A School Board training ground

District Parent Advisory Council has produced four School Board members

 

Having sent at least one of its members to the School Board in each of the last three elections, the District Parent Advisory Council is starting to look like a springboard to the School Board.

With her election this fall, Rebecca Gagnon became the fourth member of the group — often referred to by its acronym, DPAC (pronounced “dee-pack”) — to join the School Board, after Tom Madden in 2006 and Carla Bates and Jill Davis in 2008. That may not be surprising, since the council, which meets monthly to discuss district policy issues with the superintendent and top Minneapolis Public Schools administrators, attracts parents already highly involved in their children’s schools.

For those who made the transition to the School Board, DPAC was a place to gain a wider perspective on challenges facing the district, beyond just their own schools. It gave them face time with top district officials, a more thorough understanding of how the district operates and a chance to build relationships with other active parent volunteers.

“I would never have [run for School Board] if I hadn’t been on DPAC,” said Gagnon, who only arrived in Southwest Minneapolis after a move from Austin, Texas, in 2008. “I never would have been ready to do it.”

The influence of the group is hard to quantify, although current and former members say it pushed the district to more actively engage all parents prior to major policy decisions. It was at the urging of DPAC members that, in 2009, the School Board delayed a vote on Changing School Options and initiated a series of community meetings on the restructuring plan, they said.

DPAC also has its shortcomings. The fact that Gagnon and all three of the current School Board members who served on DPAC are white reflects its ongoing struggle to attract a diverse group of parents.

A training ground

Several recent superintendents met regularly with groups similar to DPAC, but it became a forum for high-level policy discussion during Superintendent Bill Green’s 2006–2010 tenure. The structure of DPAC also solidified under Green, with 10 parent representatives elected to DPAC from each of the district’s three geographic areas.

Green said he was “quite proud” the group had produced four School Board members because he envisioned it, in part, as a training ground for parent leaders.

“I wanted to have people run for the School Board, take leadership of the district, coming from a well of information and experience,” he said. “I think a lot of people run for the School Board and don’t necessarily have any real exposure (to) or understanding of policies or context … so they have to do a lot of on-the-job training.”

While Davis already had run for School Board once, unsuccessfully, before joining DPAC, and Bates and Madden said the experience was not the primary factor in their decisions to run for office, all agreed they were better prepared for having served.

Bates said participation in DPAC “gives you the background information important for governing.”

“That’s where it really pays off,” she added. “You know who the players are. You know the issues, at least some of the issues, on administrators’ minds.”

Yet Bates said she remained “ambivalent” about her DPAC experience because, while parents tried to set aside individual interests and take a district-wide perspective on the issues, a critical viewpoint was missing: parents of color.

“There’s no way that sort of altruistic approach can compensate for the lack of diversity at the table,” she said, adding that “predominantly white, predominantly middle-class” parents served during her time on DPAC.

Green acknowledged lack of diversity on DPAC “has been a problem, and we worked on that while I was there.”

A parallel initiative, the Community Collaborative, brought together district leaders and representatives from the Somali, Hmong, Lao and Hispanic communities. DPAC members were invited to quarterly meetings with the Community Collaborative, but it seems the two groups of parents did not have a high level of interaction.

The final step

Green’s successor, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, “has taken the final step of trying to bring both groups together,” said Dan Loewenson, assistant to the superintendent.

Unlike Green, Johnson has exercised her power to appoint DPAC members, with the goal of diversifying the group. That decision, though, cut the number of seats open to each district area to six from 10 — a move that caused some friction with parents, Loewenson acknowledged.

“It changed the rules in the middle of the game, because folks had run and been elected (to DPAC),” he said. “… Well, you cut four people (and) who gets thrown overboard?”

While DPAC meetings are open to the public, by convention only elected members get to speak, and some parent representatives were reluctant to give up the privilege. The change was “tough,” but “definitely worth the pay-off,” Gagnon said.

She said the November DPAC meeting “was the most ethnically, district-wide diverse meeting that I’ve ever been to, and it was wonderful.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]