by Pam Costain and Don Fraser, 10/26/08 • Two school issues on the ballot on November 4 get different verdicts
On the November 4th ballot Minneapolis citizens will decide two important questions about our public schools. One is the school levy referendum. We strongly urge a “Yes” vote on the Strong Schools, Strong City measure to continue to make progress on the strategic plan to raise student achievement adopted last year. The second question proposes to change the method for electing school board directors from at-large representation to one in which the majority of directors are elected from districts. On this we urge a “No” vote. This change would take away the right of citizens to vote for all school board members and increase instability in the system.
Published in Star Tribune, 10/26/08, re-published with permission of author.
This multi-author Daily Planet blog includes writing by community members about education issues.
School boards are charged with governing an entire school system and making the best decisions for the district as a whole. Their job is to represent the interests of all students in our public schools and to ensure a quality education for each and every child. Unlike city council members or state legislators whose responsibility is to represent a unique geographical area, school board members govern a city-wide school system. We are concerned that school board members elected by district would focus primarily on specific area concerns, instead of working for a stronger city-wide system.
Electing school board members by district will likely increase divisiveness on the board. Schools boards regularly make difficult choices that touch people at a very personal level. When enrollments change and resources are scarce, members who are accountable to specific neighborhoods or school communities will have trouble putting city-wide interests first. The potential for balkanization of the school district is great. Imagine how difficult it will be to make any school closing decision if directors are elected from specific areas of the city.
Proponents of this change suggest that under a district election system, school board directors will be more responsive and accountable, and that the board will be more diverse. Diversity of gender and race has historically been greater on the Minneapolis School Board than on other elected bodies. And with the exception of Northeast, geographical representation across the city has also been strong in recent years. Moreover, a candidate from Northeast will likely win a seat in the upcoming election. We agree that board members need to be responsive and accessible, but that is a function of the quality of the candidate, rather than how they are elected.
Minneapolis public schools need to stay the course of reform begun in the last two years. A strategic plan with an aggressive agenda to improve achievement for all children is being led by a strong team of administrators under Superintendent Green. Progress is being made on a number of fronts: improving teacher and principal quality, building accountability, addressing institutional racism, strengthening financial management, and building partnerships with parents and the wider community.
This reform agenda must not falter or be diverted. Our city must be extremely focused about improving the Minneapolis Public Schools and seeing the current plan through to success. The possibility of electing board members with narrower interests or single-issue agendas is not what is needed if the reform path is to continue. The school board will need to keep its eye on the prize of improving outcomes for every child in the city.
School board governance is too important not to get it right. We are not proponents of the status quo, but we do believe it is critical to study what other highly effective urban districts are doing, consider all models and even look to other countries, before changing our form of governance. In considering how best to govern the Minneapolis Public Schools, we have to ask ourselves: What skills and talents do highly effective boards require and how do we get them? Can a board member realistically do the job while being paid only $13,000 a year? How do we recruit and train high quality candidates?
We agree that school board directors need to be connected to communities, but they also need a fairly high level of expertise and knowledge to tackle complicated issues. Directors need the time and capacity to do their job and the staff support to enable them to be effective. Finally school boards need the political, business and community relationships that will enable our schools to be supported through major reforms.
Assuming the current system of school governance needs to be improved, we must ask ourselves, what really is the problem? Changing the method of electing school board members (as this ballot measure proposes) will leave more fundamental issues unaddressed. This would be a mistake.
We urge a “No” vote on the upcoming ballot measure that would move school board elections to districts. Instead we urge a comprehensive look at what could make our school board a more effective governing body.
Pam Costain, Minneapolis School Board Director and Don Fraser, Former mayor, City of Minneapolis