Responding to two years of bad news in city schools, DFLers at their annual city convention Saturday snubbed the sitting school board chair and endorsed four reform-minded candidates for the Minneapolis school board.
The delegates, who packed the gymnasium at Patrick Henry High School, chose longtime activist Pam Costain, business consultant Chris Stewart, nonprofit executive T. Williams, and marketing consultant Tom Madden to run with the party’s blessing in November. School board chair Joe Erickson, the only incumbent to seek re-election, finished sixth.
Eight of the nine candidates seeking the endorsement said they would support the party’s slate and not mount a primary challenge. Judith James, who finished eighth, declined to state her intention. Two other candidates who had campaigned for the endorsement—educator Fred Easter and nurse Doug Mann—dropped out of the race before the balloting began.
The outcome was never in doubt after the first ballot, which boosted Costain and Stewart over the 60 percent threshold needed for endorsement with 73.5 percent and 64.8 percent, respectively. Williams (57.7) and Madden (56.6) rounded out the top four, with social services administrator Jill Davis (36.4), Erickson (27.7), school administrator Polly Harrison-Townsend (27.2), James (4.7), and last-minute candidate Harry Grigsby ( 4.4) trailing.
Costain, who had been campaigning for more than a year and was considered the frontrunner in the race, told delegates that she was “really eager to work with a strong and solid team.”
Stewart said he was surprised by the outcome. “This is a look of shock on my face,” he told delegates. But his campaign had picked up significant momentum in recent weeks, thanks to several high-profile endorsements, and he was believed to be in a strong position going into the convention.
The second ballot put Williams over the top with 63.5 percent of the delegates. Madden finished second with 58.5 percent, but Davis (28.2), Harrison-Townsend (18.1) and Erickson (16.3) each lost ground. The convention chair called for a third ballot, but with delegates getting antsy and motions flying for an endorsement by acclamation, Davis, Harrison-Townsend, and finally Erickson, graciously conceded.
Erickson, who saw two incumbents snubbed by the convention two years ago, said later that he was done in by five years of budget cuts, chaos around the superintendent, and a lack of cohesion and trust on the board. “That undermined any support I might have had,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”
He said that he may have been “politically naïve” to believe that he was elected to simply become informed about the issues and make the best decisions he could. “That’s what I thought I was supposed to do, “ he said.
His tendency to be straightforward rather than calculating also hurt his re-election chances, he said. “I could’ve played it closer to the vest.”
But in the end, he added, that’s just not who he is. And he suggested that the political arena may not have been his strongest vehicle for supporting kids and schools. “The skills to get elected and the skills to serve are completely different,” he said.
Erickson said he would continue to work on education issues and that he planned to take a sabbatical next year from his post as a professor at Augsburg College. Though he has no specific plans, he hinted that he would be thinking about how he could serve in the future—just not on the school board. “I’ve had more than four years of the school board in my four years,” he said.
Meanwhile, Costain, Stewart, Williams, and Madden, who will face no significant challenge in November, will join a school board with few tested leaders and an exceptionally challenging agenda. With longtime incumbents Judy Farmer, Colleen Moriarty, and Audrey Johnson stepping down after this year, only two-term former chair Sharon Henry-Blythe has any significant experience on the board. The other two members, Lydia Lee and Peggy Flanagan, have served a mere two years.
That lack of continuity has already convinced Costain that she and her new colleagues will have to well prepared to provide some leadership of their own come January. She hopes to bring them together sooner rather than later to begin addressing issues. “We’re not waiting until January,” she said. “We’re going to start next week.”