Planning for the future

The newly elected School Board members' foremost priority is to pick a superintendent

The new Minneapolis School Board will represent a broad cross section of the city when newcomers take their seats in January. There will be a mix of members from all over Minneapolis with the exception of the Northeast area.

Typically, Southwest residents have led the pack.

At the Nov. 7 election, voters elected four DFLers who ran against two unendorsed candidates to represent them on the seven-member School Board, marking the first time that a new majority joins the Board in more than two decades.

DFLers Pam Costain, a political organizer; Tom Madden, a small marketing business owner; Chris Stewart, a workforce professional, and T. Williams, a nonprofit researcher, captured nearly 80 percent of votes combined. Doug Mann, a frequent campaigner and Chris Clark, a University of Minnesota employee, each received 9 percent of the votes.

Rookie Board members have said they're eager to start their new jobs. One newly elected member, however - Stewart - has become a controversial figure since the election. Some have called for his resignation because of his involvement in a satirical webpage that parodied Tammy Lee, the Independence Party candidate for the Fifth Congressional District.

He's been one of numerous bloggers on a political commentary site called American Hot Sausage, which linked to the Lee satire. The webpage was created on Stewart's computer.

Stewart endorsed DFLer Keith Ellison, congressman-elect for the Fifth District.

The site has been described as hateful and racist.

One of the statements on the site read: &#8220Tammy Lee is the Best Choice to Replace Congressman Martin Sabo. After all, she's white - just like us, and that means we can trust her. We should all agree that a negro should never replace a great statesman like Martin Sabo.” The fake quote was attributed to Kathleen Anderson, district director for Sabo.

Lee condemned the creators of the webpage at a Nov. 6 press conference.

&#8220This is the most deplorable type of smear I have ever seen in any campaign before,” she said. &#8220It is racist and hate-filled. Not only do they attack me based upon my race, but they also attacked based upon gender.”

She said she's pursuing legal action against Stewart and hopes to set a legal precedent so that others aren't victimized by similar efforts.

In an apology posted online on the Minneapolis Issues List and Minneapolis Parents Forum, Stewart said: &#8220Bloggers associated with my campaign intended this webpage to be private, but even so, it is grossly out of sync with the values I strive for in our city.”

Stewart said campaign volunteers created the webpage. Even so, &#8220I took full responsibility for folks affiliated with my campaign. I'm responsible for that. It did come from campaign volunteers. I'm the public one and I've made every attempt to apologize to her [Tammy Lee] directly.”

The webpage was private and never meant to go public, he said.

He said it wasn't meant to be a smear and that he has a vision for improving the schools and closing the achievement gap. Stewart said the irony is that he's been fighting against &#8220identity politics.” Additionally, he was formerly an Independence Party candidate and a Tammy Lee supporter.

He said that he's spent a decade helping people out of poverty, working in the faith community and more. &#8220This is not the work of someone who wants to hate people,” he said.

Stewart said he's &#8220staying the course” and that he was elected to do something specific. That means working twice as hard while also juggling a full-time job. &#8220This isn't about me. It would be easier to for me to resign,” he said.

A 100-day plan

The issue has generated much debate, with as many as 90 responses on the Issues List alone. Other newly elected Board members maintained that they wouldn't join the fray and are staying focused on school issues.

&#8220Chris has to take care of that himself. I'm worried about issues facing the Board,” said Madden, in a phone interview.

He and the other new Board members are developing a 100-day plan that prioritizes decisions facing the district. He said the most immediate issue before them is to pick a permanent superintendent.

Already, they've met with the present Board members to talk about a search process for a superintendent. Interim Superintendent Bill Green, who replaced previous Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles who was ousted last spring, plans to vie for the job.

Board Chair Joseph Erickson, who is responsible for introducing Green to the district, at a Nov. 9 Board discussion that newly elected Board members attended said that MPS should stick with Green.

Meanwhile, all four of the new Board members made it clear during their campaigns that they support a search for a superintendent. Another high priority item is to set the district's budget, which is predicted to face a $15million to $20 million shortfall next year.

The newly elected members have said that they want to restore faith in the Board that has been widely criticized for alienating community members. One of their goals is to improve the Board's transparency and accountability, especially when it comes to the budget.

Madden cautioned that the new members wouldn't control the Board. He said they would cooperate with the current members. For now, they'll continue to attend Board meetings, plan for the future so that they can make a seamless transition and be visible in the community.

&#8220Expectations are high,” Costain said. &#8220We have an enormous amount on our plate. We won't be able to do everything we want to do when we want to do it, even though it all needs to get done.”

Williams said he's eager to get started on the &#8220real work” facing the Board now that the election is over.

&#8220I'm going to be very much interested in helping to shape Minneapolis in such a way that it'll be seen in time as one of the best school districts if not the best school district in the nation,” he said.

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].