Tough times for Minneapolis schools lured candidates into race for board

Running together
The four DFL-endorsed school board candidates are running a collegial campaign. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)

Retiring school board member Judy Farmer remembers her first campaign for school board in 1980.

"I had three main issues. One was to select a new superintendent, two was to do long range, comprehensive planning, and the third was to close schools, " Farmer said.

Farmer notes the candidates facing off next week to replace her and three other board members are citing issues that echo her first race a quarter century ago. Today, the district is headed by an interim superintendent and the board is considering the possibility of closing additional schools in order to fix long-term financial gaps.

A total of six candidates are running for the four open seats on the board. Four of the candidates secured the DFL endorsement, which historically has given Minneapolis school board candidates a leg up.

Judy Farmer is retiring from the school board after 26 years.
Judy Farmer is retiring from the school board after 26 years. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)

Among the endorsed is Pam Costain, who says poorly handled controversies hobbled the district from moving forward.

"I was very, very distressed about the Minneapolis Public Schools about 15 months ago and I looked in the mirror one day and I said I need to take my own advice," she said.

Costain is educational director for Wellstone Action, the public service incubator that sprouted in the aftermath of the U.S. Senator's death in a plane crash four years ago. Her distress came after watching the public uproar over the district's process to close 13 schools to bring costs within the district's budget constraints. Then, the school board entered into a high stakes public duel to oust then-superintendent Thandiwe Peebles.

The same issues triggered Chris Stewart's decision to run. He sees a public willingness for significant change in Minneapolis schools.

"The parents and the community activists and city leaders were all saying the same thing, that there are no more sacred cows. Things had gotten so bad, the vacuum of leadership has gotten so bad, that there is no where to go but up and the way to do it is to put things on the table that we would never have considered in a million years before this situation," he says.

Why not me?
Pam Costain decided to heed her own advice to others and enter the school board race. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)

Among those issues on the table for Stewart is prying into the teacher contracts to adjust how they utilize seniority. Stewart, a workforce developer and business service consultant for the state of Minnesota, did not get the endorsement from the teachers' union.

Costain and Stewart are running as a block along with the other two candidates with the DFL endorsement, T. Williams and Tom Madden.

Williams is a research associate with Rainbow Research, which helps revitalize non-profit organizations. He says students don't all learn the same way and so standardized tests are not an accurate measurement. He says Minneapolis schools do not have enough funding to fix learning gaps caused by poverty and negative cultural environments. He says elected leaders decision to reduce money further is harmful.

"That's the height of irresponsiblity on the part of our community, our government, and everyone else who had anything to do with creating those kinds of monstrosities," Williams said.

Chris Stewart sees an opportunity for significant change in the Minneapolis school district.
Chris Stewart sees an opportunity for significant change in the Minneapolis school district. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)

Tom Madden runs his own marketing consulting business. He believes the school board has done a bad job of connecting with students and their families.

"The board should be and act as a team. A team of seven. No one person can tackle everything on their own and not everybody has the same areas of primary focus. And that's a good thing. That means we can divide and conquer as a team," he says.

Two additional candidates are running without party endorsement. Christopher Clark is a University of Minnesota student and a worker with the university dental clinic. MPR was unable to reach him for an interview.

Doug Mann is a licensed practical nurse and a Green Party member, who says he's compelled to get out a message about Minneapolis schools regardless of his odds of winning. He focuses on balancing the mix of new and veteran teachers to stem the flow of experienced teachers from impoverished, under performing schools to more affluent areas.

Equality for underserved schools
Doug Mann sees a need to stabilize underperforming schools. (Photo courtesy Doug Mann)

"That would do a lot to stabilize the teacher staffing in schools where the staffing is traditionally unstable," he says.

Retiring veteran school board member Judy Farmer says the new board members have a steep learning curve ahead of them. One of the more difficult realizations, she says, is the fact the job, which pays less than $15,000 a year, requires setting policy for the whole district, not fixing the concerns of individual constituents.

"it is a difficult job," she says. "I've told people don't run if you want to get rich or be popular. Because neither will happen."

The top four candidates to emerge from the election will join the three sitting board members, two of which are serving their first term.