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Minneapolis mayoral candidate Jim Thomas Q-A: ‘Education issues should be part of campaign dialogue’

“We need to have an openness in what is happening in our schools in terms of the priorities, the choices and the costs of decisions we’re making.”

Jim Thomas is a special-education teacher for the Minneapolis School District and a first-time candidate for political office.
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of interviews with seven candidates for Minneapolis mayor. Only those who have filed with the Hennepin County Elections Department to form a campaign finance committee have been interviewed.


Jim Thomas, the latest candidate to enter the Minneapolis mayor’s race, is running because he want to make sure education is part of the discussion as residents make their choices for the top job in the city.

Thomas, 57, is a special-education teacher for the Minneapolis School District and a first-time candidate for political office. He is a teacher with a lot of homework to do as he works to become familiar with the other issues facing Minneapolis beyond the schools.

It was an appearance before the Minneapolis School Board that inspired him to look for a larger forum to discuss the future of education for our city students.

In this series of edited interviews, mayoral candidates were asked to introduce themselves to voters and respond to some basic questions.

MinnPost: What’s prompted you to run for mayor?

Jim Thomas:  I got into this because I went to a School Board meeting recently to speak against a school closing, and I felt like they weren’t interested in class sizes — they were interested in promoting charter schools. That may not be true, but that’s what it felt like to me.

I’m really interested in making teachers’ jobs in the classroom easier. I’ve been a regular classroom teacher before.

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MP: What is making that job difficult?

JT: The whole emphasis on testing, nationally and locally, I think puts a focus on tests that are not even aligned very well with what we’re teaching in the classroom. We do want assessments with kids, but we want assessments to be related to what’s going on in the classroom.

I’m feeling that we, as a state and as a nation, are taking away the ability of a teacher to lead, to guide, to be creative, to do whatever it takes to make students be successful.

We’re becoming a top-down kind of education system when we really need to be a bottom-up, a teacher-parent collaborative for the child.

MP: If teacher-parent is the bottom-up system, what is the top-down system?

JT: When the federal government, the state government and the School board dictate what is happening in the classroom, with kids in one classroom pitted against kids in another classroom, one school against another school, in this crazy pursuit of trying to get the very best math and reading scores possible to the exclusion of other kinds of interests like art, music and theater.

Things that could be driven more by the interests of the particular student so they can follow their passion, rather than being told what to do and when to do it and not having any power.

MP: What attracted you to teaching?

JT: I love learning. That’s what I would like to emphasize. We want to not teach kids to take tests, but to teach kids to learn.

MP: You have said you are running for mayor because you wanted to make sure education was part of the dialogue in this campaign. What is the heart of that dialogue?

JT: I think we need to have an openness in what is happening in our schools in terms of the priorities, the choices and the costs of decisions we’re making.

How much do these tests cost?  We have a new evaluation system for teachers, and I certainly don’t oppose a system for evaluation of teachers, but I would like the people of Minneapolis to know how much money does the teacher evaluation system cost.

Can we do it more efficiently, more effectively, get more bang for the buck?  How precise is it?  How subjective is it?  How many observations are appropriate?

And after we decide a teacher is quite good, do we need to evaluate them as often? Or should we put more resources into supporting other teachers who aren’t quite as skillful?

MP: How does this sort of examination close the achievement gap between students of color and white students?  That gap is getting a lot of attention.

 JT: I’ll answer that, but I want to tell you a story first. As a coach, I’ve known coaches who could coach high-jumpers, and they have the very best results in coaching.

Then there are some other coaches who coach people who make more improvements in their high jumping over the course of their career.

But that first group of coaches is very good, and they’ve achieved good results with their high-jumpers.

And people say those coaches who are teaching these jumpers who are making more improvements, the second group of coaches, we need to bring them in to teach the first group of coaches how to teach because that second group is making more improvements with their high-jumpers.

In Minnesota, we do have one of the largest achievement gaps, but we also have some of the best test scores for all groups of kids. And for a generation, we’ve been bringing in people from all over the country that don’t do as well with their kids as we do with ours, telling us how we should be teaching kids.

When really, we should be taking some of our great leaders in Minneapolis and teaching them what we’re doing because we’re making progress.  If I’m a parent, of any race, I want to look at how well those schools are doing with my kind of kid.

And in Minnesota, we’re doing better than most other places. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve, but I would like us to look at places that are doing better than us.

One of those places is Finland. Finland does not do the kinds of things we’re doing with testing. They emphasize teaching kids to learn and developing passion.

So in school, the kids help write their own curriculum. We should be doing that, particularly when we get to high school. We should be allowing these students to drive their own curriculum.

MP: So how would your ideal school system work?

JT: I would like to see a school system where the teachers have time to plan curriculum, to meet — and when something isn’t working with a group of students, talk to their colleagues, try different strategies. 

When I was teaching middle school, I was teaching United States history, the first thing I did when I met my students was give them a little math, fact and multiplication work sheet. I wanted to know how many of these kids knew what they should already know. It gave me a sense of what they could do.

Then I had them write for me for about five minutes. I gave them something to write about. I told them I wasn’t going to grade for punctuation. I just wanted to see their ideas and their thinking.

The third thing I did was I brought them up to me one at a time to read to me orally so I could get a sense of them.

The point is, as a teacher you want to know each student, and you’re going to have students with different skill levels, and you’re going to adapt what you’re doing based on that.

When I was teaching history, about one-third of the kids in one of the classes were almost non-readers. They were student with severe learning disabilities. The reason I had all those kids was they were mainstreamed from a special program. They did that because I was a special education teacher and had experience working with kids with learning disabilities.

For that class I had to totally re-design the way I taught. I did it, but I was learning as I went.  I was talking to other teachers. As a group, a science teacher and English teacher and I, a special education teacher, met and talked about our students every day.

We had time to meet and say this student is being challenged in this area. What can we do? It was a beautiful system. I loved it. But the funding is no longer there to support that kind of collaboration.

MP: You’re saying the previous system was focused on teachers understanding their students and working together to improve learning but the current system is focused on achieving test scores?

JT: It is. And we do want kids to have skills, but we want the teachers to work and give assessments and the families to have those assessments. But those assessments are to show what kinds of needs the students have and show teachers how to change their teaching to address those issues. But we have a system that’s very very different from that.

MP:  How do you bring families into the process and make education a family project?

JT:  One of the recollections I have is of a wonderful teacher who did a family night on how to develop math skills through family games. She brought all of the families in ,and we sat around tables and she taught us some things we could do as a family. The learning was a by-product of the fun you’re having as a family.

Encouraging competitions that are more fun, like Knowledge Bowl, or for families that are really pushing kids in one area, we need to provide some opportunity for them to show off what they’re doing.

Parents need to learn some skills if they’re working with their kids at home; they need some tools and some guidance in how to be productive with their kids.

Sometimes it means not doing a lot of extra homework because a lot of our kids spend long days at school and they’re really wiped out and can’t handle much.

So how can we make life more enjoyable, how can we make students more interested in learning and provide them with tools or techniques or resources for them to do that?

There are things online. There are things they can do at the library. There are things we can encourage families to do to figure out ways to tap into the child’s interests. It feels like a lot of what we do is look for where our kids are falling down and focus on that.

What we need to spend a lot of time on is finding what our kids are good at, because a lot of times those other skills (reading and math) are brought up when a child dives into their own area of interest. They might improve reading.  They might improve their writing skills based on what they are doing in other areas.

MP: In the League of Women Voters debate this month, you made a reference to the School Board, but your remarks were very brief. If you had more time, what would you say about the School Board?

JT: I feel like they’ve already decided things. They’ve found their direction.  They’ve pulled in people like Teach for America, people who have a specific worldview of what needs to be done.

I don’t happen to agree with some of the things they’re doing, but one of the things they’ve done is bring in people, give them five weeks of training and put them in classrooms. I don’t know if we have a need in those specific areas where we’re putting them.

But they’re putting them into these classrooms, I’m sure, because these are very bright people. And we’re paying them a regular beginning teacher’s salary.

If there are teachers coming from regular teacher training programs in Minnesota or other colleges around the country, then that [the five-week training program] really offends me.

There’s another program we use that I really support, AmeriCorps. Those folks aren’t teaching, they’re supporting. They’re working with schools where the children are underperforming. They’re supporting teachers. They’re getting great education experience. They’re working for our kids. Those are the kinds of things I like to see.

Another thing, and I don’t blame this on the School Board, but I do think they could help. We’ve got a ton of special-education kids who are not in the charter schools. The charter schools do take some lower-end kids, but they don’t typically take the most needy.

The reason this is an issue is because the state and federal government do not give us enough money to educate those kids. We have to pull money from other areas. So in Minneapolis alone, that is millions of dollars that comes out of other areas to subsidize special education.

Kids with significant disabilities have much smaller class sizes. They have physical and other health disability needs. They have behavior needs. There are kids with severe autism.

So there’s a much higher staff-to-student ratio.  There might be one teacher, eight kids and three special-education assistants. You can think about how that adds up if you’ve got a lot of those classrooms. That kind of classroom you’re not going to find at a charter school. But we have many of those classrooms in the public schools.

So, back to my point. I want the School Board, the mayor, the City Council and our state representatives to say, “Enough is enough.” If we’re going to make comparisons [between charter schools and public schools], let’s make it apples to apples, instead of apples to oranges.

When you have more kids with significant disabilities, you need to factor those kids out before you compare.

The data I saw from Minneapolis [schools], compared to three charter schools that they said were doing really well, showed the charter schools kids outperforming our public school kids. But what they need to do is separate the data to compare apples to apples.

If a charter school is in southeast Minneapolis, they should be comparing those numbers with public schools in the same area and not district-wide.

I get really tired about how the numbers are used to compare us to other schools that don’t take all of our kids. Theoretically, the charter schools are supposed to take all of the kids, too, but I can guarantee you they are not.

MP: Why run for mayor. Why not run for the School Board?

JT: After watching the vote for School Board, say I won a seat, I’d be one of nine. My voice is not going to carry very loud. It’s not going to have the impact I want it to have.

MP: So as a candidate for mayor, you have a larger podium?

JT: Exactly. I can take a look at the issues that I see are important, and I’m learning a lot about some other issues. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center this week and put out a position paper on that.

I have strong opinions, but I’m learning a lot of things I don’t know. I’m coming from a different point of view than a lot of people are. Stay tuned.

MP:  Were there any surprises during that first debate?

JT:  Yeah. I did a little better than I thought I would. I was nervous going in, and I was a little concerned that I would get flustered. I wasn’t always as articulate as I wanted to be, and I probably made too many jokes, but I’m really serious about what I’m talking about.

I was surprised that I was as comfortable in the debate as I was, since I’ve never done something like that before. I’m serious about making this a big issue: looking at what’s going on with the schools.

My kids are grown.  I’m doing this because I’ve got my next-door neighbors — there’s a little boy named Julian there who is 1 year old, and I want them to put their child in our schools.

There are many other families out there, like Julian’s parents, who are going to make a decision about what they’re going to do with their kids.

I believe that our high schools in Minneapolis offer opportunities that can be found in very few places, even when compared to the suburbs and some of the private schools. If a child is really interested in sports or music or theater in our high schools, there are a lot of opportunities.

When you’re in one of these big mega-schools somewhere, by the time you’re a sophomore in high school, if you’re not a starter in some area, you’re probably done competing in music or theater unless you’re a superstar and really gifted.

I think we have much more opportunity to participate in Minneapolis. I’m a real believer in the value of public schools.

When I was coaching, I would coach kids from other countries, and they did not have these opportunities. They did not have these kinds of extracurricular activities. We’re talking about probably some really unique opportunities.

I know we struggle with making sure our kids are as educated as we want them to be. They are our future, so we have a vested interest in trying to make every child a better reader, writer and do math, but we’ve got to hook them by finding out their passion and teaching them to learn, not to take tests. That’s important.

MP: Have you been studying other issues that will be part of the debate among candidates?

JT: I’ve been spending time on the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center this week and I plan to visit there next week. I didn’t know what HERC was, to be frank. I knew we burned trash, but I didn’t know what it was called.

I’ve learned that in 2009, they wanted to increase the amount of waste that was burned there and were not allowed to do that yet.

I’ve learned we’re at about 90 percent capacity and it’s not owned by the company that runs it. It’s owned by Hennepin County.

I’ve also learned that the waste comes from, not just Minneapolis, but around Hennepin County and we do not have our own landfill, so anything extra we’ve got to ship out to other counties. In my mind, that’s not really fair to those communities.

What we have to decide, given we’re almost at capacity — we’re at 90 percent capacity for burning — the options we have are to cut down on the amount in several ways.

One is by engaging in what southwest Minneapolis has, which is more of an organic recycling. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ve heard they’ve reduced the amount of what they send to HERC by 50 percent.

Well, if we can get the whole county onboard to do that, we can maybe extend the time we have to use this facility.

I’ve learned there are ideas to give companies incentives to reduce the packaging, so there’s less packaging come in.

My wife suggested we should supply composting bins for everyone. That’s expensive, but if it reduces the waste enough, in the long run it should pay for itself.

I’m a little unclear why, if we’re almost at capacity, why we’re not planning the next step. I talked to somebody at HERC, and they said a new facility would cost about $400 million — that would be like half the stadium almost.

But we should be planning and not just filling landfills in other counties. That would be part of my job as mayor to start that discussion with mayors of other cities.

Every time I learn something, there are probably two more questions I need to ask and find out about.

MP:  You have major homework on your desk. How do you get that job done?

JT:  I need to talk to people who are experts on these kinds of things. I have a friend who’s an environmental lawyer, so I plan on calling him up and picking his brain.

When it comes to other issues, I’m going to have to go to other people, but I’m taking it one step at a time. I figure I’ve got eight months to develop my ideas and put them out there.

I think differently than a lot of other people. I’m very creative. I tend to ask questions. And I tend to ask why can’t we do it this way, or what are your ideas?

I live a simple life. I’ve got very few things that I spend money on besides travel, my kids and some community charities. I don’t spend a lot of money.

I live a simple life, and it ties to my love for learning. I’ve worked on learning languages when I’ve traveled. I know a little Norwegian and Swedish. I know a little French. I know a little Spanish. I love being around people who are different.

In my life, I’ve worked two jobs a number of times to support myself and my family. For the next eight months I’ve got my regular teaching job and I’ve got another job every night.

I’m serious about this. I want to succeed. It’s not that I need to win, but I need to make sure we as a city talk about these issues and move forward.

 I need to be listened to, and even though I want to be listened to, it seems that I spend more time listening than I spend pushing to have my message get out.

MP: We’ve asked the others in this contest for a list of supporters. Do you have a list you can share?

JT: I don’t have any people who have endorsed me, but we put up a website on Facebook, and my son told me I reached 100 likes in three days. The other candidates have had theirs up for four months, and the most “likes” anyone had was 800. 

I even have a way to tweet, I’ve been told.

I don’t have any endorsers, but I’m going to be working my tail off to get people in the community to not only like me but support me.