Questions on race and racism in the school board debate

Eight of nine candidates for three open seats on the Minneapolis school board met for a sparsely attended candidates’ forum Aug. 21 at the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis.

The candidates addressed the district’s declining enrollment and a proposal to revamp school board elections, as well as answering audience questions on plans for English-language learner students, school uniforms, a moratorium on suspensions and a variety of other topics during the two-hour forum.

Incumbents Sharon Henry-Blythe and Lydia Lee took the stage along with challengers Doug Mann, Carla Bates, Mary Buss, Jill Davis, Kari Reed and Thomas Dicks. Candidate Allison Johnson did not attend.

Forum moderator Al McFarlane of Insight News opened the forum with the argument that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) was “not making the grade” and that the school board, in particular, was “failing.” McFarlane asked the candidates what they would do to improve the quality of education.

Mann, answering first, said high teacher turnover was one cause of low student achievement. He called for “stability” in the classroom, a cornerstone of his campaign.

Bates said the district was “on a better path than it was two years ago,” but she said the school board needed to provide stronger oversight, which she promised to deliver.

Buss blamed the emphasis on standardized testing under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law for faltering student achievement and called for a “grass-roots uprising” against NCLB, using a phrase she would repeat several times during the night.

Davis pointed out that some student groups, in particular African American boys, struggled, while other groups flourished in MPS schools. She called for stronger district management and research-driven, proven academic strategies.

Throughout the night, Reed promoted greater school choice — including the expansion of charter schools — as the remedy for the district’s ills. The home-schooling mother of five also pushed for a “back-to-the-basics” approach in the classroom, with an emphasis on history and the three “Rs.”

Henry-Blythe said she felt sharply “the pain of low test scores” as a school board member. Still, she said a new district strategic plan had put MPS on track for improvement with its emphasis on early childhood education, reading by the third grade and other initiatives.

Lee pointed out that most major urban districts struggle with similar achievement issues, but said MPS was moving in the right direction by improving teacher and principal training. She said greater power to choose and retain “quality teachers” and an interdisciplinary curriculum also would boost student performance.

Dicks, an MPS teacher, said the curriculum should reflect the diverse languages and cultures of Minneapolis students, a call he repeated throughout the night. The district needed “a lot more teachers,” he added.

When McFarlane asked about the district’s declining enrollment, many of the candidates cited as a cause the perceived inequality among the city’s schools.

Schools with high populations of students of color, especially those on the North Side, have experienced the highest losses. Mann, Buss, Davis, Henry-Blythe and Lee emphasized the need to improve educational and enrichment opportunities in those schools to win back families.

Bates saw the need for a “greater welcoming of diversity” by MPS staff and administrators, a call many of the candidates echoed later when asked by a Somali parent about their specific plans for students of color.

Reed again offered greater school choice as a solution to declining enrollment. For Dicks, the decline in students of color once again highlighted the need for a curriculum that embraced student diversity.

For his third question, McFarlane polled the candidates about their stance on school board election reform. A ballot question this fall will ask voters to approve school board election by district. Board members currently serve at-large.

Bates and Davis supported the reform measure, arguing that electing members by district would bring greater geographical diversity to the board and better representation for the needs of individual school communities.

Opponents of the measure cautioned that geographical representation could paralyze the board when tough decisions must be made about school closings and transportation routes. They included Mann, Reed, Henry-Blythe and Lee.

Buss saw strong points to both sides of the argument, but declined to take a position. Dicks said he wasn’t convinced school board members should be elected at all, but did not specify how they might be appointed or otherwise assigned to the board.

When McFarlane opened up the forum to audience questions, a ticking clock and shortened response time prevented candidates from answering any question with much detail.

Questions from parents and community members reflected the myriad strategies being tested in districts across the country to improve student performance and behavior. Candidates were polled about their stances on school uniforms, using suspensions to punish young students and the establishment of vocational schools.

But perhaps the most deeply felt responses came to questions about race and racism, both personal and institutional, within MPS.

That the questions again and again circled back to those crucial issues may indicate the major task for the next school board: ensuring all students — despite race, income, language or a host of other factors — can succeed in Minneapolis schools.