Minneapolis school board: Who are the 2014 at-large candidates?

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Seven candidates including one incumbent are running for two at-large seats on the Minneapolis School Board. The primary election will be Tuesday Aug. 12 and the general election will be Tuesday, Nov. 4. The top four vote getters will advance to the general election.

Meet the candidates, [below].

Iris Altamirano

Iris Altamirano, who attended public schools and went on to graduate from Cornell University, describes herself as an ivy league-educated janitor’s daughter with a strong passion for social justice. “My personal story is one that allows me to have the lense of an individual who beat the odds,” said Altamirano. “That is a journey that I think, and experience, that is very relevant to education.”

Altamirano, who lives in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband and two young children, said she chose a career in organizing because she “strongly believes in leaving the world a better place for our children.”

She said she thinks it’s important for school board members to be accessible, to be able to collaborate, to be thoughtful and to have a vision for the direction of the district.

“What I bring to the table is my community, political and union organizing background,” said Altamirano. “Organizing is about empowerment.”

Altamirano has worked as an Immigrant Rights Commission organizer, as a political organizer to activate the Latino vote, and as a union organizer for SEIU Local 26. She also participated in a Wellstone Fellowship program to learn organizing.

“The experience I bring is one that can help us get to where we all know we need to go,” said Altamirano. “I think we all want the same things for our children. I have the skill set to help us collectively come up with a road map on how to get there.”

She said she was motivated to run for office due the achievement gap. “The fact that we live in a great progressive city but we have one of the biggest gaps between white students and students of color is not ok. Graduating one half of our kids is not good enough.”

“The numbers are that 54 percent of our kids regardless of skin color will graduate in four years,” said Altamirano. “In the marginalized community the odds to beat are even greater.” She said the issues of equality go beyond just North and Northeast, but that the northern part of the city does, “disproportionately have some challenges that we need to address, economically and academically.”

“Every corner of the city has to have effective teachers, strong schools and strong leadership,” said Altamirano. “The truth is that no matter is you live in North or South Minneapolis, we have to work together…I feel like this limited framework of union versus reformer and us versus them that education has, silences the families I seek to represent.”

Altamirano said she would like to see the district spend less on luxurious items and direct more resources toward Early Childhood Education. “I really want to fully fund the High Five Program. We know it is very successful and there is a huge waiting list,” she said. “When a child starts at a disadvantage, it’s almost impossible to catch up. We should have intervention when we need it.”

She said one of the strengths of the District is diversity. “We are a welcoming community. We have a strong newcomers population. From what I have heard, that is one of the reasons people are staying. We are very fortunate to be working under a growth model. During the last three years there has been more enrollment. Having more money and having will are important but we also need to be very intentional and thoughtful in how we embrace this diversity.”

Altamirano said she values education and knows its transformative power. “I have children starting out in the district and I want it to pull from them their full potential and the community’s full potential.”

Web site: www.irisaltamirano.com

Rebecca Gagnon

South Minneapolis resident Rebecca Gagnon is running for a second term. She moved to Minneapolis in 2008 and became active in all her children’s schools, serving on PTAs, Site Councils and the District’s Parent Advisory Council and Title One Parent Advisory Council. “I was part of a lot of conversations that were happening,” she said. “For me, being active in education is really important. I know that things don’t just happen. And I know that there are never enough resources. I think volunteering is really important.”

She said she noticed that “across the school district there were radically different things offered, different ways that schools were functioning.”

“You have communities that were very engaged. I felt like there were communities that were being ignored. It got me more fired up to be involved.” She said various parts of the city have welcomed her in to advocate for their schools and that she was part of the North High Coalition to keep North High School open before she got on the School Board.

“Being a citywide representative fits my personality. I love it. I love the opportunities I have. It’s nice to have people have that expectation and trust in what you’re doing.”

Gagnon said she serves on a lot of committees. “I’m very active. I love the policy. I love the data. I try to keep myself incredibly informed.” She said getting stakeholders’ perspectives is incredibly important.

Gagnon said that since the northern part of the city is the area where the district is losing a lot of students, marketing about educational opportunities that are available and about student success should be a focus. Edison, she said, is losing about 70 percent of its potential students to charters and suburban schools, and North High School and Patrick Henry High School are in the same ballpark. “Getting the positive stories out there in our high schools is incredibly important,” said Gagnon. “There are a lot of really fantastic things happening in our high schools, and people kind of hang on to the bad news even if it’s old.” The district’s 2013 Enrollment Plan, she said, emphasized the need for marketing over capital expansion.

She said she is pleased that the district is co-locating three high schools within North High School and the new program that will offer Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum is a step in the right direction. “If you think about our jobs moving forward, that covers the future employment opportunities for our kids.”

As Finance Chair and Treasurer of the Board, Gagnon said the budget is one of her focuses. “We have balanced the budget and with that financial stability, we’re doing long-range planning.” She said she’d like to see more money directed toward schools and less toward administration. “We did that this year and that’s our continued goal.”

She said she’d like to see less centralized control and more site-based control. “In the past most of the principals were given a budget and were told this is how you spend it.”

“I really do believe my incumbency is a strength. I have been working very, very hard for the last three and a half years,” said Gagnon, who includes in the district’s success during her term: balancing the budget, passing two enrollment plans, changing the disciplinary policy to reduce suspensions, beefing up interventions in mental health support, and increased graduation and enrollment rate. “I want to see this work continue. I don’t want to see us go off in a different direction.”

Web site: www.voterebeccagagnon.com

Ira Jourdain

South Minneapolis resident Ira Jourdain has had children in the district since 2003 and said he thinks it’s important for school board members to have a general understanding of the district as a parent, district volunteer or someone associated with the district directly.

He has participated in various parent groups, and trainings and workshops the district has offered and was involved in the MPS 2020 Strategic Planning meetings. He works in human services with families who “have issues outside the classroom that affect performance in the classroom,” including homelessness, violence in the household, unemployment, hunger and lack of transportation. “It does affect test scores and attendance,” said Jourdain. “It becomes a snowball effect.”

He said one of the reasons he was motivated to run was the district’s emphasis on testing. “It doesn’t take into account what happens outside the classroom.” He said he’s heard of multiple students in one class falling asleep during a test. “They didn’t even finish the test, “ he said. “Some families are highly mobile. They’re sleeping in different places all the time.”

He said he’s seen first hand how hard families in poverty struggle. “We do need to measure our kids performance but we also need to take care of these kids and help families get the resources they need.”

“We just have such a narrow-minded view,” he said. “Everything’s got to be test driven. We need to take care of the child as a whole.”

He said he’d like to see the district manage education dollars better and divert money that is being spent on administration into the classrooms, including more education assistants. “Parents are tired of hiring people that you never see in the buildings, such as testing companies,” he said.

One example of a positive way the district has directed funds, he said is the co-teaching model at Lucy Craft Laney Community School, which he said added staff in the classroom causing scores to go up. “It may not work in every school,” he said, “but when schools are allowed to explore different avenues, I’m all for it. I’m very proud they went out on their own and said, ‘hey, let’s try this.’”

Jourdain said he’d like to see the district look at how to better promote the programs that are offered in middle and high school, especially in parts of the city including North and Northeast where many families are having their children attend schools in other districts. “We really need to look at how we promote what is working in these schools.”

He said he’d also like to see the district focus on how it develops special education programs. One of Jourdain’s children has an Individualized Education Plan and he said the process is monotonous and convoluted and can be intimidating. “I understand exactly how frustrating that whole process is,” he said.

He said he also thinks the district should continue to push the attendance campaign. “I think we’re doing a good job on it. There’s always room for improvement.” The Hmong International Academy in North Minneapolis, he said, has one of the highest attendance rates in the district and is, “a shining example of hard-working staff,” and the “engagement level is excellent.”

“These are the little things that can really make a difference in how a school is run.”

Web site: www.IraJourdain.org

Doug Mann

North Minneapolis resident Doug Mann said that he believes that “education is a right, not a privilege, and that a quality public education should be available to all on an equal basis.” He thinks it is important for a school board member to know how the school system works based on experience and study of policy issues.

He has served on education advocacy committees of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and as a director of the Minneapolis Parents Union.

Mann said he was the plaintiff in a lawsuit that was merged with the NAACP’s lawsuit against the State of Minnesota, “alleging failure to see that the Minneapolis Public Schools provided an adequate educate to all students, regardless of race and income.”

Mann has run for election to the Minneapolis School Board eight times, and advanced to the general election in four of the past six election cycles. “I have talked to many people throughout the city of Minneapolis as a candidate for the School Board,” he said.

“I object to the assignment of students to watered-down curriculum tracks, which the Minneapolis School District began to promote in early elementary grades in the fall of 1997,” he said. “First hand observation and previous research on this issue motivated me to become an ‘activist,’ to join the NAACP, and to become a candidate for the School Board.”

Mann said he believes that the school district has gone out of its way to segregate students by race and income, both through decisions that affect school assignment and though curriculum tracking.

“In most of the high poverty schools, students are heavily exposed to inexperienced teachers and high teacher turnover, which lowers the quality of instruction,” said Mann. “Students of color are heavily concentrated in watered-down curriculum tracks wherever students are ‘ability-grouped’ for instructional purposes.

Mann said he thinks the district should retain most of the teachers it hires, rather than fire and replace the majority of them before they complete their three-year, post-hire probationary period.

“Teachers in high poverty schools should have more support in the classroom, including educational associates in mainstream classroom working with special education students, instructional assistants, and ‘co-teachers’ who specialize in a content area and work with each teacher for part of each day,” said Mann. “The district has already demonstrated how much outcomes can be improved in high-poverty schools by reducing teacher turnover and the exposure of students to inexperienced teachers.”

Mann said he differ from all other candidates “by running on a platform that calls for bringing teacher turnover rates to low levels in all schools, the elimination of watered-down curriculum tracks, and opposition to a school reform agenda that includes stripping away teacher job protections and the promotion and sponsorship of charter schools by the school district.”

“The district has many teachers who are good at their jobs, and some strong school programs,” said Mann. “The main problem is that the world class education that the Minneapolis School District boasts about is not provided to the majority of students enrolled in the district’s schools.”

Mann’s Web site: www.mannforschoolboard.blogspot.com.

Don Samuels

North Minneapolis resident and former Minneapolis City Council member and mayoral candidate Don Samuels said education was what inspired him to run for public office long ago.

“There was an open council seat,” said Samuels. “My neighbor woke me up Saturday morning and said he wanted me to run for office. He was a pastor. He said our church has 50 northside highschoolers in a tutoring program and we believe two of them might graduate. He told me the leadership of the city and state don’t get it. They don’t understand the impending doom of our community if this isn’t fixed. He said we need some leadership.”

Samuels said he “started out in public service based on a passion I felt for young people,” and that serving as a school board member would be a “more focused opportunity for me to address education, which is an issue that has been a consistent concern for me my adult life.”

He said he’s been involved in education officially and non-officially for a long time and tutored his wife and neighborhood kids.

Samuels has four children and while they have not always attended schools within the Minneapolis Public Schools District, he said he has, “exercised all options for them.”

“I know the challenges parents face,” he said. “I know what it feels like to pursue all options for your children.”

Samuels said he believes Minneapolis Public Schools can provide an excellent slate of options for all students.

“I have very, very high hopes and ideals for the students in our city. I have not ever compromised my expectations that children should be excellent and can succeed. It’s important and imperative for adults to make this a reality.”

Samuels is the founder of the Hope Collaborative, which, in 2008 and 2009, brought in the principals from some of the top performing inner-city schools in the nation to share their “winning formulas” to school board members and staff and the community, an experience he described as “enlightening.” He served on the Curriculum Committee for St. Paul Schools in the 1990s and was part of the 100 African American Men Academy, held on Saturday mornings for 9th-grade males.

“I believe that we need to transform our underperforming schools to great schools and our great schools must be even better, to be the best in the nation,” he said, adding that it’s time we “finally fulfill the statement that all children are created equal by creating equal outcomes.”

Samuels, who served his City Council terms representing North and Northeast Minneapolis, said he is “very in tune with the unique challenges of this area.”

“In my citywide role, I will not take my eyes off the ball off the issues of this area,” said Samuels. “The achievement gaps and other gaps are laid out most in our communities and that is one of the things that I will be addressing.”

Samuels said he would work toward greater transparency by having “rigorous reviews of all performances across the board using all the data we have collected and have available.” Samuels said the schools have followed the City of Minneapolis’ lead with its Results Minneapolis program and “created a process by which we use data to analyze our performance across all departments and to make ongoing adjustments and tweaks for efficiency.”

“When you have an ongoing system with objective information you’ll always have a tight budget,” he said.

“I think my history demonstrates that I am willing to ask difficult questions, that I’m always unsatisfied with the status quo. I always act out of the belief that we can become better,” said Samuels. “I always have a sense of urgency about getting the right things done.”

He thinks the relationships he’s built as a city council member, with county officials, the governor and state representatives will “help lead to productive collaborations for the school district.”

“I’m pleased that the school district is going through a period of openness and creativity and is willing to try new things to solve old problems,” said Samuels, who added that he thinks the superintendent’s Shift Plan is an important step toward “transforming outcomes” and “giving principals of challenges schools more autonomy and accountability.”

Web site: www.donsamuelsforschoolboard.com.

Soren Sorensen

South Minneapolis resident Soren Sorensen said the use of technology in education was a primary impetus for his campaign and that “the board deserve at least one tech/internet-fluent member.”

“A lot of people are still pursuing get-rich schemes on this wave of enthusiasm for technology,” he said, adding that technology is great for older kids and adults, but that the district needs “serious scrutiny,” with its use with younger children, when “all of our actions are tracked,” and parents can opt-out of having their children participate.

“We are tempted to look for any quick fix that is going to decrease educational disparities, but buying internet-enabled devices for every Minneapolis Public Schools student should not be considered,” he said. “The best defense is fully funding real education, the regular, traditional classroom experience.”

Sorenson has taken the parliamentary law short course offered by the Hennepin County Bar Association and said he thinks board members should know the basics of Robert’s Rules and the laws that apply to elected boards and councils.

His background includes working on peace-related campaigns and with Dick Mammen’s school board campaign. He held elected party office within his party (in both Minneapolis and in the Bemidji area).

“I’ve learned how to live with being part of an organization that makes decisions collectively that are not always the decisions I would have preferred,” he said “Basic communication skills, including listening skills, are essential.”

Sorenson ran a camera for Educational Public Television in St Paul and has been involved in IT, including making purchasing decisions for educational organizations, and has worked in telecommunications. “I have volunteered a lot since the dot-com bust in Internet governance groups,” he said. “I am relieved by the growing public awareness of what is at stake with privacy rights. It is very easy to see the corporate motives in overselling the benefits to be online for children and the sales opportunities a large school district seems to offer to vendors.”

Sorenson said he is committed to transparency and community engagement and he has been disappointed in the lack of input in the budget planning process. “Maybe the timing of the budget approval could be worked on so there is more public discussion,” he said.

Sorenson said that in his activism he has tried to replace, “a missing function in our media, the broadcasting of invitations to provide input to decision makers before the decisions are made,” through social media skills and by door knocking to invite residents to weigh in.

“I think that experience has given me a real sense of who lives here,” he said, “and what the proportions of the different communities are in this city, and who authentically speaks with trust from their communities.” He thinks it’s important to listen to people who are not seasoned lobbyists and activists, and for elected officials to ask questions and take polls of the people they represent.

He said the problems of violence, poverty and homelessness among school-age children can be found in nearly every neighborhood and that solutions that come from the policies and spending priorities of the school board are going to require citywide buy-in. “An at-large board member needs to be willing to advocate for their remedies in all districts, to other government entities, the Minnesota legislature and at the federal level.”

Sorenson said he the districts budget is “an opportunity for the city to express its values of trying to be inclusive.” In addition to spending money on English language learners, for example, he said, he likes the idea that “people coming from every household should be equally supported in learning a second language.”

He said he’d like to see like to see more money directed at staff, including media specialist and technology workers, and less at devices and manufactured products.

Sorenson said one of his main strengths is organizing. “When people realize just how much grassroots organizing I’ve done throughout the city, that’s going to be a huge advantage.”

Web site: http://minneapolis.votepraylove.org.

North News Editor’s Notes

Candidate Andrew Minck did not respond to attempts to contact him. His web site is www.thinkminck.org.

Candidate interviews were presented above in alphabetical order and deliberately without mention of party affiliation or notes as to party endorsement.

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