At-large board candidates talk equity at forum

At-large School Board candidates (left to right) Rebecca Gagnon, Sharon El-Amin, Josh Pauly and Kimberly Caprini listen to a question during an Oct. 15 candidate forum.
At-large School Board candidates (left to right) Rebecca Gagnon, Sharon El-Amin, Josh Pauly and Kimberly Caprini listen to a question during an Oct. 15 candidate forum.

The four at-large Minneapolis School Board candidates talked issues of educational equity Monday at a forum at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Ventura Village.

Parent Kimberly Caprini said she would hold office hours in areas of the city where there haven’t been any, if elected. Former teacher Josh Pauly said one of his core values is equitable financial investments, adding that he wants to listen to all voices but not prioritize the loudest ones.

Parent Sharon El-Amin said she wants to create space for parents to “come in and connect,” adding that she would make sure to be reachable as a board member. Two-term incumbent Rebecca Gagnon said she wants to continue looking at differentiated transportation and class and school sizes to meet the needs of different communities.

A video of the forum (via ISAIAH’s Facebook page)

The candidates’ comments came about a month after early voting opened in Minneapolis and about three weeks before Election Day. The four are running for two seats on the nine-member School Board.

Caprini is a lifelong Minneapolis resident and parent of two who’s been active in North Side schools for over 12 years. This is her second run for School Board.

El-Amin, another MPS parent, is president of North High School’s Polar Parent Organization and a member of the school’s site council. Gagnon has served on the School Board since 2011 and also has kids who attend or attended MPS. Pauly leads a nonprofit focused on civic engagement and taught in the Minneapolis district for three years.

Greg King of the nonprofit social-justice organization ISAIAH moderated the forum.

The candidates responded to questions from four community members who had either been parents of Minneapolis students or who had worked with students. One told a story of her daughter being forced to switch schools because she did not qualify for homeless and highly mobile transportation after a sudden move. Another parent told a story of a principal who created a hostile racial climate.

Gagnon said the district needs to be better at customer service, in response to a question from the mom whose daughter didn’t qualify for homeless and highly mobile transportation. She encouraged constituents to reach out to board members directly so they could help work through issues.

El-Amin said the district needs to begin earning back parents’ trust, adding that transportation and database errors are not acceptable. Pauly said he thinks there are collaborative ways the district could help homeless and highly mobile kids in Minneapolis, noting the city’s Stable Homes Stable Schools pilot program. Caprini said the district needs to bridge crises for families, noting her work as a resource navigator at the nonprofit Neighborhood Hub.

El-Amin said more community engagement is needed, in response to a question from a special education parent on ensuring that all schools have the resources they need. She said teachers and the district need to be held accountable and that board members have a responsibility to make sure requirements, standards and expectations are transparent.

Gagnon said the district spends about $56 million above what it’s reimbursed from the state and federal governments on special education, including about $22 million on Minneapolis residents who don’t attend district schools. She noted how the district is having a hard time hiring special education assistants this fall and said that the district changed its practice to require special education professionals to have training before starting their positions.

Caprini said she thinks it would in the district’s and families’ best interests to create an individualized education plan advisory committee to help support families. She said she will continue to encourage the district to educate schools and families on resources that are available to them, regardless of what happens on Election Day.

Pauly said it’s important to provide supports to teachers, noting his personal experience of teaching and not knowing a student’s health issues. He said there hasn’t been an inflationary increase to the per pupil allocation since 2008, which makes it “harder to do all the things that we’re trying to do for our young people.”

In response to the story from the parent concerned about a principal, Pauly noted that the board does not directly hire principals, but he said it should hold the superintendent accountable for hiring high-quality staff. Caprini said the district should be required to let parents and community members know there is an opportunity to sit on principal search committees.

Gagnon said she fought hard to ensure that communities have involvement in principal-search processes. She said she’s excited that the Superintendent, Ed Graff, is going to have a more hands-on role in supervising principals.

El-Amin said parent advocacy is needed when it comes to the board, adding that the district would have the right teachers and principals to teach the diversity within MPS if its curriculum was more culturally competent.

“We have to make sure that we’re continuing to challenge … what and who are coming into our schools to teach before our children,” she said.

Another woman, a youth services director at a nonprofit, told of a young man who died of a drug overdose and who had been subject to continuous suspensions at school, instead of intervention. She asked what policies the district could put in place to ensure that schools prioritize supporting vulnerable students.

Gagnon said the policy that would best address the issue would be ensuring the district has full-service schools, which would include having partners, such as social service agencies, in school buildings. She noted a resolution she introduced this past spring to restore over $6 million to middle and high schools to the 2018-19 budget, adding that schools were going to cut security and support positions without the funding.

El-Amin said the district has to build relationships with students and families and direct them to the resources that are needed. Pauly said the district needs t0 incorporate restorative justice practices, adding that professional development is implemented on a piecemeal basis in his experience. He said manageable class sizes and better student-to-counselor ratios would help support vulnerable students.

Caprini voiced support for what the other candidates had to say, adding that the district’s upcoming referenda would provide the opportunity for a nurse in every school and provide resources for social workers and counselors.

“We are not only short staffed (and) underfunded, but we’re in a position to do better,” she said, adding that as a board director she would ensure that referenda dollars go where they’re supposed to.

Caprini received the most votes in a five-way primary on Aug. 14 with 36,113, while Gagnon was second with 26,390. Pauly received 25,071 votes, and El-Amin received 24,912. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the Minneapolis DFL endorsed Caprini and Pauly.

The candidates will participate in another candidate forum from 7–8:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at Franklin Middle School, 1501 Aldrich Ave. N., hosted by Pollen Midwest’s Unbound initiative. Former Minnesota Public Radio News host Tom Weber will moderate.

Visit pollenmidwest.org/collection/unbound for information on the forum.

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