On Aug. 22, the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus partnered with the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis to offer community members a chance to listen to and interact with School Board candidates at a forum designed to engage and inform.
Among the issues discussed were funding; race, class and the achievement gap; and the very makeup of the board itself.
Eight of nine candidates showed up to present their plans. Allison Johnson was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.
The six top vote-getters in the Sept. 9 primary will move on to vie for three seats on the board in the general election on Nov. 4. Voters will also decide on two referenda: a tax levy providing $60 million a year, for eight years, to the district; and a change to geographic representation for the board, which is currently elected from a pool of at-large candidates.
Each candidate’s opening two-minute speech centered on improving the existing system, but proposals to do so ranged from an educational overhaul to staying on the same track. Mary Buss called for a “grassroots revolt against No Child Left Behind.” She said teachers should “not teach to test, but teach to learn.”
Incumbent Sharon Henry-Blythe, calling her seven years on the board “challenging but rewarding,” emphasized the importance of the board-approved strategic plan to minimize achievement gaps and set stringent staff expectations, among other things.
Kari Reed, a mother of five who home-schools her children, was the only one to speak against the levy referendum. Proponents say the money will help compensate for an estimated $100 million budget shortfall in the district over the next several years.
More discussion revolved around the other referendum, which would shift the School Board representative election process from an at-large system to a district- or ward-based structure. Five candidates supported the current system; Carla Bates and Jill Davis favored the referendum, while Thomas Dicks said board members shouldn’t be elected at all.
Instead, they should be education professionals who are on the front lines of education in the district’s schools, Dicks said, questioning whether parochial interests could sway board members and suggesting that students be allowed to voice opinions as well.
Most agreed the primary purpose of the board should be to equalize schools and the quality of education among them, and those who disagreed with the proposed referendum cited multiple qualified people in the same ward as a key reason not to adopt a representative system. Supporters said geographic, rather than at-large representation, could invite equality.
While proponents have argued that the current election system has limited representation for certain areas of the city — primarily North Minneapolis — it should be noted that all but one candidate (Davis, who lives in Northeast) who filed for election is from the south side of the city.
“Board members need to represent everyone in the district,” said Doug Mann. “They need a commitment to making quality education available to everybody.”
One forum attendee quizzed candidates on what they plan to do to combat ongoing problems with standardized test scores of students of color. English Language Learners (ELL) programs were a hot topic, and most candidates insinuated that the state wasn’t doing enough to fund this necessary curriculum, as classroom demographics change and more immigrant students make their way to school.
“The state has really crippled our ability to work with ELL students,” Henry-Blythe said.
Not only is it essential for ELL students to have access to a multitude of English-learning resources, said Buss, but native English speakers should be mandated to learn up-and-coming languages, specifically Chinese, Russian and Spanish.
By contrast, Reed said ELL funding isn’t necessary, nor is ELL in general. She said she learned language by being immersed in it, and that’s the best way to do it.
“We’re here, we’re in America, we speak English,” she said, adding that ELL can too easily become an “excuse for not learning.”
Davis broadened the focus from institutional racism to classism and said attention must be paid to that problem as well.
“Many people in our education system don’t understand the environment where our children come from,” Davis said, be it one of different cultural values or less-than-ideal living conditions.
Another forum attendee followed up, asking whether institutional or personal racism within the education system plays up achievement gaps between the wealthier, white students and poorer students of color.
Lydia Lee, an incumbent and longtime teacher in the district, said she had worked with teachers specifically on the city’s North side and had been dismayed by educators’ “our-kids-can’t-do-that” attitudes and frustration with students.
Bates echoed that sentiment. “It’s huge that every single teacher believes every single student can learn,” Bates said, adding later that early-childhood education — which is meant to involve parents — is where it all begins.
But overall, candidates were somewhat divided on the issue. Some said parenting should be left to parents, and a School Board should be dealing with only the fundamentals.
“The Board needs to focus on making the system work and not pointing fingers at parents,” Mann said.