Why I oppose the Davnie bill


by Pam Costain
Last week I was in Nashville to attend the annual conference of the Council of Great City Schools and came back to a mailbox full of posts on the Davnie bill. My opposition to this change is fairly well known, but I would like to weigh in a few items again because this is an important debate.

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 November 13. For additional information on the Davnie bill, see other articles by Carla Bates (in favor of the bill) and Jim Davnie.

I oppose changing our method of electing school board directors at this time, not because I am a proponent of the status quo, but because I believe developing the appropriate model of governance for our district is a critical part of moving a reform agenda forward. I think we need to study what other highly effective districts are doing, consider all models and even look to other countries if needed. I want to learn which governance models will give us the highest probability of driving a truly bold agenda forward. My mind is open, but I would like to see the evidence, mainly in student achievement and community involvement.

My gut tells me that going to election by districts addresses some issues, but leaves other equally important concerns off to the side. There is a risk that we would change form, rather than substance, and that worries me. Of course board members need to be engaged, responsive, transparent and broadly representative of the diverse interests of our community. I am committed to all of those principles, as I believe are my colleagues on the current board. It’s really hard work to be a good representative of a city and all of its parts, but it can be done. That is a function of the quality of the candidate, not how we are elected.

School board members need to be deeply connected to communities, but they also need a fairly high level of expertise and knowledge to tackle extremely complicated issues. They need the time and capacity to do the work, and they need the staff support that would enable them be fully informed and engaged. Finally I think the board as a whole needs the political, business and community relationships that will enable our schools to be supported in our mission to educate all of the children. I truly believe that serving on a large urban school board is one of the most difficult kinds of public service, yet the model we operate with has changed little since the 1950’s.

As a board member I am prepared to vote on the issues of changing to district representation before the end of the year. My position is clear, and I have no problem acting on it. However, I do think the argument that the public should have a right to make this decision has merit and cannot simply be cast aside. This is a major change in the way our district is governed, and the notion that the public should have a chance to understand the change and make up its own mind has validity.

I understand that there may be a potentially damaging impact of having to vote on this issue in the same year as the referendum. That, however, is a function of the way the legislation was written and is not the responsibility of the school board. The only way we avoid this going on the ballot next year is for the board to accept the change. If the board should exercise its own judgment and reject the change, it still goes on the ballot. The school board didn’t make these rules, but we do have to live with them.

I honestly don’t know what the outcome of this debate will be. The school board is very divided on the issue, and whatever happens will be decided by a very slim margin. Despite my strong opinions, I can live with any outcome and am certainly prepared to move forward with the change should it be accepted. I know all sides of the debate are sincere and have the best interests of our kids at heart. I do believe, however, we have to acknowledge that this is not a simple issue and commit to treating one another with respect for our differences. I find myself on the other side of some good friends on and off the board, but I know each of us in acting from our own integrity.

Pam Costain is chair of the Minneapolis School Board.