School board race

The parent volunteer. The youth worker. The nonprofit executive. The incumbent.

They are, respectively, Rebecca Gagnon, Richard Mammen, Chanda Smith Baker and T. Williams, the four at-large School Board candidates who emerged from a field of 10 in the August primary election. Only two will win seats on the School Board on Election Day.

Those elected will help guide a district struggling to close the achievement gap, win back students and stabilize the budget. They also will sit on a School Board changed in two important ways.

First, School Board Chair Tom Madden and board members Chris Stewart and Peggy Flanagan (appointed to fill a vacancy created when Pam Costain left to helm AchieveMpls) are all leaving. They take with them their experiences with the North Side Initiative (Madden, Stewart, Flanagan and Costain) and Changing School Options (Madden, Stewart and Costain), major efforts to turn around critically underperforming schools and downsize a financially strapped district, respectively.

Second, the board’s structure will change with the addition of three district representatives in this election and three more in 2012. Currently a seven-member board with all members elected at-large, it will expand to eight and then nine members, with three serving at-large and six representing Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board districts.

How will neighborhood loyalties factor if a future board again faces tough decisions like closing schools or moving programs? Time will tell.

To give voters a sense of how these at-large candidates would approach their roles as School Board members, the Southwest Journal asked all four one question and gave them 200 words to respond.

What personal or professional experiences will shape your priorities as a School Board member?

Rebecca Gagnon

A mother of three children in three Minneapolis Public Schools (Southwest, Lake Harriet and Whittier) and an active member of three district parent advisory councils, I know the concerns facing our diverse student population. As an at-large candidate, I work tirelessly to attend community events and speak personally with families and community members to learn firsthand their issues regarding MPS.

I bring invaluable insight to MPS from my experience living outside of Minnesota, providing a much needed, open-minded perspective. I see how biases based on ZIP code, income level, color of skin, etc., plague our students and affect their educational experience.

I believe our school system is capable of providing a high-quality, rigorous education for all children. However, we need a cultural shift in how we approach educating our students. We must believe: all children are able to succeed; every child’s success matters; and that all stakeholders should be held accountable when a child fails.

The School Board will be my fulltime job, so I am making a fulltime commitment to real, substantive and sustainable change within MPS. My extensive research and volunteer experience in the district has prepared me to represent you on the School Board.

Richard Mammen  (DFL-endorsed)

For the past 40 years I have demonstrated successful leadership, bringing people and resources together to create positive developmental opportunities for children, youth and families in Minneapolis.

Serving our city — as a youth outreach worker and teacher in North Minneapolis; as a social entrepreneur creating innovative programs in juvenile justice and education; as a citywide public policy leader and manager bringing the public and private sectors to the table to establish common goals and shared accountability for results; as a parent and neighbor advocating for inclusion and respect for children and youth — I know we have to respect, listen and engage all stakeholders if we are to achieve success.

My highest priority is to restore respect for and confidence in a system that is overburdened, under-resourced and insular. Academic success is a community enterprise and we need an ecological perspective.

I will work to invite engagement of parents, students, teachers and the community in decision-making and problem-solving at the school, neighborhood, district and region level. I will advocate for accountable, collaborative partnerships that value early childhood experiences, effective social and health services, cultural diversity and competency while demanding accountable, transparent 

management from the district. Hope.

Chanda Smith Baker

Several experiences shape my priorities.

One priority is strengthening partnerships between schools, families and communities that are measured and reported. Creating cultures of excellence will require developing effective relationships.

My experience at Pillsbury United Communities and has allowed me to witness the difference our programs have made. The relationships between our centers, schools and families have provided “wrap-around” services that have stabilized families in crisis.

Teachers are dealing with more and more in the classroom, which is the outcome of the growing barriers families face. Building strategic partnerships can relieve teachers, support parents and ensure that all students have the necessary supports to be successful. 

My second priority is improving and stabilizing the school district. The continuous changes in the district must be dealt with. It has been a challenge to figure out schools for our five children. Each change has a ripple effect and it has been very difficult.

We need strong schools in every neighborhood that address the current and future needs of our students. This will require the district to develop effective communication and feedback methods, to conduct an assessment of impact on major decisions and to evaluate how changes have improved academic outcomes for students.



T. Williams (incumbent)

Over 35 years ago, I volunteered to teach a Basic English class of 15 seniors at North High School because I believed then and I believe now that the key to good teaching is the relationship between the teacher and the student.

I took over the class without any prior classroom teaching experience, but I had extensive group and casework experience in working with youth to draw upon. These experiences helped me connect with the youth in class and helped them take ownership for their own learning. We were able to draw course content from the community. Multiple field trips provided appropriate course material for classroom discussions.

The students in the class were far from honor students, but they were on track to graduate and they wanted to graduate. I’m not sure they necessarily wanted to learn any more than they were by reading the newspaper in class or using it as a cover to sleep. The newspapers were taken away and they were engaged in learning.

My takeaway from that experience is that teaching is challenging. Teachers have to be prepared every day they walk into the classroom or the students will take control. It’s about the relationship, stupid.



Upcoming forums

The League of Women Voters’ Minneapolis chapter scheduled two at-large School Board candidate forums in Southwest this month:

Oct. 19: 7 p.m.­–8:30 p.m. at Washburn High School, 201 W. 49th St.

Oct. 28: 7 p.m.–8:30 p.m. at Kenwood Recreation Center, 2101 W. Franklin Ave.

For information on other League-sponsored candidate forums visit

In their own words

To watch one-minute, videotaped statements recorded by each of the at-large School Board candidates, click on their names below.


Rebecca Gagnon

Richard Mammen

Chanda Smith Baker

T. Williams