by Jim Davnie • Minneapolis School Board Chair Pam Costain’s recent argument against my proposal to reform the way Minneapolis school board members are elected revealed we have much more in common than would first appear. Minneapolis public schools are facing critical challenges as never before, not the least of which is a sense of disconnect between residents and the board. The current system of at-large school board elections is a key reason for that sense of disconnect, and undermines the concept of representative democracy in Minneapolis. The new governance model, which calls for six members of the Minneapolis School Board to be elected by district and three to be elected at-large, will create a Board that is more accountable and responsive to the community, better balanced across the city, and better connected to the diverse communities that make up our city.
Editor’s note: The Davnie bill (“School Board reform statute”) provides that six school board members will be elected by geographic district, with three remaining at-large members from anywhere in the city. If the School Board approves the Davnie plan, it will go into effect. If the School Board votes down the Davnie plan or fails to act, the plan will go to Minneapolis voters as a referendum question in 2008. The vote is scheduled for December 11. For further discussion of the Davnie bill, see earlier articles by Carla Bates (in favor of the bill) and Pam Costain (opposing the bill).
Ms. Costain correctly states, “…developing the appropriate model of governance for our district is a critical part of moving a reform agenda forward.” I believe the reform statute proposed and unanimously supported by the entire Minneapolis delegation is that model.
Why do I feel so strongly – both on the need for reform and in this proposal? Simply put, because all families and all communities should have representation on the Minneapolis School Board. The strongest schools are those with the strongest connection to their neighborhoods, something not reflected in the current make-up of the board.
Over the last decade, trends in school governance have shifted decision-making authority closer and closer to the school level, with welcome results. Parents serve on site-based school councils, newly emerging models of self-governed schools are being developed, and of course, increasing charter school options abound. But even as this decentralization of authority has transpired, the Minneapolis School Board has not changed in the same way, the only institution to resist closer community connections.
Ms. Costain believes, as do I, that board members must be engaged, responsive, transparent and broadly representative of the diverse interests of our community. We agree as well that prospective school board members must come to the table with a high level of competence and knowledge about school issues in order to effectively address complex issues. Where we part ways is with her assumption that candidates with those qualities won’t be readily available if the new governance model is adopted. Quite frankly, she couldn’t be more wrong. I am confident that a broad range of talents, skills and competence can be found in every corner of our richly diverse city. What this proposal would do is lift some of the current barriers to broad community participation that have prevented those individuals from stepping forward to run for elective office.
Ms. Costain also asks for evidence that the new system would result in higher student achievement and community involvement . While difficult to quantify, what we do know is that 40% of school districts nation-wide elect their school board in part or in whole by district. Eleven high performing Minnesota districts , including Anoka-Hennepin elect their school boards this way. This year the Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) recognized three districts that elect their boards in similar ways to receive its annual award for quality. The criteria used to measure distinctive performance included the quality of school governance, strides in closing the achievement gap, and levels of community connection. Award winners in 2005 and 2006 included several districts that use similar governance models.
Ms. Costain also expresses concern about changing form but not substance, and worries this proposal may not be the right approach for Minneapolis. There is a small chance that she may be right. But there is also a saying that the quest for perfection is the enemy of progress. Waiting for a perfect solution that may well not exist only serves to stop us in our tracks.
The bottom line is this: the backbone of our schools are our families and our students, and it’s only right that our school board reflect the rich mosaic of those families. Minneapolis public schools are facing a crisis of confidence by far too many families in the district. These families are demonstrating their dissatisfaction in droves by choosing suburban, charter and private schools. The time has come for bold action, and for leadership that connects the school board more strongly with the community. There are no simple silver bullets or easy answers, but clearly, broader community participation would result in more accountable decision-making by elected leaders, and stronger community support for decisions those leaders make.
This proposal is only one piece of a comprehensive long-term strategy to improve our schools, but I believe it is a vital one. By saying yes to school board governance reform, the current school board has an opportunity to send a transformative message to the community – that it stands ready and willing to embrace meaningful reform that has the potential to reinvigorate public education in Minneapolis.
Jim Davnie is the State Representative for Minnesota House District 62A in Minneapolis, Chair of the House Labor and Consumer Protection Division and a member of the House Education Finance and Policy Committees.