There were two no-shows and one candidate who seemed to suffering from extreme stage fright on Monday evening as the school board candidates vied for this year’s election. The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Achievement Gap Committee, the African American Leadership Forum, Education Equity Organizing Collaborative, Empowering Educators for Equity, and MinnCAN. It was held at Plymouth Congregational Church, with a packed audience.
The candidates present included Tracine Asberry, the unopposed candidate for Distirct 6, current school board member Kim Ellison, the unopposed candidate for District 2 (ex-wife of Congressperson Keith Ellison), and Josh Reimnitz and Patty Wycoff, running for District 4. William Lange, the other District 4 candidate, was not there, but his father announced at the beginning that he had a mandatory meeting for the company he works for, which prevented his attendance. Willis G. Trueblood, an at large candidate, was also not present (Southwest Journal has reported previously that he was hospitalized). The other at-large candidates present were current school board member Carla Bates, Doug Mann, and Janice Mae Harmon. Harmon was unable to get through her introduction, more than once forgot what she was saying, and once gave an answer that didn’t in any way respond to the question.
The first question posed to the candidates asked them to give an example of their work or community involvement history that demonstrates their ability to be a link between the school bureaucracy and stakeholders such as parents, students, and community members.
Tracine Asberry was the first to respond, saying that her nearly 10 years as a school teacher provided many experiences requiring strong relationships with other teachers and administrators. For example, she would need to get the other teachers and staff to adjust their schedules in order to have assemblies, she said. She also gave an example of how she worked with a principal to change to an entirely new curriculum in order to better serve struggling students.
Patricia Wycoff gave as an example of her work as a community organizer, getting parents to sign petitions and hold meetings at her local coffee shops during the changes surrounding the Changing School Options plan. “It was a collective, collaborative effort,” she said, from which the group created a document and sent it to the school board. “I’m happy with the outcome,” she said. “Southwest became a more culturally diverse school because of our efforts. I’m so proud I became a part of it.”
Josh Reimnitz spoke about his work running the multi-state, multi-million-dollar nonprofit, Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF). “It’s given me a clear picture of what it would be like at the school board level,” he said.
Kim Ellison described her experience teaching at an alternative school, before No Child Left Behind was enacted. Her principal, she said, told her “it’s all about relationships.” She developed good relationships with the other teachers, and with the school counselor. She’s served on a number of boards, and did advocacy work with Parents United for Public Schools.
Doug Mann gave an example from an early employment experience in 1975, organizing workers at a nursing home and eventually leading a strike that forced the employer to change their policies. He also spoke of working at a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, and instigating change so that all people- including Black customers, who had been mistreated, would get consistently good service.
Janice Mae Harmon at first could not speak, and asked that Carla Bates go before her. Then, after Bates spoke, Harmon said she is a team leader at the Star Tribune as well as a community leader. “My motto is invest in our teachers and inspire our students to go forward in life,” she said.
Carla Bates spoke about her leadership around the issue of special education. “We are not going to solve the achievement gap without focusing on special education,” she said. She’s actively sought out solutions, speaking with parents, and working on a task force, trying to get the community to make changes.
The next question was whether the candidates would agree to adopting a resolution to enact a racial and economic equity impact assessment. Kim Ellison, Doug Mann, Carla Bates, and Tracine Asberry all said yes.
“I believe that without that we’re leaving kids behind,” said Ellison.
Doug Mann added that currently neither the district nor the state are complying with desegregation laws, and that such an assessment would reveal gross disparities.
Carla Bates added that there were two tools at the disposal of schools to address equity disparities — the first being a racial equity assessment, which was done in conjunction with the Changing School Options plan, and the other being making efforts to working with women- and minority-owned businesses.
Tracine Asberry said she was in favor of an assessment, but that it was necessary that it actually went to benefit the people being studied. “The study would hold us as a district accountable,” she said. “Some people still believe there is no achievement gap.” The assessment would give a foundation, and provide accountability, she said.
Wycoff said that as a school board member, she wants to be fully informed. “I don’t know what it will cost to do this. How will we use this information? I have a lot of questions. I need answers before I can say yes or no.”
Reminitz said an assessment was supremely important, “but it is a question of scope and cost,” he said. “What are the costs? For major decisions involving large sums of money we have to understand the ramifications of those decisions.”
Harmon seemed not to understand the question, going into a speech about abortion.
The third question asked what role the principal and teacher contracts played in attracting the best and brightest teachers and principals. All of the candidates stated that contracts were very important. Patty Wycoff said the contracts hold teachers and principals accountable, and delineates the role principals have in firing teachers. She also said that teachers needed freedom to teach curriculum not all in the same way.
Reminitz talked about how important it is to use the contracts to designate the atmosphere of the schools. Teachers “want to be in an environment that’s safe for them,” he said. Ellison also spoke about supporting teachers, making them feel safe and secure.
For Doug Mann, the current contract provides job security, due process and an evaluation process that helps teachers improve their practice before steps are taken for them to be fired. The problem, he said, is the extraordinarily high rate of turnover rates for teachers fired each year before their probation period has ended. “We need to set a much higher retention rate for those teachers,” he said.
“Teachers do need to support our students so they can go forward in life,” said Harmon, and soon forgot what she was going to say again.
Carla Bates said that student achievement should be central in contracts, and that “fair, consistent, appropriate, evaluations,” were key.
For Tracine Asberry, contracts should broaden the scope- looking for people who come from alternative experiences and training, to “make sure our students have the best teachers,” she said.
Next, the candidates addressed the most appropriate and best relationship between the board and the superintendent. Carla Bates spoke first, saying that it should be a relationship based on trust and respect (a number of the candidates echoed this sentiment). Bates said Minneapolis’s evaluation tool to measure the superintendant’s performance was “one of the best in the nation,” in that it outlines the relationship and expectations the board has of the superintendant. “The board sets the policies and the direction for the district,” she said. “She’s the administrator. We have one employee. Everyone else is her employee.”
Doug Mann said the board should provide oversight of the administration, to make sure it is actually carrying out the policies, although he said he was not in favor of micromanaging the superintendent. “When we set a policy,” he said, “we want to figure out the steps that will get us there.” Preventing teacher turnover rates was a specific intervention that he noted would be something that he would particularly pay close attention to as a board member.
For Kim Ellison, she sided with Bates in that once the policy is outlined and in the best interest of the students, the board must trust the superintendent to dictate to her staff and employees what needs to be done.
Reimnitz, Wycoff and Asberry all agreed that the superintendent needed support and trust, but all said that the board must also hold the superintendent accountable, with Asberry saying that a diversity and equity impact assessment being one tool to measure accountability.
Harmon said, “we need to support the superintendent and everything she does.”
The forum then went on to address administrative transfers, when a school transfers a student to another school due to behavior issues.
All of the candidates said that there needed to be more due process before a student is transferred, and addressing the needs of the student, with Asberry stating that schools need to look at the root cause of behavior problems, and to address the policy for health and wellness. Bates was the only one who stated that sometimes academic transfers are sometimes needed for the safety and security of other students (although she did say that they and suspensions should be a last resort.)
Next, the candidates were asked what action they would take to close the achievement gap. Ellison spoke of the president’s executive order to start an initiative for academic excellence for African Americans, and said an important factor was retaining students throughout high school. Reimnitz said that there are actually five “gaps” and the board needs to tackle “the belief gap”, because some people don’t recognize that we have a problem. He then described his experience in Atlanta where people didn’t like him because he was white. He said that all students can learn if we invest in them now, and put the resources there.
Patty Wycoff answered the question by saying, “if I had the answer, I would be a MacArthur Genius. She cited organizations such as the Northside Achievement Zone and the Jeremiah Project as being instrumental in helping families and communites. She also believes creating incentives for experienced, effective teachers will help. “We need to put everybody to work on this,” she said. “That’s how we’ll fix the achievement gap.”
Asberry talked about creating partnerships, and creating incentives to connect master teachers with students in need. Finally, she said, “We need to take that money people are talking about putting into photo IDs and put it into our schools,” she said.
For Bates, the answer was “teachers, teachers, teachers.” She framed the solution on an individual basis. “The achievement gap gets solved student by student,” she said. She also echoed Reimnitz’s assertion that we need to tackle the belief gap. “As a society, we need to believe,” she said. “As a city we need to believe that there can be great schools in every neighborhood regardless of zip code.”
Harmon spoke about kids with disabilities, and that we need to help them move forward. “We have to help teachers help them do that,” she said.
Mann said the achievement gap is a result by bad federal policies. “In the late 1960s, changes in policy accompanied a decrease in the achievement gap,” he said. “In the early 1980s, there was a shift that had a the predictable effect of increasing the educational access gap.” No Child Left Behind-era policies have led to a privatization of the school system, he said. “We’re still moving in the wrong direction. We need to do an about face.”
Finally, the candidates were asked how they would ensure the district listen to the parents. Reimnitz spoke of creating a village to help every child. Wycoff said the district needs to seek community involvement before decisions are reached. “It’s tough to sell an idea when you don’t include [parents] and engage them,” she said. “Before you make decisions, go to the community and let them be heard.”
Asberry’s doctoral dissertation was about family involvement, and she spoke of looking for alternatives to advocate for their interests. “We need to have flexibility,” she said. “There are people in our districts that are our surrogates.”
Bates spoke about the recent progress that has been made with the current board, especially in its ability to work with the Metro Urban Indian directors. She also said that current board members Rebecca Gagnon and Jenny Arneson have been working hard to establish new protocols.
Harmon spoke of her own experience as a parent, with one child who is 16 years old and other children who have graduated, so they can “go forward with life,” she said.
Mann discussed his experiences listening to parents when he joined an NCAA advocacy committee, during which time the NCAA successfully sued the state of Minnesota for institutionalized racism. According to Mann, the problem is that the board doesn’t know what is going on in schools.
Ellison’s solution is to go where parents are, on a regular basis.
In her closing remarks, Wycoff said the worst part of running for office “is having to talk about how great I am.” Still, she said the reason she’s running is she wants someone like her to be on the school board, who has “shown commitment to their community.”
Asberry said she’s running “as a former teacher who loved teaching.” She’s excited for the campaign and to be on the board. “I’m also running because my parents raised me to give back to my family and community,” she said.
Bates said she appreciates every day the opportunity to do this work. “I love rooms like this,” she said. “Even though we may disagree on many issues, we all care. That matters a lot.” She also said we need “continued sustained funding from the state of Minnesota,” urging the room to vote for state leaders who can make that happen.
Harmon credited her husband as part of the reason that she’s running. “Our kids come first,” she said. “If I’m elected as a school board member at large, I’ll help raise your kids to be first.”
Mann stated that education is a right, not a privilege, and that he would work on fixing the institutional systemic problems that are setting up teachers and students to fail.
Ellison started as a parent concerned with what her children were doing in school, she said. She realized that it wasn’t that classroom teachers couldn’t make decisions. She wants to look at the big picture, she said. She then quoted Dr. Seuss: “We can do better than this.”
Reimnitz said he was “thankful to be here today,” and said his experience working for a “multimillion dollar nonprofit,” gave him the experience he needed. He’s endorsed by former school board members Tom Madden and Pam Costain, as well as Mayor RT Rybak. “I’m ready to get it done,” he said.