Lynnell Mickelsen: Why all the conspiracy theories and pearl-clutching in this year’s school board race?


This has been the hottest school board race I’ve seen in 25 years of living in Minneapolis, with lots of conspiracy theories and pearl-clutching.

Many of my neighbors and friends see the furious posts on Facebook, with all the hysterical warnings about the imminent destruction of public education as we know it, and are honestly confused. They ask me what the hell is going on in this race.

So here’s what I tell them.

We put the school board race at the bottom of the ballot and often treat it like a homecoming king and queen contest. But Minneapolis Public Schools currently spends $784 million a year and employ 6,991 people….which I believe is more employees than the city of Minneapolis.

Want to know more? Check out TC Daily Planet coverage of the 2014 Minneapolis School Board race.

So we need to remind ourselves that we’re electing people to govern an operation that spends more than three-quarters of a billion dollars a year. That’s a lot of moolah and a lot of power and yet it’s also systematically failing with 70 percent of its enrollment, which is made up of low-income children of color.

This is our future workforce. So this is a problem.

Yes, poverty plays a huge role in the academic achievement gap. But dammit, our schools also need to do better by our students for the seven hours a day that we have them in our classrooms. I’ve spent 20 years as an active parent and public school advocate and I’m telling you: the current system is corrupt, wasteful, inequitable and hard-wired for mediocrity or worse.

Which is why the district is steadily losing market share as parents—especially on the north side—vote with their feet and go to public charter schools instead.

And who can blame them? How many middle-class white parents would send their kids into district schools where 60 percent of their white peers failed to graduate from high school on time?

If this keeps up, the district will continue to shrink and get closer to an adapt-or-die point. In fact, some would argue it’s already there.

If the district is losing enrollment to public charters, what’s the best way to reverse this?

You can bitch and moan about various alleged billionaires plotting to privatize the system. But I’d argue it would be more helpful to make the district schools in every neighborhood be the kind of place parents want to send their kids because they know their children will thrive and achieve.

And this is precisely why Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano are running for school board: they want to see district schools improve and start attracting more families.

How do we do that? Well, among other things, we need to dismiss some bad principals and hire better ones; give schools more authority to hire and retain the most effective teachers; pay top teachers more to teach in low-performing schools; extend the school day at buildings where kids are far behind, among other things. These are some of the things successful public charter schools have done. We could learn from them.

Yet these things would also mean changes in the teacher and principal contracts–which, frankly, is what this fight is about. The current union leadership opposes all of the above. Their approach has been to double-down and keep teaching and administering like it’s 1975, even as thousands of kids keep failing.

For years, many of us were told that this is just the way Minneapolis Public Schools have to be and there’s nothing we can do about it because as Voltaire once said, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

But in the last five or six years, there’s been a organized movement among some progressive Democrats to challenge this status quo—even if it means taking on our own DFL allies and the most powerful lobby in the state, i.e. Education Minnesota.

Remember, the quote that’s attributed to Ghandi? “First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

It took us awhile. But now we’re at the fight stage, hence all the sturm and drang.

In the last few weeks, there’s been a ton of press from teacher union supporters talking about conspiracy theories involving billionaires trying to buy the school board and privatize public schools. Here’s my response:

1) When pressed, none of these critics can point to any specific examples of public schools being privatized because…ahem….there are NO public schools being privatized anywhere in the city or state.

2) I’ve found most of the privatizing conspiracy theories are almost always about public charter schools, which for the record, are PART of the public school system. Charters are public schools, funded by state dollars and open to everyone. Like district schools, some are good, some are lousy. But right now, the only public city schools that consistently post great results for low-income black and Latino kids are public charters.

Which is why public charters aren’t going away. But if you want them to disappear, the best way is to start offering an education that attracts families of color as opposed to driving them away.

3) Big money isn’t new to school board races. Big labor has used its money and resources to control school board elections (not to mention state legislatures) for decades. The big new change is that the status quo now being challenged by progressive DFLers who are organizing and raising money.

This year, the super PACS of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are spending $68 million on elections in 2014 across the country. Education Minnesota (the statewide teachers’ union) is spending $3.2 million statewide. Locally, the Minneapolis Federation of Teacher, local AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers and Education Minnesota raised $256,000 for city-wide races——the school board being the only city-wide race and Rebecca Gagnon is the only candidate facing a serious challenge.

All of this surpasses anything raised by DFLers on the education reform side. When the newly formed Minnesota Progressive Education Fund received $100,000 from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, MFT teachers demonstrated outside the League of Women Voters site bewailing billionaire outside influence.

However, during the same week, when the media also reported that the same terrible outsider billionaire Bloomberg had donated $500,000 to a PAC for Al Franken and $50 million to a PAC supporting gun-control and opposing the National Rifle Association—-oddly enough, there was no pearl-clutching whatsoever.

My bottom line: I support collective bargaining. I think teachers need a union. I’d just prefer we had a union that wanted to live and work and educate kids in the 21st century. If people like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg have the resources and courage to challenge an entrenched status quo to work better for kids, especially low-income kids of color, I’m okay with that. I hope he inspires more progressive Minnesotans to do likewise.

And vote for Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano on Tuesday.

(This column originally appeared at