Minneapolis may restructure School Board

School Board members would represent assigned areas of the city

A plan by two Minneapolis legislators would increase the size of the Minneapolis School Board and assign some seats to separate districts. Under the current system, all Board members run citywide.

Rep. Jim Davnie and Sen. Wes Skoglund say the plan would create a more accountable system, repairing relationships with parents and voters in some parts of town who feel underrepresented on the School Board.

Critics say the plan would further divide an already fractured Board.

Introduced two years ago, the Davnie/Skoglund plan would create a nine-member Minneapolis School Board, similar to the Minneapolis Park Board. Six School Board members would represent designated areas of the city that correspond with the Park Board's boundaries. An additional three members would serve at-large.

Currently, the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) Board has seven at-large members, overseeing a system with 70 schools. The new Board plan strives to resolve a common complaint, Davnie said. Voters don't know which School Board member to call when a problem arises in their neighborhood, or in their child's school.

&#8220I want a situation where every family is represented by someone on the School Board and [that Board member] is accessible, responsive and accountable to the community,” Davnie said.

Others worry the bill could make the School Board too territorial. School Board Chair Joe Erickson, said, &#8220There's potential that a structure such as this might lead to interdistrict infighting,” He added, &#8220We are concerned that pitting one part of the city against another for scarce resources could undermine the formation and maintenance of a common vision and mission, the very thing cited by experts as leading positive outcomes.”

Erickson raised the issue of school choice, which means some families send their kids to multiple areas of the city. Under such conditions, &#8220It sort of defies the very nature of the idea that a particular School Board member would represent parents and schools in his or her district. Parents and children choose options from all over the city.”

The bill is gaining strong support, however, including from Mayor R.T. Rybak, who supports having set School Board districts. &#8220Issues regarding schools are especially local we have a wealth of smart, talented people citywide and the schools need many hands right now.”

What people are saying

The city ran the public schools until the 1950s, when state legislation created an independent Minneapolis School Board. Since then, the Board has formed policies for MPS as an autonomous at-large group. A similar bill to the Davnie-Skoglund plan failed on a two-to-one vote in 1987.

According to information from the Council of Great City Schools, a consortium of 60 urban school districts, there's no overwhelming evidence to support the reorganization or reject it. That's because similar models are at-work in only a dozen school districts statewide and few nationally.

People are starting to weigh in.

Barton parent David Curle said: &#8220I like the idea of having a Board member who answers specifically to my part of the city. It gives us a direct, natural contact with a single member of the Board that knows my part of town.”

Aside from just calling or sending e-mail to one Board member, &#8220If my neighbors and I are not happy with decisions taken by the Board member from our district, as a smaller electorate we could have a better chance to find a better candidate and get that person elected.”

North parent Kristin Berg Thompson said the bill would spur parent involvement especially in areas like North and Northeast where some families feel slighted by district policies. &#8220When parents feel like they're being heard, they're more likely to share resources and burdens. The real and perceived inequities across the district could be improved by this system.”

Likewise, former MPS Board member Dennis Shapiro said it could help retain families in light of declining enrollment and increasing attrition rates. Although he said that the Board has &#8220more competence and integrity than it is given credit for,” the bill would connect the city, youth and families.

&#8220We have a lot of bright, cynical, consumer-oriented parents who see neighborhood or racial-ethnic issues as crucial, and are ready to flee, and take with them their capacity to enrich the city and the schools. This could better engage those parents and keep them in the city.”

More political, or less?

Proponents also claim that the idea could minimize politics and downplay the role of partisan endorsement. Duane Reede, executive director of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP said, &#8220A person shouldn't have to be compelled to run because of money or endorsement. It should be affordable enough and grassroots enough that they don't need the endorsement of a party to get elected.”

But opponents cite similar concerns. School Board member Lydia Lee testified against the bill in a legislative hearing. &#8220I understand the argument that DFL endorsement carries a lot of weight but if we were to elect by neighborhood there'd still be that process of endorsing candidates from neighborhoods just like the Park Board, Library Board and City Council.

&#8220My hesitations center around a redirection of focus from representing an area as opposed to providing quality service for all students. All of us have to really be working for the district,” said Lee.

Additionally, Northeast resident Julie Mattson-Ostrow, a local DFL activist who has coordinated School Board races including Peggy Flanagan's and one of Judy Farmer's criticized the bill, &#8220If you say that you only represent a certain area, people will only be concerned about their constituents and forget about the whole. Right now, we have to be concerned about all the schools. I really think we just need to have a cohesive Board.”

In contrast, Armatage parent Seth Kirk said, &#8220But there is a significant part of this city who feels that the Board is completely out of touch with them, which leads to people rejecting the whole system. This is a major problem with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and if School Board elections by district helps fix this even a little, then I'm all for it.”