Three Minneapolis school board members won’t run again


Three of the four Minneapolis school board candidates who ran for office four years ago–Pam Costain, Tom Madden and Chris Stewart–say they’re not going to do it again. The trio cited different reasons for quitting. Costain, in a letter printed in the Star Tribune [and in the Daily Planet], named low pay as a problem. Madden said that doing a good job required working at a “burnout level.” Stewart said he has other things he wants to do. 

Madden said that when the four of them (the fourth is Theatrice Williams, who has said he will run again) took office together, they had enthusiasm and support from new Superintendent Bill Green. “We had 10 years of cleanup work to do. People [on past boards] either didn’t recognize the problems as being as big as they were, or they hadn’t wanted to deal with them. We met every week and got a ton done, including a strategic plan. But by taking on all the big issues, you upset more people. Everybody agrees that change is needed, but nobody wants it in their back yard.

“I had hoped to be transformational,” Madden added. “I think that instead, we were transitional. It’s the next board that will be transformational. I’m proud of that, though; it came out of four years of hard work.”

He said he initially ran because, as the father of three girls in school, he got frustrated with “the lack of stuff going on.” Now that the board is on the right track, the job might be better for future board members. “It’s easier to step on a moving treadmill,” he said.

In November’s election—per an amendment approved by voters in 2008—one board seat will be added to the board, and another in the following election, bringing the total to nine. The school board seats will change so that three will be at-large (currently they all are) and six will represent different geographical areas of the city, following the same boundaries as Minneapolis Park and Recreation seats. Madden said the district seats might make running for school board easier, but “I don’t know if the job itself will be any easier. As long as board members have to close schools and change curriculum, people will be unhappy.”

Stewart said he got a lot of experience being on the school board, and decided there is much he can do when he leaves the job “to help the community [residents] be better advocates for themselves in education. The system is not real great with people who are detached from the community. They get marginalized.”

He said four years of being on the board was enough for him. “I didn’t want to be a career school board member or a politician. With this job, I got a good vision of how much of it is about being a politician. Running again would take a certain level of gluttony for punishment. It wears on you. I don’t think the public is aware of how much work we do.

“We had a backlog when we came in, and we tackled a lot in short order. We did the pre-work to one day deliver the stability the school district needs. There was so much to get done.

“And yet, no matter how you do the job, it’s not going to be good enough for a large portion of the city,” Stewart added. “People tell you you’re failing their children. They say every kind of cruel, insulting thing. The reality is that we are in tough circumstances in urban education. As our core funding continues to erode, the picture’s not getting any better.”

Northeast resident and at-large school board member Jill Davis, who is starting the second year of her four-year term, said that after a career in social services (she works for Hennepin County), “I feel like I had somewhat of a handle on the time commitment going in. It’s probably more than you’d realize.”

The economy has hit every board member, she added, and “it is a challenge to work full or part time and still handle a board members’ responsibilities. You get invited to every event, things that can happen at any point in the day. Having some flexibility in your job is helpful. This job can be what you make it to be. To feel good about it, you would be working 20 to 30 hours a week on it.”

Davis said the board meets three times a month and also holds monthly executive sessions that start at 4 p.m. and might last until 9 or 10 p.m. “There is sub-committee work; those are two-hour meetings once a month or every other month. We also have study sessions, where we meet with staff on a topic and have time to ask questions.

“When you add in big changes like Minneapolis has gone through, and initiatives such as Changing School Options [the administration’s plan to deal with declining enrollment, which included closing schools], we were averaging meetings three times a week. Being on the board of an urban district school is very time consuming.

“People have different tolerance levels about how much they can balance in their lives,” Davis added. “It can be overwhelming. I haven’t even talked about the e-mails and the school events.”

When asked if any constituents criticized her over the board’s decision to hire Bernadeia Johnson as Superintendent (to replace Green) rather than go out for a national search, Davis said she hadn’t gotten much feedback. “I abstained on the Bernadeia Johnson vote, not because I didn’t think she was qualified, but because I would have preferred to do a search.”

She has encountered some negativity from people on other issues, she added, but “I don’t take it personally, although I think it probably does get wearing over time. Obviously there will always be people who are not happy; they blame the board. Although I understand significant funding limitations, there are people who blame us for it. There are times you feel bad.”

Four years ago, she said, the press was much harder on the school board than it seems to be now. “Now other districts are closing schools. When it happened in Minneapolis, it was blamed on poor management. As it turns out, we led the way.”

Davis, who is married, said that family support is critical for board members. “I have an 11-year old, and it is hard on him, in a way. If he was younger, the job would probably be impossible for me. I work full time.”

She said she thinks that when the board structure changes to geographic areas, it will help. “It will give us a better shot at diversity.”

Davis said the board is considering creating new schools, including self-governed schools. It will also discuss high school redesign and implementation. And, there is the question of whether or not the district offices at 807 Broadway St. NE should be relocated; five different sites are under consideration. “It is a horrible building, and the staff needs a better environment. But it will be a tough sell,” Davis said.