Schools become big issue in mayor’s race

McLaughlin favors more direct involvement; Rybak supporter's call opponent's plan 'disingenuous'

Mayoral challenger Peter McLaughlin has made public schools a major campaign issue. As mayor, he said, he would have an Education Cabinet and seek a nonvoting mayoral appointment to the School Board. He says the mayor should use his influence to build community and business support for public schools - including efforts to boost graduation rates.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said he has served on the district's Achieve! Minneapolis foundation board for four years and, among other achievements, increased summer job opportunities for youth. He is helping shape the "children's agenda" as chair of the Youth Coordinating Board and proposed money for high school career centers, he said.

McLaughlin said Rybak's leadership is "lacking." Rybak says McLaughlin's Education Cabinet plan amounts to another task force - when the city needs action.

School Board member Colleen Moriarty, a former Youth Coordinating Board director and a McLaughlin supporter, said a mayoral School Board appointee might be helpful. She characterized Rybak's education approach as "staying around the perimeter" while McLaughlin would be more "hands on."

Former School Board President Catherine Shreves, a Rybak supporter, said the mayor's work advocating more money for schools and for Achieve! Minneapolis has been very important. Still, it is the superintendent and School Board that run the schools, not the mayor, she said.

"It is disingenuous to make running the schools a huge part of the mayoral election," she said. "I think it misleads voters as to what the job of the mayor is."

What role does the mayor have in education?

McLaughlin points to the legacy of former mayors Don Fraser and Sharon Sayles Belton. Fraser provided key leadership to make early childhood education a city priority, he said. His efforts led to the creation of Early Learning Centers and other programs. McLaughlin credits Sayles Belton with convincing the School Board to implement neighborhood schools.

Shreves agrees, to a point. She said people had concerns that returning to community schools would resegregate the schools. The fact that Sayles Belton - the city's first black mayor -supported community schools was the green light, she said. However, she characterized Sayles Belton's role with schools as hands off. "Historically, what she did with community schools was to not block it," she said.

Candidates' records

Rybak supporters include current School Board Chair Joseph Erickson; Board members Lydia Lee, Judy Farmer and Audrey Johnson; and former members Shreves and Al Gallmon.

McLaughlin supporters include Fraser, Sayles Belton and School Board members Sharon Henry-Blythe and Moriarty, a former Sayles Belton chief of staff.

Both candidates can point to kid-oriented success stories.

Rybak played a critical role in launching Step Up, a youth jobs program, said Catherine Jordan, president and CEO of Achieve! Minneapolis. Now in its third year, Step Up employed 308 youths in jobs ranging from janitorial and clerical to Geek Squad computer-fix-up agents-in-training.

The Star Tribune and the US Bank provided corporate leadership. Step Up jobs paid between $7 and $11 an hour. "The mayor has been extraordinarily helpful in rallying the business community," she said.

As Youth Coordinating Board Chair, Rybak also helped Way to Grow, a citywide school readiness program, spin off to its own nonprofit. Carolyn Smallwood, Way to Grow executive director, said Rybak pulled together the transition team, "to save the organization," and he built community support.

Rybak is also a youth baseball and soccer coach, he said.

McLaughlin, also a Youth Coordinating Board member, co-chaired the early childhood committee. He learned that the school district lagged behind in developmental screenings of 3-year-olds, he said. Many kids were being screened at 4 or 5, leaving less time for remedial help.

Barb Nichol, a Youth Coordinating Board program consultant, said McLaughlin deserves credit for getting $200,000 in county funds to bolster the program, tripling the number of 3-year-olds tested. The screenings include hearing and vision checks and test the child's ability to recognize shapes and letters, measures of future school success.

McLaughlin also got county funding for the South Area Family Resource Center, housed at Andersen School, 1098 Andersen Lane. School Principal Mark Bonine said the clinic has made a huge difference in attendance - and credits McLaughlin with helping it stay open. The county has funded it 2004-2006, he said. After that, the future is uncertain.

Education vision

Asked about the mayor's role in K-12 education, Rybak said the focus should be, "to make sure that our kids are ready for school, that they have constructive activities after school and in the summer, and that they have a good path to a career."

If reelected, he plans to continue work on the Children's Agenda through the Youth Coordinating Board, a group that includes city, county, parks, library and other government representatives, he said. He would work with the School Board to turn school buildings with vacant space into community centers, complementing their education mission while creating more district revenue.

Further, he would build on the high school career center plan put forward by Achieve! Minneapolis. He would work with the Minneapolis Community and Technical College and other postsecondary institutions to find ways to ensure all Minneapolis high school graduates had financial access to higher education.

McLaughlin is proposing more direct school involvement. "The future of the city is going to depend on the quality of public schools, and the mayor has a role to play in making sure the schools are strong," he said, citing the Education Cabinet idea and mayoral School Board appointment as two specific initiatives he would pursue.

Henry-Blythe - who is supporting McLaughlin because of his long history of youth advocacy - nevertheless said his proposal for an ex-officio School Board member "misses the point" and "is a bureaucratic mess."

Farmer, a Rybak supporter, is concerned McLaughlin's proposals would create dual school management. She asked what would happen on a hot issue such as school closings if the mayor's Education Cabinet disagreed with the School Board's decision. "You could have situations which are totally disastrous," she said.

(In 2004, Rybak urged the School Board delay a vote to close 10 schools to give citizens more time to comment. He acknowledged some schools would need to close, but did not comment on which ones.)

McLaughlin said the School Board would make school closing decisions: "I am not going to usurp the authority of the School Board," he said.

Replied Farmer: what would McLaughlin's Education Cabinet do, if not get heavily involved in the same issues as the School Board? "You can't say you don't want to take over the schools and say at the same time you want an Education Cabinet and a mayoral appointment to the School Board," she said.

McLaughlin said he would build coalitions to support school goals, just as he built broad support for the light-rail transit line and the Phillips Partnership. "That is what leadership in the 21st century is about," he said. "It is not about hard lines of authority."

The 80 percent solution

McLaughlin said he has not been critical of the School Board, though some people have asked him to be. His Web site comes close, taking aim at the district's graduation rates.

School district staff said in 2001, the Board approved an 80 percent graduation target for the seven city high schools by 2010. (The target is not well publicized. It was set as part of the reforms that created high school small learning communities.)

According to the most recent district data, the city's seven high schools had a 78 percent graduation rate. However, add in the contract alternatives, such as the Center School, 2421 Bloomington Ave. S.; The City, Inc., 1315 12th Ave. N.; and others, and the graduation rate drops to 54.5 percent.

McLaughlin said the graduation rate for all schools should be 80 percent, including the contract alternatives, which have "a lot of the toughest kids."

"You ask the parents in the African American community. You ask the Latino parents. You ask the American Indian parents, if the graduation rate in the Minneapolis Public Schools is acceptable. They will look you in the eye and say are you kidding me? Absolutely not," he said.

Farmer said the School Board has less ability to affect graduation rates at contract alternative high schools, which have their own boards. The district gives assistance but does not control curriculum. Craig Vana, a district associate superintendent, said the School Board's oversight includes the ability not to renew contracts if the alternative schools fail to meet standards.

McLaughlin said reaching an 80 percent graduation rate would be difficult. Asked what he would do to boost graduation rates, McLaughlin did not have specific ideas. He said he would ask the School Board what it needed to reach the goal, and "I will help to get what they need to make that happen."

Rybak said he supported high standards for schools. He has had good access to talking to School Board members on school issues, he said. If McLaughlin wants a School Board appointee, he should run for the Board.

For more information on the candidates' education stands, see www.rtrybak.com and www.petermclaughlin.com.