Washburn, teacher contract dominate talk at candidate forum

LYNNHURST — The four candidates vying for Southwest’s new District 6 seat on the School Board met in a candidate forum Monday at Burroughs Community School that hit on several of the district’s hot-button issues, including the perceived lack of challenging courses at Washburn High School and the new teachers contract.

Tracine Asberry, Curtis Johnson, Alex Phung and David Weingartner responded to several questions prepared by event organizers before giving brief responses to written audience questions during the event hosted by Minneapolis DFL. All four are seeking the DFL endorsement and are expected to appear together in one more forum — scheduled for May 10 in the Kingfield neighborhood — before the party holds its endorsing convention May 19.

In her opening statements Asberry, a former district middle school teacher and recent Bush Leadership Fellow with an education doctorate, described learning to value public education as the youngest of eight children to an autoworker father and social worker mother in Detroit. Asberry said she was running “because of the investments my parents put in me.”

Weingartner, the parent of a Lyndale Community School student, said he became aware of “inequities” in the district during and after the Changing School Options initiative that redrew school attendance boundaries and re-emphasized the role of community schools in the district. Weingartner was one of a group of parents who served on a committee to plan for increasing district enrollment, and he has also been involved in development of the new Ramsey Middle School opening next fall in Tangletown.

Curtis Johnson, a Washburn cross-country coach whose five-year-old daughter will attend Burroughs next fall, said he was driven to run by seeing Southwest-area families select private, charter and out-of-district schools for their high school students. As a School Board member, he said he would look for ways to “make their community school their school of choice.”

Alex Phung, an attorney and the only candidate without children, set he felt a “call” to give back to the community as the son of Vietnamese immigrants who valued public education. He listed several priorities, including reducing class sizes, investing in early childhood education and closing the achievement gap, adding that the district needed to ensure high-achieving students were “challenged” in their schools.

For their first question, the candidates were asked to list the “key issues of concern” in District 6, an area that includes most of Southwest south of Lake Street.

Weingartner rattled off a long list of issues, including enrollment capacity in Southwest-area schools, the pathways students follow from school to school and the school funding system. He also listed several issues that seemed to directly reference the situation at Washburn, including: “equity” among district high schools; “differentiation within our schools,” meaning the identification of different student ability levels; and the need to promote academic rigor.

Johnson picked up where Weingartner left off, calling for “rationalizing programs across schools” — an initiative he directly linked to the “tremendous outcry” by Washburn parents who said the school did too little to challenge high-achieving ninth- and tenth-grade students. He also called for Washburn to offer a Middle Years Programme linked to its International Baccalaureate program for eleventh- and twelfth-grade students. Later, all the candidates were informed the school recently received district support to begin the program.

Phung said schools needed “offerings that engage and challenge our high-performing students” — not just at Washburn but across the district. He said he knew of families who left the highly regarded Lake Harriet Community School in favor of a suburban gifted-and-talented program.

Asberry said her oldest daughter, a Washburn student, was “thriving there, socially,” and wanted to ensure students thrived academically, as well. But she first emphasized her interest in “collaboration,” and in uniting different district stakeholders.

Asked next about the district’s 2010 reorganization under Changing School Options, or CSO, the candidates offered their opinions on whether or not the changes were working. They broadly agreed that strengthened community schools were a positive development, but also linked limited school choice and imbalances between schools to parent dissatisfaction.

Weingartner, who spoke last, said he would “challenge” the notion that CSO reduced choice significantly, noting the continued availability of magnet programs and high school choice. But he added that a system with more limited choices highlighted “inequities” between schools.

The candidates were next asked to reflect on the current School Board, and found little to criticize. Both Asberry and Phung praised the collaborative approach of current board members.

After responding to questions about retaining Minneapolis families who might otherwise choose private or charter schools and their own experiences with leading diverse groups, the candidates were asked how they would have voted on the teachers contract approved by the School Board in April. Three of four responded that they would have voted “yes” on the contract, just as a 6–2 board majority did, while Asberry said she “couldn’t say” whether she would have voted up or down, “because I wasn’t there in the room.”

The candidates offered their opinions on the teacher seniority rules that give protection to those teachers with the most years of experience. While some of the community members who helped arrange the candidate forum were members of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a group that advocates putting teacher effectiveness above seniority in placement decisions, none of the candidates took such a clear-cut position on the issue and none suggested doing away with seniority rules altogether. As Weingartner noted, seniority is less critical in a district that is expanding — as Minneapolis is now — than in a district that is contracting and laying-off teachers.

Later in the evening, an audience question brought the candidates back to the topic of Washburn and the coursework for its ninth- and tenth-grade students. By that time, news that the high school would offer International Baccalaureate’s Middle Years Programme next year had reached the candidates, who all agreed it was a good step for Washburn.

All generally agreed that every district high school should offer a challenging curriculum. Weingartner even proposed using video teleconferencing technology to allow students at any of the district’s seven high schools to take courses offered at any of the other high schools.

A question about charter schools followed and elicited four very similar responses from the candidates. Charters work well on a limited basis as education laboratories, they agreed, and the district in its partnerships with charters should do a better job of importing the programs that work. Referring to a recent district partnership with Harvest Preparatory School founder Eric Mahmoud, Phung said there was reason for concern over the “high burnout rates” among teachers at that school, which has a significantly longer school day and year than district schools.

A video of the entire forum was posted online at theuptake.org/2012/04/30/minneapolis-school-board-holds-candidates-forum/.

The candidates are scheduled to meet again in a forum sponsored by the Kingfield and Lyndale neighborhood associations scheduled for 6:30 p.m.–8 p.m. May 10 at Dr. Martin Luther King Park, 4055 Nicollet Ave. S.

For more information on upcoming events, as well as links to all the candidate’s websites, go to mpls.dfl.org