010 - 03:53 pm.

    We in education have known for a long time that a school board is a group of amateurs trying to do their best to run a professional organization. These people of generally good will (though not always) are targets of ridicule and pressure. In one small community I worked in small business owners were afraid to serve because their businesses would be boycotted by those who had a disagreement. We lost the voice of those accustomed to working with professionals, large facilities, and significant budget decisions. Instead the education system administered by either political fringes, those with an ax to grind, or those with little to lose. No wonder we lose good people. The cost is high.

  7. Submitted by Jordan Kushner on 02/22/2010 - 10:33 pm.

    What is not mentioned is that Costain’s most significant action right after being elected and chosen as chair was to preside over the rubber-stamping of the politically convenient but extremely damaging and racially discriminatory decision to cut costs by closing of five elementary schools in North Minneapolis. This betrayed her image as a “reform-minded” candidate and undoubtedly set some of the tone for the negativity she describes. Although her defenders claim she had no choice, Chris Stewart passionately and articulately opposed this action as a politically convenient decision to sacrifice the communities with the least influence.

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