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

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.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Amanda Tempel on 05/21/2010 - 09:11 am.

    Stonewall DFL actually endorsed the following candidates for the 2010 Minneapolis DFL Convention:

    School Board
    At Large: David DeGrio
    Marika Pfefferkorn
    District 1: Marcia Thomas
    District 3: Hussein Samatar
    District 5: Alberto Monserrate

    We screened candidates for the Minneapolis
    School Board, and endorse these because of:
    – their high qualifications for office,
    – their vision for the future of our schools,
    – their support of equal treatment for all
    Minneapolis School students.
    We encourage you to support them!

  2. Submitted by Amanda Tempel on 05/21/2010 - 09:39 am.

    Here is what Scott Dibble had to say about David Degrio:

    “David will provide a perspective that is much needed on the Board, the perspective of a professional Scientist and a professional Educator. David’s experience in Minnesota’s Biotech industry will help us gain a perspective of what our children need in order to become our future technological innovators. His experience on the Department of Education Committee on K-12 Curriculum Standards will help us gain a better understanding of how our curriculum should be structured to maximize the success of ALL students.”

    I agree with Senator Dibble that as a an enrichment teacher for at-risk middle school students, a developer of state-wide curriculum standards, a community college professor, and a scientist, David Degrio provide a unique set of skills and perspective of experience that is needed on the Minneapolis School Board. As a School Board Member David will help our district stay competitive in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), which will help our students succeed both inside and outside of the classroom.

    (Disclosure: I am a former volunteer of the University of Minnesota’s Chemistry Outreach Program in to local K-12 schools and my partner currently volunteers in the Minneapolis Public Schools supporting Math skills in the classroom. We are both proudly STEM nerds/geeks.)

    From his web site:

    “During the summer, David works as a teacher and camp counselor for Cornerstones Junior, an enrichment camp for at-risk students held at North Hennepin Community College.”

    More information about the program mention above can be found at: http://www.nhcc.edu/main/ProgramsAndMajors/YouthPrograms/Cornerstones.aspx

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/21/2010 - 09:47 am.

    So, the big concern for Democrats is the skin color of the candidates…I’m shocked.

    It’s a real tragedy that alone among the scary smart, reality based community, it is the teacher’s union that realizes that a person’s background and commitment to values are more important to achieving goals than skin color, or gender.

    The teachers union has been meeting its goals for decades now, and we can see how that has worked out for the kids.

    Is there anyone out there in the scary smart, reality based community that gives two good shakes for the kids? Is anyone, of any gender, color, or age out there somewhere that is willing to put the best interests of the students ahead of politics, money and power?

    Evidently not this year.

  4. Submitted by John Farrell on 05/21/2010 - 10:55 am.

    If you’re interested in some in-depth information on school board candidates, check our their responses to our Achievement Gap Committee’s questionaires:
    http://www.dfleducationfoundation.org/achievementgap/

    -John Farrell
    Vice President, DFL Education Foundation, a 501(c)3

  5. Submitted by Doug Mann on 05/21/2010 - 12:02 pm.

    In 2004, the DFL endorsed for only 2 of 3 at-large seats. Sharon Henry Blythe finished 1st in the general election of 2001, but placed third in the general election of 2004, just a little ahead of Denny S., another non-endorsed incumbent. Sharon ran again without endorsement in 2008 against a full slate of DFL candidates, and lost by a sizable margin.

    Given how things have been going with the district under the leadership of DFL-endorsed candidates, including the slates elected in 2006 and 2008, delegates at the citywide convention and DFL oriented voter in the primary and general election may be open to alternatives.

    In 2008 I finished in first place in 3 precincts around the University of MN, where voters were mainly students, and Obama was extremely popular. I also finished fourth or fifth in many of the precincts in East-Central Minneapolis where university-level students are heavily concentrated.

    With about 28,400 votes, I was a choice of nearly 30% of the voters city-wide. However, even on election day, I spoke to many who said they voted or were planning to vote for school board members, and didn’t recognize my name. In coverage of the campaign so far this year, my name is the only one among announced candidates that hasn’t been mentioned.

    -Doug Mann, Minneapolis School Board candidate, at-large / city-wide

  6. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 05/21/2010 - 01:50 pm.

    Thomas, thank you for telling us about the dreadful results of a convention that hasn’t happened yet. Not that you make up your opinions ahead of time, eh? And haven’t you said before that you don’t live in Minneapolis? Then I hope you won’t mind that we make up our own minds.

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 05/21/2010 - 01:51 pm.

    Thank you Beth for a through article on an esoteric subject.

  8. Submitted by James Nelson on 05/21/2010 - 02:41 pm.

    It’s poor reporting when you indicate that Richard Mammen “does not have a prominent history of activism within the district” or “little history.” Clearly, you are paying attention to someone’s shallow and misleading sound bite and ignoring a stellar, consistent history of activism with young people and families in Minneapolis, particularly with the district. Mammen’s history with alternative schools, charter schools and public schools is quite clear and demonstrative of the kind of leadership the district sorely needs. And, he has the endorsement of the Union. Mammen’s exactly the kind of leadership the district needs: informed and experienced leadership with young people and schools. Mammen speaks from years of informed activism that can point to success. Ms. Hawkins please do your homework!

  9. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 05/21/2010 - 06:11 pm.

    For the record, Sharon Henry Blythe decided sometime in the mid-summer not to run again. (After two terms, she was tired. Her husband had health issues.) I remember this because she sent back my campaign check with a nice note. So she may have been on the ballot, but she wasn’t running any kind of campaign.

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/22/2010 - 06:50 am.

    Eric, Mr. Swift does have first hand knowledge about school boards. //”Tom ran a hugely unsuccessful campaign in 2002 for the Saint Paul Public School Board.”//

    Apparently his solutions and opinions did not gain any traction with the voters in St Paul either. Although Tom does deserves a hat tip for wanting to make a difference.

  11. Submitted by veda partalo on 05/22/2010 - 03:53 pm.

    Ms. Hawkins,

    I’m totally saddened by either your lack of research or biased judgment on Richard Mammen’s 35+ years of experience working not just for, but with, Minneapolis youth.

    When you write, “does not have a prominent history of activism within the district” it’s obvious that you do not take in account his role as an Northside outreach worker with the YMCA, or his position as the founder of Katahdin, or his role as the first director of the Youth Coordinating Board, or his being the mastermind behind the Mayor’s Youth Council and Yo! The Movement. These are just a few things that come to my mind as I think of Richard’s history, and I am sure there are many more.

    Richard has spent his life working with youth, one of which was me a little over a decade ago, and has contributed incredibly to the lives and futures of thousands of Minneapolis kids.

    I encourage you to follow up your story with some true journalism we’re used to seeing from you.

    Thanks.

  12. Submitted by Dennis Schapiro on 05/24/2010 - 08:52 am.

    Other than misreading Dick Mammen’s career and vote totals in the last election and falling for the questionable narratives of a few individuals, this is much more accurate than Ms. Hawkins articles usually are.

    Dennis Schapiro

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