School Board finalist profiles begin

This week and in the Oct. 25 issue, the Southwest Journal will profile the six finalists for three open Minneapolis School Board seats in the Nov. 2 general election.

In this issue, we talk to the two leading primary vote-getters -- DFL endorsees Peggy Flanagan and Lydia Lee -- and incumbent Dennis Schapiro. Next issue, look for stories on David Dayhoff, Sandra Miller and Sharon Henry-Blythe.

Of special interest to Southwest: School Board candidates will answer questions at a Monday, Oct. 25 forum at Washburn High School's auditorium, 201 W. 49th St. The event takes place from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. To enter, use door #4 at 49th & Pleasant or door #6 on the West 50th Street side.

Lydia Lee: A teacher who wants to oversee the system

Middle-school math teacher and mentor believes knowing the details can lead to effective oversight

By Bob Gilbert

When it comes to campaigning, Minneapolis School Board candidate Lydia Lee admits she is out of her element. The 56-year-old East Calhoun resident is more at ease talking one-on-one to parents than in front of a group making a speech.

"I am not a politician," Lee said. "I like people, but I am not about selling myself. People who support me do so because they know what I can do, but it's not something that comes across in big gatherings."

However, Lee may win in spite of herself.

She won a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) School Board endorsement last spring on the first ballot with 70 percent of the vote, and finished first among 16 candidates in the Sept. 14 primary.

If elected, Lee would be the first Asian American elected to the Board.

What Lee brings is an insider's understanding about what actually happens inside Minneapolis classrooms. She retired from the district in June after 15 years spent mostly teaching middle-school math, although she ended her career as a district mentor to more than 20 first-year teachers.

That job took Lee to the front lines of educating Minneapolis kids. One of her biggest challenges was coaching young teachers how to keep order in the classroom and discipline unruly students.

From her office at district headquarters, Lee said she came to understand school district politics -- who talked to whom, how decisions were made and who made them.

"A lot of School Board members spend no time in the schools," Lee said. "You cannot make good decisions if you do not understand what is going on in the schools. If there is a policy about safety, you need to know what's going on in the schools to address that.

"The Board relies on the advice of individuals who work in operations," she said. "While many of them are nice people, I don't trust all of them to give sound advice."

As an example, she cited a middle-school situation last year wherein five teachers were assigned to a 7th-/8th-grade program where only four were needed. The even number was important because teachers can be paired to foster consistency and relationship-building over two years. Five teachers meant each grade used an extra half classroom and threw off the pairings.

"The person who made the assignment did not know how instruction works in a middle school," Lee said. "It destroyed the teaming aspect. It was a miserable year for that school. They got through it, but the following year, they insisted that it not happen again -- and it didn't."

She added, "The School Board doesn't deal with the nitty-gritty, and unless they had the background to see that in the budget, they would not know that it was harmful to the instruction of those students."

As a former teacher, Lee might be expected to have an interesting view of this summer's teacher realignment controversy; several teachers were reassigned to different schools and often-unfamiliar subject areas to preserve overall seniority.

She cited an extreme example wherein a teacher was assigned to a Spanish Immersion school -- but the teacher didn't speak Spanish.

"The realignment piece needed to be done with a conscience," she said. "It's not just what is on paper, it is what's best for kids. It's too late this year, but next year it will be different."

She said that in the past, the teachers' union was diligent about informing teachers with licenses in more than one subject that they could be forced into an area they hadn't taught. Last year, she said, that wasn't done.

Lee called on teachers to withdraw their licenses if they don't feel qualified to teach a subject -- as many teachers have done since this year's realignments.

Regarding school closings, Lee blamed the Board for dumping the issue on the community. She believes schools need to be closed but believes the Board should have had guidelines in place years ago to deal with the possibility.

Born in New York City's Chinatown, Lee moved to Minnesota when she was 8, when her father got a job offer from 3M. She graduated from White Bear Lake High School and attended the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, then a hotbed of political radicalism.

For someone who lived a self-described sheltered life, she said her time in California was a shock. She ended up transferring back to the University of Minnesota, where she earned a degree in education. She taught in Honk Kong for two years and lived in the Philippines with her first husband before moving back to Minneapolis and working for the district.

She met her current husband, Michael O'Donnell, at Anderson Open School in 1982. O'Donnell retired last year after over 30 years as Minneapolis teacher. She has one child, a son, now 36 years old.

Based on her teaching experience, Lee has spent a lot of time thinking about the new focus on standardized tests and how they affect middle-school students.

"Their brains are changing, their bodies are changing and so is their chemical make-up. Kids need a lot of guidance at that age," Lee said.

"It is important to incorporate into the student's day opportunities for self-examination, where they can write and talk and process who they are and the changes going on in their lives," she said. "That piece is often missing in our schools because we are so hung up with reading and math because that is what the tests are all about."

While every teacher has a job description and every school has an improvement plan, Lee said a lot of teachers are doing their own thing and a lot of principals do not know what is going on in their classrooms. She feels that's where the schools need to be better. To accomplish that, she thinks there needs to be an enforceable accountability system for all district employees.

Although her years in the district are a selling point, Lee acknowledges that she has no experience overseeing large budgets such as that of the Minneapolis Public Schools.

As far as being a supervisor goes, Lee said she would do her job by utilizing something akin to the Socratic method.

"By knowing important details, I know what questions to ask," Lee said, "and, through their answers, I can clarify positions and define the vision of the school district."

Peggy Flanagan: Uses DFL strength to criticize DFL School Board

Heavyweight support won't keep her from criticizing those her party helped to power

By Bob Gilbert

Earlier this year, Peggy Flanagan was working with School Board veteran Judy Farmer to try and find someone from the Native American community to run for the Board. Minneapolis has the third-largest urban Indian community in the country, which includes about 2,150 students, or 4 percent of the Minneapolis public school population.

Flanagan said she knew some parents who would be perfect. But when Farmer expressed her frustration at her inability to recruit any of them, she told Flanagan to do it herself.

Flanagan, a single, 25-year-old member of the White Earth band of Ojibwe and the only candidate from North Minneapolis, picked up the gauntlet and surprised even herself at how good she was at politics, winning DFL endorsement and finishing second of 16 candidates in the Sept. 14 primary for three open school Board seats.

Her advisors include political veterans such as former Sen. Paul Wellstone advisor Marcia Avner, fellow White Earth member and 8th Ward City Councilmember Robert Lilligren, former Councilmember Jim Niland, Minneapolis State Sen. Karen Clark and State Rep. Neva Walker. Julie Mattson Ostrow, who ran the "Yes For Kids" campaign for the school referendum a few years ago and is married to City Council President Paul Ostrow, agreed to be Flanagan's campaign manager.

Asked how she would go a different way given that she has the same ties to the DFL power structure that helped elect six of seven current Board members, she said, "I think I have a unique perspective. Being a 25-year-old Native American woman from the North side itself brings a new voice that hasn't been heard before. My endorsement from the DFL, labor organizations and community organizations says that people trust me to make decisions. There may be times when I disagree with the party and Board members, but I believe in the DFL party and its message. I will follow my heart and my mind to make the best decision possible."

Though she has no kids, Flanagan thinks she will be an effective Board member. "Schools are the basis of our community, and too often I run into people who say, well this doesn't apply to me because I don't have any kids in school. I say neither do I, but that is no excuse for not being involved."

Flanagan thinks the school district is partly to blame, for being unfriendly to parents. Despite district rhetoric about working to engage the community, she feels its decision-making process actually shuts people out.

"Getting to know and understand the maze of politics and procedures in the Minneapolis schools is daunting for an educated person. It is even tougher for people who don't speak English and don't have an education," Flanagan said.

She is also critical of the district's community engagement process, which she witnessed firsthand this summer at a meeting at Webster Open School at 425 5th St. NE. She thought it was a good opportunity for people to get involved; instead, they were given were given colored dots to express a preference on a piece of construction paper without any conversation about what the different options meant.

"It is indicative of the school district not really wanting to know what people think," Flanagan said. "They never reached out to the communities of color. And they really did not know what they were doing.

"They paid consultants $140,000 to run [the community engagement process]," she said. "I was totally shocked. There were people willing to do this work for free."

One of her complaints about the current School Board is its lack of vision for what the Minneapolis schools should be. She said that the Board is disconnected from what happens in the rest of the community.

She cited two examples: the Board's abortive replacement of Supt. Carol Johnson with David Jennings and the proposed school closings last winter. At the two public meetings about the school closings, individuals were given two minutes to state their opinions, and that was not enough time, she said. That was one reason both meetings generated such hostility from the parents in attendance.

Despite her criticism of the process, Flanagan believes the School Board should've closed schools for the current year, as it originally planned before delaying it until 2005-06 in the face of community opposition.

"The school closing process was extremely flawed. To force the decision to two weeks, two meetings and two minutes for parents to respond at those meetings was not enough for people to react in a logical manner. … By delaying the decision, we are in more trouble than we were before."

Flanagan feels it was the same troubling dynamic played out again with teacher realignment. There was no warning, not even for the teachers. She attributes both problems to the district's lack of a long-term strategic plan.

Flanagan was born in Minneapolis at St. Mary's Hospital, but grew up and went to school in St. Louis Park. She was adopted by her stepfather, and within the past two years, discovered she has five siblings she never knew about. Flanagan reconnected with her biological father, who runs a Native American cultural center and art gallery in Detroit Lakes and lives on the White Earth reservation.

She graduated from the University of Minnesota with degrees in child development and American Indian studies. Flanagan said she loved college in part because her coursework allowed her to learn more about her culture and her history.

"I was given the opportunity to go to college, and a lot of people in my community were not afforded that same opportunity," she said. "I felt responsible not only for myself but also for people who came before me, as well as those who will come after me to do well in school."

Currently, Flanagan works for the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches coordinating a program called Urban Immersion Service Retreats. The program teaches young people about poverty and social justice issues through service learning.

Academically, she is passionate about social studies, culture, the arts and music.

"Those are the subjects that kept me in school," Flanagan said. "When we cut them and say they are not part of the core curriculum, it really bothers me because sometimes they are the only subjects that speak to kids."

Closing the achievement gap is the biggest challenge facing the district, she said. And while the district pays lip service to its importance, she doesn't see it as having a plan.

"The thing that made a difference for me is having a teacher who looked like me and had my values and shared her history [with me]," she said. "We need more teachers of color. Multiculturalism is a real gift and a real resource, and we do not treat it as such. We need to invite people into our classes to share their culture and their history. I will be the person promoting that on the Board."

Flanagan said she believes the community does not have a voice or representation on the Board. She wants to be that voice, and while she acknowledges the learning curve is steep, she thinks her enthusiasm and dedication will take her very far.

Dennis Schapiro: A battered incumbent who wants another chance

While accepting some blame for a tumultuous term, he still wants to prod community to help with challenges the schools often face alone

By Bob Gilbert

Minneapolis School Board incumbent Dennis Schapiro took a lot of heat the past year for the controversies surrounding the Minneapolis schools. Yet he is working hard to get reelected to a job that sometimes requires 40 hours a week and pays approximately $13,000 a year.

"Yes, I did get beat up this year," said the 58-year-old Linden Hills resident. "But there are a lot of good things going on in the district. I think it is important that we say what we did right and accept responsibility for what we did wrong."

In the Sept. 14 primary, Schapiro came in fourth among 16 candidates seeking three open seats. Six candidates advanced to the Nov. 2 general election.

Members of the School Board seemed politically inept on several occasions, especially after Supt. Carol Johnson left in 2003.

The Board picked Johnson's Chief Operating Officer, David Jennings, to fill the position, and approved Jennings' recommendation to shut down nine city schools this year -- actions that ultimately never happened. Jennings, a white man, decided to drop his candidacy after receiving opposition mostly from the black community; the school-closing plan died after coming under attack from affected parents and Mayor R.T. Rybak, among others.

Said Schapiro, "We should have done more consultation with the community about Jennings before he was hired. All we had to do is make 10 phone calls to people like Rev. Randy Staten and tell people why we were doing it. But we didn't, and it started a firestorm."

Schapiro said he and Board members were surprised when Jennings ultimately decided to drop his candidacy.

"None of us on the board thought that Jennings would fold in the face of criticism," he said. "Had we known it, we might have circled the wagons around him and made it a battle, instead of ignoring the criticism. So we have to take some responsibility in all that."

As far as the school closings go, Schapiro explained that the board got a report in 2002 from an outside consultant reporting that the district's truancy efforts were so strong that more classrooms would be needed. However, last fall, another report stated the district had 800 classrooms too many.

"I was totally surprised at how serious an enrollment decline they were projecting. But there were things that we could not have anticipated like the way immigration was cut off following Sept. 11."

In part, he blames Jennings: "We bit the bullet and made a decision to close schools. As a Board member, you rely on the information you are getting from the people you hire. Jennings set us up, but it wasn't done with malice. I think he felt that it was the best way to get things done. He didn't want the discussion to go on endlessly. … But he didn't engage the community."

Schapiro said the original school-closing plan had some real flaws, but it probably would have been better to go ahead with it. The Board will hear new closing plans Oct. 12 -- just three weeks before Election Day.

Schapiro thinks the situation with this summer's teacher realignment was more of the same. The School Board found out that several dozen senior teachers would have to be moved to new schools or assignments so late in the game that the options available were all bad. However, he said the district's legal counsel told Board members it would have cost $100,000 to challenge the realignment in court, and the district didn't have a chance of winning.

"None of us had the background to understand what the underlying trends were," he said.

The current Board, he said, is made of PTA types from South Minneapolis who do not have the human resources or finance backgrounds to manage an organization with a multimillion-dollar budget, thousands of employees and ten of thousands of students.

Therefore, Schapiro favors changing how School Board members are elected. Voters would choose four of the seven members from ward-like districts so challengers could run against incumbents directly, holding them individually accountable. The mayor, he thinks, should appoint the remaining three board members, so that issues of geography, race, income and skills can be dealt with.

"The civic elite has abandoned the Minneapolis schools because they don't send their kids to them. Recruiting board members who work as general counsels or the CEOs of large corporations, or the head of large church organization is better than electing DFL populists," said Schapiro, who sought but did not receive DFL endorsement this year.

He believes that these are selfish times in America, and nobody wants to pay for other people's kids. The racial divide is already an issue since 60 percent of the city population is white and 70 percent of the school population is minority. He worries that the Minneapolis schools might, in the next 10 years, become like the Chicago schools, a system that has been abandoned by the middle class and is essentially a welfare operation.

Schapiro's pet project is the Children's Agenda, which recently received a $50,000 planning grant from the Minneapolis Foundation. Its goal is to hold the entire city and not just the schools responsible for children's success.

The Children's Agenda has the approval of the School Board and the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board. He wants the entire community involved in such issues as health care, parenting practices, lead poisoning, stability and other children's issues. It is his idea that if kids come to school healthier, they will be better able to learn and make it easier for teachers to teach.

"Research shows that 70 percent of what happens outside of school is what shapes a kid's life," Schapiro said. "You can beat up on the schools if you want, but the truth is kids are not going to be able to do a better job until major emotional, financial and mobility issues are addressed.

"Homeless and highly mobile kids are treated badly and must have their issues addressed," he said. "They bounce from school to school and district to district and have no standardized curriculum or adult contact."

The state has taken over funding and oversight for much of the schools' operations, which limits what a School Board can actually accomplish, he said. But Schapiro thinks a good part of the problem confronting the schools is how inadequately funded they are. A recent report by the Minnesota Taxpayers Association stated its opinion that the Minneapolis schools are underfunded by $183 million.

"[Governor] Pawlenty is especially cynical in the way he deals with the schools," Schapiro said. "He'll pull money away from technology and mentoring projects and then a few weeks later make a big announcement about a grant one-tenth of what he took away and have a big check and smiling faces and handshakes for the cameras.

"But you are not on solid ground if you think that Democrats are any less cynical about how they deal with education," he said. "They may send more money, but they are essentially paying into the strength of the teacher unions."

A Minneapolis native, Schapiro graduated from the University of Minnesota and earned a master's degree in education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He is a thesis short of an education doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

He has owned Jola Publications, which publishes medical directories and an international newspaper on Montessori education, for the past 18 years. He has been married for 27 years with two sons, who are 34 and 25. A former school columnist for the Southwest Journal, he earned second place for his commentaries by the National Education Writers Association.

Asked what he now knows that he didn't know three years ago, Schapiro said: "Figuring out the subtle stuff to make things happen on the School Board," he said. "There is no instruction booklet. Healthy kids, good teachers and a decent environment is everything. The rest is commentary."