Pam Costain: Why I will not run again for Minneapolis Board of Education


February 22, 2010

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

After several months of reflection and numerous conversations with my family, I have decided not to seek re-election to the Minneapolis School Board. This has been a very difficult decision for me because I love the Minneapolis Public Schools and consider my service on the board to be the most significant and important work I have done in my professional life.

I believe passionately that public education is the bedrock of our democracy and that a strong urban school system is critical for our city’s future.  Diversity, pluralism and equal opportunity for every child are core values that I hold dear, and they are central to the mission of public education.  When we support our public schools, we express our commitment to the common good and to the responsibility that each generation has toward the care and well-being of the next.

The past three years have been challenging and intense years for our district as we undertook many difficult decisions. I am proud of what the school board and the district have accomplished. We have strengthened our resolve that every child – regardless of race, income, zip code or circumstance – will achieve academically and socially in our schools, and we have begun to institute the reforms that are necessary to make that commitment a reality. We have embraced a Strategic Plan that guides our work and our decision-making and that pushes us to dramatically improve outcomes for children. As a district we have placed an even greater emphasis on equity, integration and the need to deliver high quality schools in every part of the city.

Despite enormous budgetary challenges, we have built a stronger and more transparent financial framework and have tried insofar as possible to put more money directly into the classroom. We have worked hard to regain the trust and confidence of our community and continue to celebrate the passage of a remarkable, voter-approved referendum in 2008.

We hired two superintendents in the last three years, the most important job a school board is called upon to undertake. Both Dr. Green and Bernadeia Johnson have provided crucial leadership to move the district forward and to negotiate the rocky shoals of change. I am proud to have been part of the team that hired both individuals and impressed with the course they have set. I am confident Ms. Johnson will continue to lead the district with focus, tenacity and boldness, and I expect to see dramatic gains in achievement in the years ahead.

With all this progress and the enthusiasm I feel for the new superintendent, why would I not run for re-election? The fact is I can no longer afford to be a school board member. The combined salary and expense stipend of less than $14,000 a year does not even cover the cost of my health care and professional expenses, let alone provide a modest wage. While others have managed to work this out differently, I personally have not figured out how to do the job with anything less than a full-time commitment.  School board directors spend countless hours reading and preparing for meetings, attending community and neighborhood events, visiting schools, talking to constituents, staying current with local, state and federal policy debates, meeting with other community and political leaders and serving on boards with other jurisdictions. We also answer all of our own emails, letters and calls.

Wages for school board members have not increased in more than 20 years. Despite the tremendous challenges of governing an urban school district, the job of a school board member is still viewed as essentially a part-time, volunteer commitment. Operating from a model that is at least fifty years old, governance of our schools is seriously out of date in my opinion. I hope the citizens of Minneapolis will begin to discuss governance of the school district and the expectations we place on those who serve.

There is one more reason I will not be running again. There is climate of negativity and blame that surrounds urban public education, and it has taken a toll on me. The negativity is both external (the Governor and other politicians’ favorite sport is bashing the Minneapolis Public Schools), and it is internal (parents, teachers, board members, administrators and the community spend far too much time pointing fingers at one other). I do not believe we can make the breakthroughs we need in our district without stronger unity and a mutual commitment to problem-solving on behalf of the children. Those of us who believe in urban public education must learn how to disagree, without wounding and insulting one other. We are allies, not opponents. There are plenty of people who do not support public education; those of us who do must learn new ways to move forward.

Education writer and activist, Parker Palmer, reminds us that those who believe in public institutions and work to make them better will always stand in “the tragic gap between what is and what can be, between the real and the possible”. He goes on to say that “we must love our institutions so much we refuse to let them fail.” I would add, we must love one another and the children we serve enough not to fall into blame, division or despair. People and institutions change and improve when there is hope, a deep sense of unity and mission, the energy of new ideas and a community of people working together.

I will be leaving the school board, but I am not leaving the Minneapolis Public Schools. I want to find new ways to support the diverse needs of our remarkable student body. I want to find ways to honor and respect teachers in their heroic everyday efforts, while also calling for change and renewal in the profession. I want to assist parents to have real input and authentic dialogue with our schools. I want to continue to encourage the broader community to support MPS not only with their tax dollars, but also with their time, talent, mentoring and advocacy. And I want to work with all elected officials who have the courage to put children first in the decisions they make.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve on the Minneapolis School Board. I look forward to my final ten months of hard work and a renewed commitment to our future.

Pam Costain