This issue of the Southwest Journal begins a series of profiles on the eight general-election candidates running for four Minneapolis School Board Director positions.
This week, we feature the two incumbents, Judy Farmer and Audrey Johnson. The remaining profiles will run in the Oct. 7 and Oct. 21 issues of the Journal.
The candidates: Joseph Erickson Judy Farmer Stephanie Gaynor Audrey Johnson Doug Mann Colleen Moriarty Lucky Rosenbloom La Shella Sims
(Note: dark text indicates this week's profiles.)
Judy Farmer: six-term incumbent looks ahead
JUDY FARMER Address: 147 Cecil St S.E., 55414 Phone: 379-7429 E-mail: [email protected] Website: http://www.farmerforschools.com Occupation School Board Member Family: Married, two children, graduates of South High School Endorsements: Minneapolis Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, MN DFL, Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council, AFL-CIO, Minneapolis Building & Construction Trades Council, Minnesota Teamsters Joint Council #32, D.R.I.V.E., Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, MFT-Local 59, Service Employees International Union, SEIU-Locals 26, 63, 284, Stonewall DFL Caucus and the DFL Feminist Caucus.
For those wary of long-term politicians, six-term incumbent Judy Farmer is quick to point out what history and connections can do for the Minneapolis Public Schools.
For example, when suburban legislators tried to eliminate a pocket of funding for urban districts earlier this year, suburban school board members and superintendents rallied, saying they didn't want more funding if it came at the expense of Minneapolis schools. Their support, said Farmer, was gained from the relationships she's built over the years from work in metro, state and national education circles.
Educating the broader public about the Minneapolis Public Schools is something she thinks is one of the jobs of a school board member, especially people who directly affect the schools, such as real estate agents and suburban legislators. "It has an impact on people when they go into Roosevelt High School and see 400 Somali students in traditional dress. They don't have that in their schools," Farmer said.
Farmer is known as a diligent professional and expert politician. Susan Eyestone, a parent and member of the Citizen's Budget Advisory Committee, said Farmer "goes for the do-able, rather than try to get everything she wants. She works within the system and cuts a compromise," said Eyestone.
Farmer topped all candidates in the Sept. 10 primary, six percentage points higher than her nearest challenger. "When I come in first, other politicians don't understand why I run so hard," she said. "Well, part of it is that I want to win, and part of it is because it's an opportunity to be able to listen to people and educate people about the system," said Farmer.
A civil rights activist in her earlier years, Farmer was not an early community schools supporter.
"Partly I got the feeling if this society believes in an integrated society, then the adults need to take part of the responsibility. "
But, seeing widespread support for the change, and the financial necessity, Farmer has adapted.
"If the adults aren't willing to try integrating housing, should it all be left to the schools?" she said. "You can still believe that an integrated school is the best. You have to change as situations change, but it doesn't mean that you abandon your principals or your longterm goals, but find different ways to get there."
She now focuses on getting more college preparatory classes into more lower-performing high schools. She said, "Number one, teachers discover some of the kids they would never dream of taking advanced classes can do just fine. And that gives them evidence that all kids can learn well. Teachers say it, but deep down, there's a lot of latent racism because they don't see International Baccalaureate when they see certain kids."
Though she's spent a career as a teacher at Marcy Open school, a parent and a school board member, she said the reason why she wanted to stay on the school board is to lead a citywide budget discussion outside of the administration. "I've never been at a meeting where parents are in attendance that the parents don't think of good ideas that never occurred to the administration," said Farmer.
Eyestone said that it's good Farmer is beginning the planning process, because it is long overdue. "There's a real question about whether we can continue doing what we are doing, offering as many choices as we do with the kind of budget we have," said Eyestone.
Eyestone believes that the Minneapolis cuts must be made by a larger planning process, one that will take more time than they have before state cuts hit.
"I think the current board is sincere when they say they want to start planning, but I don't think they have any idea of how much work and time it will take, otherwise they would have started a long time ago," said Eyestone.
David Jennings, the Chief Operating Officer for the Minneapolis Public Schools disagreed. He said the Board will have enough time to create a long-term plan for the schools. He also said there is a distinction between what the Board does and what the administration is responsible for.
"The Board concerns itself with policy-level decision making with a focus rate on outcomes. They tell the Superintendent, this is what we want, and they give her a lot of discretion on how to get there," said Jennings.
Farmer said that a broad discussion might lead to something more than financial cuts. "I think having that kind of planning effort lets you do some things that you wouldn't have done otherwise. That's what you've got to do, make the end goal so enticing that people don't notice the pain," Farmer said.
Audrey Johnson: outspoken without time to waste
AUDREY JOHNSON Occupation: Parent, School Board Member, columnist Family: Married, 2 children in Minneapolis schools Address: 2525 Dupont Ave. S., 55408 Phone: 377-5181 E-mail: [email protected] Website: http://www.audreyforschools.org Endorsements: DFL Party, Stonewall DFL Caucus, Minneapolis Teachers Federation, Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund, Labor-endorsed (Central Labor Union, Minneapolis Building and Trade Council, Teamsters, CEIU Locals 63,284,113).
By Caitlin Pine
Of the candidates in this Minneapolis School Board race, one-term incumbent Audrey Johnson may be the most prone to giving her gut reaction on school issues. That may be because she's from the East Coast where "a bad meeting is when you get a chair thrown at your head; here it's people rolling their eyes -- I can take that," Johnson said in an interview at her home in the Lowry Hill East (Wedge)
A parent of an Anthony Middle School eighth-grader and a Washburn High ninth-grader, Johnson said she still has the parent perspective that was the impetus for her first run in 1999. That voice adds a sense of urgency that the school board needs to make changes quickly, Johnson said. "Knowing that time is moving on and your kids need to learn, you don't have the time to sit back and say, 'well, let's try this for a year.'"
Johnson's style has its detractors, Susan Eyestone, a member of the Citizen's Budget Advisory Committee, parent of two Washburn High School graduates and participant on hundreds of other advisory committees, said, "Sometimes her bluntness is helpful, but there are also times that she is too outspoken and blunt and offends unnecessarily."
Coming off a year with $31 million of painful budget cuts - and knowing there are more in the future -- Johnson said she almost decided against a second run. But Johnson said the district has had some successes during her tenure. Both of her children have benefited from the changes towards high school "small community learning groups" and reforms in the teaching style at middle schools. But she is still pushing to change the district's math curriculum - one that she thinks isn't working for a majority of kids.
"In order for this curriculum to work, kids have to be extremely organized, they have to take really good notes, and they have to be analytical thinkers -- [but] most kids are concrete thinkers. Gifted kids will do well in any curriculum, but kids who don't read well, or aren't analytical, stumble," Johnson said.
Johnson's experiences with her own kids' education have shaped her passions as a board member. Their needs, she said, "spread the educational
A parent of an African American child, Johnson (who is European American) is especially frank on race issues. She said she first tells parents who complain that there are too few white children in a school, that they need to address their own racism first. But there's no one solution to the problem "Each child is different, and if their educational needs aren't being met at one school, they should switch to one that is a better fit, but you have to make sure that it's based on the children's needs and not the parents," said Johnson.
She does not hesitate to say racism is a problem in Minneapolis schools. "People would come up to me and tell me that Jefferson Community School has too many kids from outside the neighborhood, and they didn't see those to the east of them as their neighbors," said Johnson.
Despite increasing the racial segregation of Minneapolis schools, she defends the move back to community schools. "Minneapolis is one of the most segregated cities in the country; the schools can't determine housing choices. And we know that communities fall apart without a school to bring them together," said Johnson.
Johnson is most passionate about state and national policy issues facing urban schools. She is quick to say that inadequacies in the public schools come directly from deficiencies in federal policy.
Johnson says that the federal government requires schools to provide special education, but does not fund schools to pay for the services, which is also true of new federal and state testing requirements.
Of five new federally mandated yearly tests, Johnson said, "I think that it's another attempt to funnel money to the private sector, this time in the form of testing companies. It's to show us who's bad and who's good, it doesn't show us growth."
Susan Eyestone said school board members aren't passing the buck when they blame others for local problems. "The whole fiscal crisis has been created by the under-funding by federal and state governments. We used to spend more than the national average, and now we're falling at the national average," said Eyestone.
Looking at the upcoming school year, Johnson said the solutions for further budget cuts must come from partnering with the community: "We need to have some leadership that is experienced and ready to go forward and make some hard decisions. But I'll advocate to go to our community to find out where we are going to find these dollars, because I don't have a clear answer."