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Minneapolis School Board’s Pam Costain is changing educational ‘hats’ but not program efforts

The board member, who is not running for re-election, has found a landing place that will let her continue her reform work. In late June, she will join AchieveMpls, a private nonprofit that works to support Minneapolis Public Schools.

Outgoing Minneapolis School Board member Pam Costain has found a soft landing place: In late June, she will join AchieveMpls, a private nonprofit that works to support Minneapolis Public Schools.

As the organization’s new president and CEO, she will work to mobilize support for schools from city and business leaders and oversee a number of initiatives within the schools themselves.

It’s a job description Costain might as well have written herself. A former Wellstone campaign aide, Costain’s background includes several nonprofit leadership roles. She was executive director of the Resource Center of the Americas for 14 years and was a founder of the grass-roots political training organization Wellstone Action and of Parents United for Public Education.

Costain chaired the board of education during the first year of her term. On her watch, the board engineered a sweeping overhaul of the school system, which was hemorrhaging students and credibility with the community.

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The reforms begun that year are still under way, but three of their architects — Costain, current board Chair Tom Madden and member Chris Stewart — are not seeking re-election this fall. All three said their decision in large part was personal: Board service is supposedly a part-time, volunteer commitment but consumes so much time it’s hard to hold a paying job.

Pam Costain

Pam Costain

“The fact is I can no longer afford to be a school board member,” Costain explained at the time she announced her decision. “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. While others have managed to work this out differently, I personally have not figured out how to do the job with anything less than a full-time commitment.”

Costain said her new job came about serendipitously. Recently, Catherine Jordan, who had headed AchieveMpls since its founding eight years ago, announced she was stepping down.

Costain was already working closely with Mayor R.T. Rybak — a vocal supporter of the district’s reform efforts — incoming Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and other stakeholders to try to turn rhetorical support from business and civic leaders into money, time and expertise. Which is exactly what AchieveMpls does.

“I’m very excited because I can’t think of a job that is a better fit for me personally and in terms of what I want to do,” said Costain. “I honestly believe this is a very exciting and hopeful time for MPS. A number of things are now coming together that will show results.”

When she starts the job in late June, Costain plans to work to support Johnson’s academic initiatives as well as help implement performance goals for the next several years that will be unveiled at next Tuesday’s district board meeting.

“I would also say on the failure of the state to implement Race to the Top and its reforms, we’ll be looking at how to implement those reforms in Minneapolis, rather than at a state level,” she added.

The meeting will be Costain’s last full board meeting. In order to take the AchieveMpls job, she had to resign her elected position as well as her position as vice chair of the Youth Coordinating Board.

The Minneapolis school board has authority to appoint someone to serve the six remaining months in her term. Whether it will do so and what process it might use have yet to be discussed.

“I just have to pinch myself,” Costain said. “I really did not want to leave MPS or the work that we’re undertaking.”

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