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Saturday’s Minneapolis DFL convention likely to produce fireworks over school board endorsements

Two flashpoints are likely: confusion over the newly expanded board set-up — and the possibility that for the first time in a generation, Minneapolis might not have any African-American board members, even though about 40 percent of district student

When the Minneapolis DFL convention gets under way Saturday morning at Patrick Henry High School, it will have just one major piece of business: to endorse five candidates for the city’s school board.

Most election cycles, unless one is personally involved in supporting a candidate, the process is dull as dishwater.

But not this year.

Fireworks are all but guaranteed on a couple of interrelated fronts.

On one hand, there is confusion about a referendum passed in 2008 that will expand the board from seven members to nine, with five elected from geographic districts and the rest at large.

This is the first election since the referendum’s approval. Even some delegates — who, as precinct representatives are about as wonky as DFLers get — are confused about whom they can vote for.

The other likely flashpoint: Because of the new political calculus, there’s a decent chance that for the first time in a generation, Minneapolis might not have any African-American board members.

“It would be very concerning to me if we did not come out with an endorsed African-American candidate or two,” said Carla Bates, a first-term board member with two years left in her term. “African-American kids make up 40 percent of our school district.”

A new board set-up
The 2008 referendum is transforming the school board, expanding its size in two steps from the current seven at-large members to nine members (six members elected from geographic districts and three elected citywide).

This fall, three members representing districts with odd numbers and two at-large members will be elected, bringing board membership to eight. In the 2012 general election, the board will grow to nine members, with elections in the three even-numbered districts and one member elected citywide.

Complicating matters even more, school board races will use a different voting system from most other city elections. Last fall, Minneapolis implemented instant runoff voting, or ranked-choice voting, for the first time. That system, however, won’t apply in school board races.

Because board terms are staggered, only three of the six new districts are up for grabs this year.

Four people are running for those three seats. Somali activist Hussein Samatar and Latino publisher Alberto Monserrate are each running unopposed in south side districts. Both are widely respected. The race in Northeast Minneapolis is between two white women.

All of the African-American candidates are running at large; at best, only two can win.

Controversy over bypassed African-American candidates
The teachers union, often a pivotal player, did not endorse any African-American, snubbing incumbent Theatrice “T.” Williams, as well as respected education activist Chanda Smith Baker. Instead, it endorsed two union stalwarts, both white men, with little history of activism with Minneapolis Public Schools: Richard Mammen and David DeGrio.

Because incumbents Pam Costain, Tom Madden and Chris Stewart are not seeking re-election, a loss by Williams would leave the board with three incumbents. Only one of them, Lydia Lee, has served throughout the current massive district restructuring begun three years ago.

Although Williams is widely viewed as a consensus-builder, it likely hurt him that contract talks between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the school district are at a standstill, with no new negotiations scheduled.

The president of the Council of Black Churches, Bill English, believes the MFT’s opposition to the district’s demand for changes to the union’s seniority rules is the biggest issue. “They [the MFT] insist on a rigid seniority system,” he said. “We’ve lost more than two-thirds of our teachers of color. At a time when the district is searching for cultural competency, I think it is unreasonable.”

Smith Baker’s case is less clear. From all appearances, she should be a shoo-in, but her endorsement by the Service Employees International Union is the only labor endorsement of any of the African-American candidates.

Charter schools may be issue
Smith Baker’s resume includes oversight of 15 charter schools, founding membership in the respected HOPE Collaborative, which works to close the achievement gap, and a list of supporters that reads like a Who’s Who of Minneapolis’ education community. Add five kids attending different Twin Cities schools and a family steeped in district culture: Her late uncle was Richard Green, one of the district’s most lauded superintendents.

On the online Minneapolis parents’ forum, where the candidacies are being evaluated by parents and others who are active in the district, speculation is that Smith Baker’s involvement with charters cost her the MFT endorsement. Teachers unions traditionally view charters as competition, so the theory makes some sense.

Except that the union and its current president, Lynn Nordgren, have long advocated keeping an open mind about charters and were a major force behind the drive to create two recently approved district charters.

The endorsements the teachers union did make are equally puzzling to district insiders. Richard Mammen is director for citywide recreation with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the father of 3 district students but does not have a history of prominent activism within the district.

Nor does David DeGrio, who is a chemistry professor at Inver Grove Heights Community College and a member of the board of Stonewall DFL. The party’s GLBT caucus, Stonewall, endorsed DeGrio, Monserrate and Marcia Thomas, one of the two Northeast Minneapolis candidates.

“I’m very worried about the process,” said Stewart, an outgoing African-American board member. “I’m in the job now, and I think it’s a job that requires a high level of interest in the schools.”

Bates agreed but questioned whether the endorsement will be as crucial as in past elections. Former board member Sharon Henry-Blythe was re-elected without the party endorsement in 2004 with many more votes than two endorsed winners, Peggy Flanagan and Lydia Lee.

Big DFL primary election another factor
Because of the governor’s race and the three-way DFL race, the primary — though early this year, in August — is expected to have a strong turnout in Minneapolis.

But given the school board race’s low profile, Stewart worries that those voters will vote the party ticket without knowing anything about the unendorsed candidates.

“We have a brand-new electoral system put into place at a time when there’s a great deal of uncertainty,” he said. “This is too big to choose this way. There’s no way we’re coming out of Saturday with an informed public.

“But the reality is that it’s a one-party town,” Stewart added. “And if this is the way the party chooses, we’re in trouble.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.