School board candidates met bright and early on March 26 for a forum sponsored by City Council Member Gary Schiff to talk about where they stand on issues facing Minneapolis Public Schools. The candidates, who were all male, each got a two minute introductory statement, followed by questions from the audience members.
Speaking at the forum were incumbent T. Williams, along with candidates David DeGrio, Richard Mammen, Doug Mann, and Dick Velner, who all are running for an at-large seat. Hussein Samatar, running unopposed for District Three and Alberto Monserrate, running unopposed for District Five, also joined in the forum. The event started at 7:30 a.m. when candidates and audience had the opportunity to mingle and buy a breakfast of eggs, tamales, and conchas (Mexican sweet breads). The forum itself started around 8 a.m. and lasted about forty five minutes.
In 2008, Minneapolis voters passed a referendum which expanded the city’s school board from seven to nine seats with three elected citywide and six elected by district. The referendum will be phased in. The first wave comes this fall, when voters will elect five members to the board (districts one, three, and five, as well as two at large seats). Voters will elect four more candidates in 2012.
A number of the candidates addressed the issue of the achievement gap in the public schools. Mann said that the achievement gap between black and white students was occurring because of racial segregation. He warned against the “harmful practice of watered down curriculum tracks.” Mammen agreed that the school board needs to address the achievement gap, and said that the schools need to look at broader community issues to address segration in the schools, which he called a social injustice.
Almost everyone agreed that there needed to be more community involvement. Hussein said that we needed to “stop forgetting about our boys.”
Incumbent Williams, who was elected four years ago, said that the school board has had to make some tough decisions. “I know you blame me for stuff that may not be working,” he said, but he hopes that voters will give him another chance.
DeGrio had a different perspective, saying that while the achievement gap needs to be addressed, schools also need to focus on maintaining their academic rigor. In addition, he feels that the schools should provide more options than just the four year college track. “There are other options,” he said, such as junior colleges, trade schools, tech training, and Americorps.
The forum touched briefly on the sometimes tense relationship between district leadership and teachers. Mann said teachers believe their views are not being translated. A member of the teacher’s union himself, he thinks that people should stop teacher bashing, and that the district should discontinue the practice of firing new teachers at the end of the school year. He also said that the board should be present at contract negotiations.
Williams disagreed. He said that he prefers not to be present at contract negotiations because it would be difficult for him to observe them without saying anything.
Another issue that was touched upon was the what to do about No Child Left Behind. Williams said that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a misnomer because in the program children were getting left behind. “It punishes the victim,” he said.
Monserrate called NCLB “a race to the bottom” and resulted in reduced standards across the country.
Velner, who became a teacher at the age of 50 and says he has taught at every public high school in Minneapolis, said he felt NCLB, like many programs with acronyms, didn’t mean anything.
Another issue discussed at Friday’s forum was that of charter schols. Williams said that charter schools were a fact of life, and that the board needed to work toward building a healthy relationship with them.
Monserrate, who is on the board of Hiawatha Leadership Academy, said that he doesn’t belive that charter schools are the solution. “Most are doing the same or worse than district schools,” he said. He hopes the district can integrate and collaborate with charter schools. “I’m for good schools,” he said. “We can learn from each other.”
Hussein said that charter schools were re-segregating the community after the country fought for integration.
Velner said that reguardless of whether a child learns in a charter school or a district school, the relationship between teacher and student was most important. “Kids don’t learn in a school,” he said. “They learn in a classroom.”
The candidates also discussed the new system of electing school board members from certain districts. Wiliams said that as a district-wide board member, he wasn’t there to represent a particular district. “We need to work toward an equitable distribution of resources,” he said.
Mann said that the danger of the district-specific system is that there’s a danger that board members would be guarding their own turf.
Monserrate said he was a convert on the district specific issue. He now believes that there is value in making sure that each area of the city is represented.
Hussein, who made the point that he doesn’t want to be considered Somali, but rather “as American as they come,” said he would vigorously advocate for his district, but would also understand the needs of the whole.