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Time to vote, but what does the Minneapolis school board DO?
In November in Minneapolis, each resident who decides to vote will choose a candidate for president. They’ll grapple with their feelings about same-sex marriage, and they’ll decide whether or not they think voting should require a photo ID.
In Minneapolis, voters will also choose school board candidates. (For articles about the race, click here.) Some will pick the name they like best or leave the bubbles blank. That might be because they have no idea what school boards even do.
Board members past and present say even those who follow the board closely frequently misunderstand it. “What the public is asking them many times are questions that I would say are at the school operations level – they are very nuts and bolts transportation issues, lunch issues, my classroom is too big,” said veteran Minneapolis school board member Judy Farmer, who served on the board for 27 years before retiring in 2007.
Urban board members’ job is to steer a big hulking machine of a school system with what many argue is a tiny rudder. Since board members sit in the driver’s seat, it’s no wonder that constituents turn to these part-time civil servants for solutions to problems as major as the achievement gap or as minor as last Thursday’s lunch.
School boards exist in large part because of the financial investment that taxpayers make in the school system, and because of a long tradition of allowing individual communities a voice in how their kids should be educated.
In Minneapolis, the board is a publicly elected body of nine people, including six who represent particular parts of the city, and three who represent the city at large. They serve four-year terms and earn about $13,000 annually, putting in anywhere from 15 to 40 hours each week.
They attend community events, represent the district on outside boards, respond to calls and emails, and read a lot. On most Tuesdays in St. Paul and Minneapolis, members attend school board meetings where they give feedback to administrators, listen to community members, and vote on things like policies, contracts, budgets and school closings. State statute lists duties that only school boards can fulfill, and says the public must be invited to any meeting where more than half the board members are present.
Part of members’ job is to be the watchdogs of taxpayer dollars. State law puts the district in charge of many important financial decisions. The board owns the district’s budget, the teachers' contract and any referenda asking for more property taxes from voters. District policies on anything from sugary drinks to suspensions to teacher evaluations to curriculum also need board approval.
It’s not board members, though, who implement or design policies and budgets. Members don’t even sit at the teachers’ contract negotiation table. They contribute some ideas via topical committees that include staff and community members, but in many cases they tell staff what they want, then let somebody else do the work.
So what do school board members really do? Which problems can they solve? And whose questions should they be answering?
“I’m not sure that the system is really constructed in a way that school boards have a lot of power to change things,” said former Minneapolis school board member (and current Twin Cities Media Alliance board member) Dennis Schapiro, who served during a time of great dysfunction in the district. “I think a lot of efforts out there are well intentioned, but they don’t really touch on what’s fundamental about schools. It’s kids and the quality of teaching that they’re exposed to.”
“A school board can do a great deal of mischief, refusing to approve a budget, refusing to go along with an initiative that the superintendent wants to try,” he added.
Board alum Farmer is less cynical but she doesn’t disagree. “That’s true sometimes,” she said. “If you sat 10 large city superintendents down together and asked them about their boards, many of them would say that they’re the chief cause of problems, because they micromanage, they play favorites with contracts or employees, and they turn over, and so they’re fickle.”
So, in a district where a huge proportion of students are struggling, how can a board be useful?
“Hold the superintendant’s feet to the fire – and I mean really,” said Farmer. “What is the district doing, and which things are effective, and which things aren’t effective, and if they’re not effective, what can we do to stop them?”
“We really don’t have at this point any longstanding example of urban districts leading for change, that have turned around,” said board member Carla Bates, who is running against Doug Mann for at-large reelection in Minneapolis. “It’s not like smallpox – oh wow we found the cure! – it’s more like global climate change. It requires a huge culture shift that has to be made.”
The superintendent has a much more direct hand than the board in leading any shift. She directs the everyday operations of the district. The job is challenging, the candidate pool is small, and a revolving door of superintendents can mean a confusing cycle of constantly changing approaches to policy implementation that distracts teachers and principals from the job of educating.
Ask a school board member what their greatest power is, and most will say hiring and evaluating the superintendent. The answer rings like a cop-out, but it might be the truth.
A fickle or divided board can make the superintendent’s job more difficult, and board election cycles can make her tenure short, but board members also possess information that the she may need for her plans to be successful.
Few people call Minneapolis board chair Alberto Monserrate about curriculum or academics, but when the district switched banks, his phone rang about a thousand times. Most of the calls he gets are from parents wishing to send their kids to a specific school or asking Monserrate to reduce their class size.
Board members say managing constituents' highly specific complaints, seemingly misplaced concerns or their overblown expectations of what the board can do is difficult, but members’ ability to connect moms and neighbors to the education machine can be powerful. And sometimes the information they convey is valuable.
“Parents are kind of like cockroaches,” said Bates. “If you see one or two [who are concerned about an issue], you know there’s like a million.”
Relationships with key parents, staff members and local leaders mean board members hear information that the superintendent doesn’t always get.
Just before Farmer finished her tenure on the board, members were planning to close Keewaydin elementary school near Lake Nokomis because of low enrollment. Its obituary was nearly written when two or three board members’ phones rang.
It was State Representative Jean Wagenius. She had been door-knocking near Lake Nokomis when she noticed that young families had replaced elderly people in the community’s modest homes. “I’ve been finding lots and lots of little kids,” she told Farmer. The board kept the school open, and now the Lake Nokomis Keewaydin Campus is scheduled for an expansion to address overly large class sizes.
Board members can be bolder than the superintendent. Farmer said she’s seen superintendents ask board members to float politically challenging ideas to see how the public reacts.
They can ask the superintendent questions that community members don’t have the opportunity to ask, like why there are more IB classes offered at Southwest High than at Washburn, and they can require her to provide data indicating how the district is progressing towards goals that they set together.
People's Children, People's Jobs
New school board members learn quickly that the job is political, the attacks are personal and that change is slower than it looked from the campaign trail.
Bates said she was taken off guard by the emotional toll the job takes. “I was surprised the morning after voting on Changing School Options, I was physically kind of ill,” she said. “To make this decision that impacts people in such a personal way. This is about people’s children, people’s jobs.”
“Do not ever ... tell people that school boards don’t have a lot of power,” said Bates. “In the final instance, it’s our responsibility to know and make the decision. That is power.”
© 2012 Alleen Brown