Ten vie for two at-large School Board seats

Candidates weigh in on schools issues before the Aug. 10 primary election.

TANGLETOWN — If Minneapolis voters can count on one thing this fall, it’s this: Change is coming to the School Board.

The change is in both membership and composition of Minneapolis Public Schools’ governing body. With only one incumbent in the race, the School Board could have a majority of first-time members when it convenes in January.

The now seven-member board will be larger in January, too, with the addition of one seat. Another seat is added following the 2012 election, bringing the total to nine members.

How that plays out may confuse some voters — who approved the expansion plan in 2008 — but Southwest residents have it relatively easy this year. They, like voters across the city, will elect two at-large representatives to the board.

Ten candidates will vie for those at-large seats in the Aug. 10 primary. The four who receive the most votes move on to the Nov. 2 general election.

This year, voters on the eastern half of the city also elect three district representatives to the School Board. Southwest voters get their chance to elect district representatives in 2012.

Currently a seven-member board with all members elected at-large, after the 2012 elections the School Board will include three at-large members and six members elected by Park Board district.

The lone incumbent in this year’s race, Board Member T. Williams, is fighting for an at-large seat. Three of his colleagues also had terms ending this year but chose not to run.
Board Members Tom Madden and Chris Stewart announced plans to depart in the spring. So did Board Member Pam Costain, who resigned early, in June, to head the district’s non-profit foundation, AchieveMpls.

Meet the candidates

This year the Southwest Journal partnered with community groups to sponsor an at-large candidates’ forum, set for 6:30 p.m.–8:30 p.m. July 21 at Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, 1 W. 49th St.

All 10 candidates were asked to submit a short biography and answers to two questions in writing. Their responses are excerpted below.

Forum organizers hoped to dispense with the basics ahead of time, so that the two hours at Ramsey could be used to explore substantive issues in-depth.

One at-large candidate, Shirlynn LaChapelle, told forum organizers she was dropping out of the race, although her decision was made too late to remove her name from the ballot.
Candidates each submitted a 100-word biography, plus 200-word responses to both of the following questions developed by forum organizers.

Question 1: When district leaders developed a Minneapolis Public Schools five-year strategic plan in 2007, one step was to examine what worked and what didn’t work in districts across the country. What is the most important issue you feel MPS is struggling with and what is one important lesson/technique you believe MPS could draw from other school districts to solve this issue?

Question 2: The district closed schools and this fall will limit busing under Changing School Options, a plan to limit spending in a shrinking district. Yet, the district still faces ongoing budget deficits. Did CSO go far enough, or what additional changes would you suggest to address the deficits?

Candidate responses were edited for grammar and spelling.


James Everett
1320 Oliver Ave. N.

I was born in Minneapolis in 1977 and raised in North Minneapolis. I attended Kenwood Elementary, Northeast Middle School and, lastly, North High School. I write youth programming and have launched pilot initiatives for the city, county and state for the past decade. For the past 15 years I personally dealt with 1,000 youth per week (approximately 4,000 youth per month).
To date I am seen as a leader in youth engagement on the national scene. I am currently an understudy to educational phenom Bill Strickland of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild/ National Centers for Arts and Technology.

Question 1

I believe one of the most pressing issues is intergenerational dialogue/education and strategy. The school system, like most bureaucracy, has become top heavy with over-educated baby boomers who have still not mended or addressed the barriers that still exist with them and Generation X. So, reaching a compromise and a common ground cannot be achieved without engaging the parents of the millennium children (Gen X).

Minnesota is a state of ten thousand nonprofits and corporations. There has to be a stronger emphasis on social entrepreneurship and the public school system becoming a training ground for the 20 Fortune 500s in the state of Minnesota. I believe the relationship between Bill Strickland, Pittsburg Public Schools, National Center for Arts and Technology, Bayer Aspirin and the Heinz Endowments is a good example.

Question 2

I believe it is not time to continue to limit spending in a struggling school district. It is time to realize that we might be doing things in a primitive or outdated fashion. I believe proper redirection of funds is a more suitable solution.

The Youth Coordinating Board and Metro Transit are currently working on transportation solutions for public school youth and citywide youth in general.
African American youth and American youth in general set the trends for all pop culture.  It is time to sell or barter access to the youth as a research market for upcoming products, food, clothing, music, etc.

We can take money off the student public school per diem and use it for incentives or perks to encourage parents and students to reinvest in public education.

Rebecca Gagnon
4701 Drew Ave. S.

With three children in three public schools, combined with my extensive volunteer work in MPS, I not only have a district-wide perspective but experience volunteering in districts outside of Minneapolis. In the past decade as a public school volunteer, I have addressed a variety of issues such as parent involvement, school safety, teacher accountability and student achievement at a policy making district-wide level.  

I served as an Area C representative to the District Parent Advisory Council, Lake Harriet Site Council co-chair, Area C Steering Committee co-chair, Whittier Parent Teacher Association Executive Board member, Title I Advisory Council member and Special Education Advisory Council attendee.

Question 1

MPS struggles with student achievement across all levels of ability, parent involvement and district cohesiveness. I am passionate about MPS and driven to run for School Board because I am optimistic about MPS’s future.

The strategic plan sets forth lofty but attainable goals. However, the administration and school board must focus on strategies to achieve those goals: increasing equity, expectations and achievement; focusing resources; and strengthening relationships. Evaluating best practices is one way to find these strategies.

In Round Rock, Texas, we went to community centers, apartment complexes, public housing, churches and other places where families lived and gathered that had statistically not been involved in their child’s school or education. Bringing information to a community made a difference, showing the district’s interest in their children and their involvement.

I have initiated and helped organize multicultural school-wide events that provided various groups, whether by ethnicity, race, language, interests, or beliefs, an opportunity to share pieces of their culture with the greater community. Knowing and understanding one another better helps us to appreciate differences, but more importantly, it allows us to recognize our commonality. It is our shared commonality that brings a community together, increasing parent involvement across all cultures.

Question 2

CSO was a bold step by the current School Board. It did not solve the future financial situation for MPS.

The district will be facing at least a $19 million shortfall in 2011–2012. With state funds diminishing and being withheld, we must become fiscally responsible by making long-term changes in how we spend and make money. We have several options: building corporate partnerships, increasing our student population and cutting a budget that has taken hard hits over the past several years.

We have buildings that stand empty. We must rent, lease or sell excess properties that sit deteriorating and costing money without any benefit to student achievement.

We must increase our marketing campaign and sell MPS to the families that left the district for various reasons. Do a better and bolder job of sharing the awesome achievements of our students, teachers and schools with the community!

We must create an exit survey to understand why our families withdraw their children from MPS and choose charter, private or suburban schools. To fix the problem, we must understand the problem.

Finally, we must look hard at our budget and decide where to cut without sacrificing the success of all of our students.

Steven Lasley
719 Elizabeth Lane

Born and raised in Minneapolis, I attended Shingle Creek Elementary and Olson Middle School and graduated from Henry High School. I attended North Hennepin Community College, went to Viet Nam, returned home and completed my bachelor degree at Central State University. I attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and received my Master of Arts degree in administration.

I was a teacher in the Minneapolis school system for thirty years and retired in 2006. I have been working as a reserve teacher for the last five years at North High School.

Question 1

I believe one of the most important issues MPS is struggling with is school culture. I’ve come to the conclusion our school system does not know how to reach all students to motivate them to learn.

Classes across the city are out of control. Teachers are quitting and students are transferring to other schools. Students have come to believe they run the schools and the administrators and teacher adult figures, without the respect toward them for being in the primary roles they offer as educators.

The behavior of inner-city students across the country is cause for alarm, as students are being beat to death and teachers are being called out of their name almost everyday. Learning has become secondary in the city schools. Today a “good teacher” is one who can keep the kids “quiet” for an hour and not disruptive.

Consequently, the best and brightest are subjected to the unruly behavior and are disrupted from gaining their educational goals, which in turn leads to a stream of school flight out of the MPS system.

This is the challenge facing our educational system. No wonder the achievement gap is below level.

Question 2

The MPS has 91 schools in operation today. I feel this is way too many schools to operate for a system that is out of money. It is disturbing to look at the 21st century and think about how we must cut to gain. However, it must be done if we are going to provide the best education possible for kids of all ages.

Here is my plan for the 21st century. We have about 50 K-5 and K-8 schools. This is far too many schools to operate with very little money. There are approximately 23 of these schools that are over 80 years old. It seems to me if we sold these buildings and made a profit on the land we could save a great deal of money and make money in the near future. We could save on transportation, food and operations costs that cause us to spend on out-of-date boiler and heater systems. We could gain revenue and build state-of-the-art K-12 schools in our various school zones.

This would give us an estimated saving of close to a half-billion dollars over the next ten years.

Richard Mammen
5046 29th Ave. S.

DFL and labor endorsed, I’m a lifelong resident of Minneapolis, Washburn graduate and parent of three South High School students. I believe good public education is a right and our best hope for social justice.

Our schools are at a crossroads right now and need strong, knowledgeable leaders. As a youth worker for the past 38 years, first director of the Youth Coordinating Board and current director of citywide recreation for the Park Board, I know how systems can succeed. I’m running for the School Board because I believe in kids, this city and my obligation to serve both.

Question 1

Much of the MPS strategic plan is framed on research-based best practices gleaned from other districts. It’s a good and noble plan but we continue to struggle with implementation as well as the courage to confront the realities of our metropolitan area.

To make real progress on student achievement rates and eliminate gaps we need to urgently work on both micro and macro fronts. Specifically, we need to embrace the traits of successful schools in each of our buildings: strong, collaborative leadership; skillful, confident teachers; parent and community engagement; a student-centered learning climate; shared learning; and cultural competence. Each of our schools must be viewed as the best available for all kids.

We must also have the courage to face the fact that our city and metro region is one of the most racially and economically segregated areas in the country. Racism and poverty are entwined and have a huge impact on schools and neighborhoods. We need to engage in true collaborative action and problem solving with our other public institutional partners on housing laws, economic development, health and social services. We must focus on each child and each school while we also honestly address regional collaboration and progress.    

Question 2

In addition to saving $7.5 million per year in operating costs, the CSO plan was designed to prevent cuts in academics, promote neighborhood access and right-size the district to accommodate enrollment projections.

While I continue to question some of the assumptions the plan was based on, I recognize the financial realities and intentions that drove it.  Did it go far enough? No. But closing more schools or increasing class sizes aren’t necessarily the only ways to go forward.

The current and projected state deficits (and the funding of public education overall) are dynamic and unpredictable. That said, the CSO and the three regional attendance zones created offer a context for better, localized decision-making and community collaboration.

We have to work the plan. It will take a comprehensive, on-going review of central administrative efficiencies and value, relationships with charter schools and other districts, investment in early childhood education, student retention and marketing and all MPS practices to find solutions and improve our schools. The biggest questions to answer over the coming years are: Do we – as a community – collectively value children, public education and economic progress, and will we invest the social capital to be successful?

Doug Mann
3619 Grand Ave. S.

I advocate a quality public education for all on an equal basis. My background is licensed practical nurse. I am employed by Edina Public Schools as a district-wide substitute educational associate (primarily special education). I am a volunteer tutor and classroom assistant for English as a Second Language courses in Minneapolis Public Schools Adult Basic Education.

My education includes an associate arts degree and practical nursing diploma. I read literature in French, German, Italian, modern Greek and Spanish. I served on the Parents Union board of directors and NAACP education advocacy committees.

Question 1

Minneapolis Public Schools’ 2007-2012 strategic plan set ambitious goals to close the racial learning gap. However, outcomes for students of color remain very poor, and the gap is getting bigger, not smaller.

For example, from 2007 to 2009 the proportion of students proficient at reading on MCA-II reading exams in grades 3–8 went from 82 percent to 85 percent for whites and 31 percent to 32 percent for African Americans compared to the Strategic Plan goals of 86 percent for whites and 49 percent for African Americans in year two of the plan, 2008-2009.

Testing done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress also shows a widening racial gap in reading scores for fourth-grade students in Minneapolis Public Schools and the public school system statewide, with a modest improvement for whites and lower scores for students of color.

The MPS strategic plan and the No Child Left Behind agenda do not address racial discrimination within the schools in the form of disparate effects of teacher turnover rates and a process of watering-down the curriculum to varying degrees for a majority of the students associated with ability-grouping practices promoted by federal and state departments of education.

Question 2

In October 2002 the district made big cuts in the bus transportation budget, eliminating bus service for many students rather than increase class sizes. However, the district saw a huge decline in enrollment from the fall of 2002 to the fall of 2003, much of which was attributable to students who lost access to transportation provided by the district leaving the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Funding from the state and federal governments tied to student enrollment declined. Enrollment declines were especially large for students of color and students from low-income households. Title I and compensatory funding followed those low-income students who left the district. Overhead costs did not shrink as fast the district’s income. Average pay for teachers increased sharply because the positions eliminated were mostly filled by the district’s lowest paid teachers.

I advocated restoring pre-2002 levels of bus service to stop the bleeding, a course of action that the School Board did not take. The worsening financial situation produced by the downsizing forced the board to increase class sizes again and again. And the decision to build a new headquarters building will cost more than utilizing existing facilities, making a bad financial situation worse.


Mohamud Noor
2955 Tyler St. NE

I am presently employed as systems management analyst at Minnesota Department of Human Services, Children and Family Services, Transition Support Systems Division. I received my B.S. in computer science from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

I am married to Farhiya Del, an employee at MPS. We have two sons, the oldest of whom is enrolled in Minneapolis Public Schools.
I am running to bring fresh ideas and a new perspective to the issues facing the school district.

Question 1

There are several issues that I believe MPS is struggling with. The most pressing issue facing the school district besides funding is how to develop an effective school-family-community partnership. To get there, the school board must make school-family-community partnership a priority.

The district has to become more inclusive and transparent by bringing community members to the table to get their input in the decision-making process. The district goals and objectives need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound, and the results must be communicated with all stakeholders. It is not the responsibility of one entity; all of us have a responsibility to bear, and all of us have a stake in the outcome.

I will promote a collaborative environment with a commitment to equity and quality learning and achievement outcomes for all students.

Question 2

We have been facing a severe financial crisis and rightly the district has spent time trying to work out the best ways of dealing with it. However, I think that even in times of financial hardship, we need to be looking forward.

We should be talking about ways to improve the district. We need to find ways to address the declining enrollment and ensure that all students receive a high-quality education.  I believe steps can be taken to improve the way these limited resources are allocated and the way they are used to support student academic achievement.

Chanda Smith Baker
1305 Washburn Ave.

I grew up a proud resident of Minneapolis in a family that has valued and supported public education for decades. My commitment to social justice and education has been at the foundation of my professional and volunteer work in the community for over fifteen years.

I have been an advocate of African-American children and youth, as well as a voice in dealing with the broader issues of educational disparities across race, class and place. My experience as a parent, community member and school innovation leader will provide a unique voice on the MPS board.

Question 1

The achievement gap is the most important issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools.

Always searching for better ways to educate children, I’ve had the unique opportunity to visit over 35 schools across the country to research best practices. I specifically focused schools that were 90 percent low income, 90 percent students of color and 90 percent proficient in reading and math. The single most important factor in each schools success was an unrelenting focus on results. Each school had a “no excuse” approach, real-time data driven decisions and collective responsibility of the results.

While these technical practices were key, it was the school philosophy and core values that provided the foundation. The school leaders almost always were inspirational. They believed that every child, regardless of circumstance, was capable of high academic achievement. As a School Board member I will continue seek successful practices that yield strong academic results.  
Now that the MPS Office of New Schools is adding new schools to its portfolio it presents an exciting opportunity. Our district now has both a traditional and an innovation strategy. The strong implementation of the new schools and the continued improvement of our traditional schools is a two-prong strategy that can strengthen results and make MPS more attractive to families.

Question 2

The fiscal challenges facing Minneapolis Public Schools are complex and a result of multiple factors. The shrinking district and the projected shortfall have forced many changes in the district over years.

The framing of the question “Did the CSO go far enough?” implies that there is a single solution to the fiscal challenge. I believe the solution rests in a long-term strategy that incorporates multiple factors such as: retention and enrollment targets; community and corporate partnerships; innovative educational approaches; and strong academic results. From my perspective, it seems that “quick fixes” have become the norm and that is a problem.

From a more personal view, the changing school options have had an impact for my family. We have four children in school and two will face a change in the upcoming school year. How CSO impacted the bottom line and how CSO impacted students and families is the broader question. For some families absolutely it went too far.
The incoming board will undoubtedly face a similar situation. We have to figure out how to address the shortfalls and limited impact on our students.


Dick Velner
90 South 9th St., Apt. 1414

I am a small business owner (IRIS). I have a B.A. in math/economics from St. Mary’s College (1961) and a M.A. in teaching from University of St. Thomas (1990).
I am a high school mathematics teacher. I have four thriving children and 14 grandchildren.

Question 1

As a School Board director I would have but one voice and one vote. My interest as well as focus will be directed at performance in the classroom. The framework is in place: a strategic plan has been developed, a new superintendent is at work, policy has been published (district policy 6010) and the only work yet to do is execution.

Execution for excellence, outcomes and achievement must start at the classroom level. Students can not be expected to excel if they can not perceive leadership from the teacher. The one critical question to this leadership is: “May I see your curriculum?”

Question 2

The school district has more than adequate resources to do the job of educating students. Problems arise when the special interest groups lobby for services the district cannot afford. History has shown that more resources (money) do nothing for classroom performance.

Theatrice “T.” Williams (incumbent)
1310 Washburn Ave. N

Over my long professional and community career I’ve received numerous professional and civic awards, such as a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellows and Outstanding Alumni Award from University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.

I hold a B.A. degree from the University of Illinois, M.S.W. degree from the University of Pennsylvania and did graduate work at the University of Illinois, University of Chicago and DePaul University law school.

I’m a retired senior research associate from Rainbow Research. I’ve been a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute and taught at Augsburg College and Minneapolis Community and Technical College. I’m married, a father of three and grandfather of four.

Question 1

Minneapolis is struggling with a degree of demographic diversity in its schools and high student mobility. Some of our English Language Learner students are having their first experience with school when they enter our schools at ages ranging from six to 13 or 14, and at those upper ages they have until age 21 to complete their education.

Another challenge is we have 5,000 highly mobile and homeless children, which can mean high absenteeism and frequent changes of schools. We know that good attendance and student time on task correlate with improved student performance.

We know that our students come from different cultural, social and economic experiences that can affect how they learn. The district has learned through its own research and examining what other schools are doing to address similar issues that one size does not fit all.

We could not take one strategy and apply it to all of the schools where the demographics and educational needs are different. This led the district to create an Office of New Schools or, as some would call it, an Office of School Innovation, to lead the way to developing a portfolio of schools designed to meet the needs of a diverse student population.

Question 2

The CSO was never seen as the sole solution to solving the district’s budget problems. There very well may be room for expanding the CSO that could more directly affect high schools. Some believe that the district has one to two high schools too many.

The district’s budget woes cannot be solved by constant reduction in capacity. At some point the reductions will affect our capacity to grow. We talk about reclaiming a greater portion of market share. If we’re successful in doing that we will need the capacity to successfully serve our new customers. At some point in time the public will need to decide: What do we need in the way of education capacity to successfully compete in the global market?

More resources will be needed. Perhaps we get those additional resources by reconfiguring how education is delivered in the greater metropolitan area. It will be difficult for Minneapolis working as a lone district to achieve its goals of equalizing educational achievement across racial and socio-economic backgrounds.
We need new, permanent sources of revenue.