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) neighborhood.
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, participant on hundreds of other advisory committees, and campaign manager for fellow candidate Judy Farmer, 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 a child born in Morocco, 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."
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: 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).