Who would want to be on the Minneapolis School Board these days?

Who would want to be on the Minneapolis School Board these days?
MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

As of Monday afternoon, there were 3,400 unanswered e-mails clogging Minneapolis School Board Chair Tom Madden’s inbox. A marketer by trade, he knows the relationship-building power of a personal response, but the sad truth is the lion’s share will probably languish there.

Each of the communiqués is of vital importance to the parent, teacher or community member who sent it, and it pains Madden that they may assume he’s ignoring them.

“I try to get back to clients within two hours, but there’s no way I’m getting to those e-mails,” said Madden. “Everybody expects a response. And when they don’t get it, they go complain to their legislator.”

In addition to his leading the school board, Madden has three kids and a brand-new job he gave up his own small business to take. He’s the third school board member to announce in recent days that he won’t seek re-election this fall. He’s proud of his tenure, but burned out.

Tom Madden
Tom Madden

“My life balance is out of whack,” he moaned.

Madden estimates it takes 30 hours a week to do a decent job, and perhaps 60 to do it right. Most of the meetings are at night or on weekends. Because board service is viewed as a part-time volunteer commitment, members are paid $14,000 a year.

“The school board takes as much time as you give it,” he said. “The previous board used to meet two times a month at most. We meet at least four times a month, plus seven to nine Saturdays a year. That’s a lot for a volunteer board.”

And those unanswered e-mails? The truth is he’d be struggling to get to them even if the board was his full-time job.

“You look at the City Council and they just voted themselves raises and they have tons of staff,” said Madden.

Chris Stewart and Pam Costain both recently said they will not run for re-election. Like Madden, they are proud of their accomplishments in office. But during their time on the board, both had to leave jobs they loved.

Always open season
They and Madden all say they also struggled with feeling like they were constantly on the hot seat. It’s always open season where public officials are concerned, they acknowledge, but public school leaders are particularly under the gun in the current political climate.

All three were strong proponents of a sweeping reform effort begun when they took office in 2007. Because they took over from a board that had delayed making numerous painful changes, their tenure was frontloaded with school closings, $200 million in cumulative budget shortfalls, contract negotiations and other controversial decisions.

While the moves helped stop a decade-long exodus that cost Minneapolis Public Schools about 25 percent of its student body, they affected virtually every student in the district and triggered an avalanche of complaints from individual families. Many of their decisions sent shock-waves through wealthy parts of the city that in years past escaped the most painful cuts.

Unlike parents on the city’s impoverished north side, the mostly white residents of southwest Minneapolis have been quick to take their complaints to the state. State Sen. Scott Dibble, a DFLer, recently introduced a bill that would make it easier to remove board members.

Adding insult to injury, Madden said Monday, was Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal earlier this month to place Minneapolis and St. Paul schools under the control of the cities’ mayors.

The outgoing board members may have endured a particularly challenging freshman term, but their feelings are shared by school board members throughout the country, said Bush Foundation President Peter Hutchinson, a former MPS superintendent.

According to a survey [PDF] conducted by the Great City Council of Schools, a consortium of large urban districts, many school board candidates spend upwards of $25,000 on their campaigns. About one-fourth of those who win serve for four to eight years, another fourth for two to four years, and a quarter for fewer than two years. Only 17 percent met weekly, like MPS’s board, but a majority reported working on board business more than six hours per week.

People who run for office often know they’re seeking a tough job, Hutchinson explained. But few are prepared for phone calls in the middle of the night, let alone constant hostility from the public.

“The general atmospherics of public service are just not good,” he said. “It is really tough psychologically to keep your bearings and keep your focus on what’s important.”

‘Lost my patience’
In particular Stewart has been the subject of controversy. In the wake of a highly publicized argument about race last spring with the principal of a popular southwest Minneapolis school, a number of parents have called for his ouster.

Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart

“I really do believe the public thinks it’s your job to take it on the chin all the time,” said Stewart. “I pretty much lost my patience with that.”

In his experience, trying to avoid provoking criticism can skew the way board members approach tough decisions. Parents’ first concern is always what impact a change will have on their child, and when they don’t like the answer emotions can run high.

“What they’re saying is important to them, critical in fact,” said Stewart. “But at the same time, you’re a leader of a big organization and you can’t always engage in that personal advocacy.”

A controversial public persona can pose problems at one’s day job, he added. Stewart left the job he had when he took office, a long-time position as a state workforce development specialist on loan to the city of Minneapolis, when he found himself running into the same officials in both positions. In his next job, recruiting diverse staff for law firms, he sometimes found it impossible to vote his conscience as a board member and not anger clients who had school-aged kids.

“It’s hard to turn off the school board member at a Christmas party,” he said.

Madden and Costain echoed his sentiments. Too often, “You find yourself fighting against those who, like you, believe in public education, rather than against those who don’t,” said Madden.

Do away with boards?
If the job is so miserable, why not accept the governor’s proposal to do away with the boards, or allow the mayor to appoint members, as a few urban districts do?

Peter Hutchinson
Peter Hutchinson

The Bush Foundation’s Hutchinson remains unconvinced that mayoral control of central city schools is a silver bullet.

“I don’t think there is any one particularly great model,” he said. “Finding that talent or balance isn’t easy.”

Better, in his opinion, to take a hard look at the work board members are doing. “Some of it is self-imposed, because a lot of the work is work the board chooses to take on,” he said. “We have had a habit in MPS of expecting an awful lot of our board and not enough of our administration.”

Ideally, education policymakers believe school boards should do two things: Hire and supervise a superintendent who will make decisions about policy and strategy; and keep the district’s focus tightly trained on student achievement. If the board is governing and not managing, members may actually be able to do the job part time, he said.

There were 72 board meetings the first year he was superintendent, but just 22 percent of the board’s time was spent focusing on student achievement. The rest of the time was spent on administrative matters that would be better handled by the superintendent and his or her staff.

A board can’t govern a district that’s in chaos, he added. “If the people in leadership aren’t going to lead, then the board has to,” Hutchinson said. “There’s just a human tendency to substitute our work for others’ when they’re not doing their work.”

In her statement announcing her resignation, Costain was careful to say that the MPS board’s recent vote to appoint Bernadeia Johnson as superintendent will assure continuity. The district’s chief academic officer, Johnson engineered many of the changes the current board called for.

Madden, too, said he hoped their successors will continue with the ambitious reform agenda set by the current board.

“When I look back at what I wanted to run for, we’ve achieved a lot of it,” he said. “I really wanted our board to be seen as transformational. I think we will be seen as transitional, and the next one transformational.”

Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by David Joseph De Grio on 02/25/2010 - 04:58 pm.

    I am seeking a seat on the Minneapolis Public School Board. I have some ideas that I will put forth to increase Board responsiveness so that thousands of emails don’t have to be left unanswered. When my website launches, I will include these proposals.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/24/2010 - 10:06 am.

    Let the mayors lead the city schools. R. T. Rybak seems to have a lot of extra time on his hands (along with Tim P.)

  3. Submitted by Van Mueller on 02/24/2010 - 01:20 pm.

    Peter Hutchinson’s comments on the Mpls school board are very appropriate. School boards that meet 5-6 times a month are spending time managing the schools and not setting policy and providing oversight.
    In addition to local school boards Minnesota needs to have a state board of education(we are the only state not to have one). The role of governor and state department of education are totally politicized and the only voice that is important is that of the governor. A state board of education would provide a useful buffer.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Schapiro on 02/24/2010 - 03:20 pm.

    What is not mentioned is the unfortunate coverage of local schools by some reporters.

    The seductive vision of irresponsible elected officials ripping off the poor or communities of color makes for great narrative but often does not reflect reality. Remember the articles about how the world was split on Thandiwe? The ridiculous charges that were leveled at the board by loose lips in the community, encouraged by reporters looking for a good quote?

    Reporter heal (or at least examine) thyself.

    Dennis Schapiro
    former Mpls school board member

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/24/2010 - 04:04 pm.

    I have heard it said, that there is a special place in heaven reserved for people who serve on school boards. And it’s supposed to be in a particularly nice area.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/24/2010 - 04:25 pm.

    Might each member be able to find a volunteer (or two or three) to help answer emails from parents? Each volunteer could be thoroughly briefed on the board members’ positions on policy and ideas for remedying whatever the parents are writing about.

    Beyond that? Kill No Child Left Behind and its successor. Kill Pawlenty’s Q-comp.

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 02/24/2010 - 04:39 pm.

    Maybe instead of trying to tone down the responsibilities to meet expectations of what board members are supposed to do, we should increase the pay to that of a full time job, and thereby match the responsibilities.

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/24/2010 - 08:09 pm.

    There are things that people like Pam Costain and Tom Madden set in motion along with Bill Green that I believe have the potential to do great things for this district down the road. First and foremost they were crucial in setting a sorely needed strategic vision based on solid research done with staff students and parents and across the country identifying best practices for districts that had turned themselves around. Having seen some of the raw data, one common thread was principals having greater control over their staff and this we can now see this becoming reality here. Another common thread although not for all districts was direct control of schools through the mayor’s office. I am no fan of T-Paw, but the idea by itself is not one without merit and should be seriously considered.
    Two things that I think MPS needs to be able to stay on a path of improvement and success:
    1) Competent and consistent leadership – proven by Green, but grossly lacking by his predecessor (Peebles).
    2) Reform of state education funding – the formulas the state currently uses are convoluted and outdated and desperately need reform.

  9. Submitted by Jeff Severns Guntzel on 02/28/2010 - 01:39 pm.

    Fabulous piece, Beth. Thank you.

  10. Submitted by Doug Mann on 03/15/2010 - 09:35 pm.

    I am also a candidate for the Minneapolis Board of Education. The biggest obstacles to fixing our malfunctioning schools are watered down curriculum tracks and the super-high turnover rates produced by firing and replacing most teachers during their probationary period. The same is true of most public schools in the Us where Black students are greatly over-represented. Corporate-style reforms marketed as No Child Left Behind are designed not to fix the state-run public school system but to privatize it. Voice your support for an alternative to corporate reforms and the status quo of institutionalized racism: Doug Mann for Minneapolis School Board.

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