It’s nothing like the major shakeup in 2010, an election year that turned over a majority of seats on the Minneapolis Board of Education.
Just two or three seats on the nine-member board will change hands in November. There are five open seats, but only the races in District 5 and for two citywide seats are competitive.
In District 1, incumbent Jenny Arneson is running unopposed, as is District 3 candidate Siad Ali, a member of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Minnesota office staff. Born in Somalia, Ali is running for the seat formerly occupied by Hussein Samatar, one of the first Somali-Americans to hold public office before he died last year.
Alberto Monserrate is not seeking re-election in District 5, so voters in the city’s southeast corner will chose between teacher Nelson Inz and parent Jay Larson. But the contest for two open citywide seats is where most of the action is.
Seven citywide candidates vie in the Aug. 12 primary, and just four will move on to the general election in November. In July, the Journals talked to all but one of them for a brief, pre-primary introduction.
(UPDATE: On Aug. 4, Andrew Minck announced he was suspending his campaign. For the story, click here.)
Iris Altamirano (DFL-endorsed)
Iris Altamirano’s two young children are still several years away from their first day of kindergarten, but she feels a sense of urgency to get involved with Minneapolis Public Schools now because of the district’s deep disparities.
Just over half of Minneapolis’ students graduate high school in four years. Graduation rates are rising, but black, American Indian and Latino students still lag significantly behind their white peers.
“I, firsthand, know how transformative education can be,” Altamirano said. “I’m a janitor’s daughter who went to Cornell University.”
After graduating from Cornell in 2002, she worked for about 10 years as a community organizer. Altamirano resigned as political director of SEIU Local 26 in 2011 to have her first child.
Altamirano said she’d make early childhood education a focus of her board work. Winning more state funding for High Five, a pre-kindergarten program that is free for qualifying low-income families but has a long waiting list, is a “really hard deliverable that I want to take on,” she said
“It’s just a shame because the children on that waiting list are just four (years old) one time, and if they don’t get the intervention early and when they need it, it’s almost impossible for them to catch up,” she added.
Altamirano is also committed to strong language programs and a “global-view curriculum” that prepares students to work in a global economy. Schools like Windom Dual Immersion School are “doing a lot of things right,” but the quality of immersion programming varies across the district.
Rebecca Gagnon (Incumbent, DFL-endorsed)
Nearing the end of her first four-year term on the School Board, incumbent Rebecca Gagnon said in July her “work is definitely not done.”
Gagnon said the district made strides toward stabilizing schools, spending more of its resources at the school level and adding transparency to its budgeting process during her first term. But without consistent leadership, those advances could erode.
“Continuing like that is incredibly important to me, because it’s not set in stone, it’s not part of the culture of the district yet, but it can be in the next four years,” she said.
Gagnon’s first run for school board in 2010 came just two years after relocating from Austin, Tex., to Minneapolis with her husband and three children. Two are currently enrolled in the district, at Southwest High School and Whittier International Elementary School, and the oldest graduated from Southwest in 2013.
She described herself as a “stay at home mom and professional volunteer,” but she’s also been a very active board member, one who has been a district representative to state and national school groups.
“I think that’s my biggest evolution in the last three-and-a-half years, is that broader connectedness,” she said.
The next big step for the district, she said, is evolving school sites into “full-service community hubs” where students dealing with unstable housing or mental health issues, for instance, can get the help they need to succeed in the classroom.
“We now need to take the next step through partnerships so that we really, really, really can move achievement,” Gagnon said.
Ira Jourdain’s top priority if elected to School Board is to ensure more district resources flow directly to schools.
“I think we need to really take a look at how we spend our dollars and make sure things are really centralized and focused on the ground, which for me means in the classroom,” Jourdain said.
He said he’s spoken with parents “irritated” this spring when the district added four new assistant superintendent positions. Instead of adding administrators, he said, the district should be spending money on curriculum materials, more prep time for teachers, additional education assistants and building staff.
Jourdain is a father of four: a son at South High School, a son and daughter at Tatanka Academy and a daughter at an American Indian boarding school in South Dakota who may return to South next year. Employed by the Division of Indian Work, he mentors other American Indian fathers enrolled in the Father’s Project program.
Jourdain said he has firsthand experience working with families struggling with unstable housing and mental health issues — outside-the-classroom factors that can inhibit learning. He would work to bring “wrap-around services” into the schools through community partnerships, so students get the help they need.
Jourdain said the district also needed to do more to promote its successes and draw more families. Schools like Edison High School don’t get the buzz they deserve, he said.
“We have some really excellent schools but we don’t hear about them as much,” he said.
In his ninth attempt to win public office, Doug Mann is running on a platform that should sound familiar to those who’ve heard his stump speech before.
Mann said high rates of teacher turnover hurt all students, but especially those at high-poverty schools where the least-experienced teachers are concentrated. He would eliminate the “watered-down curriculum tracks” he said some students — particularly poor students and students of color — are funneled into. Both are factors that contribute to the district’s achievement gap, he said.
Mann also supports seniority- and tenure-based job protections for teachers.
It’s a platform that has remained largely unchanged in recent School Board campaigns. By Mann’s count, this is his ninth run for public office. Although never elected, he advanced out of the primary in the 2002, 2008 and 2012 School Board races, and also appeared on the general election ballot for a citywide seat in 2006.
“I don’t see anyone else raising the issues that I’m raising in the campaigns,” Mann said.
A licensed nurse, Mann was a mayoral candidate in 2013. His largely self-researched challenge to the financing plan for the Minnesota Vikings stadium made headlines but was dismissed by the Minnesota Supreme Court in January.
Mann’s involvement in the school district starts with his experiences as a parent. His adult son attended the former Audubon Elementary, now Lake Harriet Community School, but Mann pulled him out of the district when he was tracked into a lower ability group.
The experience got him involved in the Minneapolis NAACP, where he served on the education advocacy committee in the late ’90s.
Andrew Minck is campaigning on his experience as a classroom teacher and school administrator, but his resume cuts both ways.
Minck’s experiences with Teach for America and a St. Paul charter school will make some wary that he’s entered the race to disrupt business as usual in the district. It’s a stigma fellow TFA alumnus Josh Reimnitz carried during a successful 2012 bid for the School Board’s District 4 seat.
Minck was the only candidate who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
On his campaign website, he writes about tackling the achievement gap by partnering with outside organizations to support students. Schools should be a community “touch point” where families in need of help connect with outside agencies, he writes.
Minck makes providing “the support teachers need to be successful in their classrooms” a central part of his platform and pledges to work with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.
He described the new teachers contract approved in April as a positive example of collaboration between the district and union.
“My number one priority as a board member is to continue reaching decisions that are focused on student outcomes and equity as well as continuing strong support for teachers,” he writes.
The district recently set a K–3 class-size target of 18 students for its struggling high-priority schools, but Minck suggests that by focusing district resources on education “and administering other services through existing programs at the city, county, state, federal, and nonprofit level, we can clear the budgetary path” for a lowering class sizes more broadly.
After serving as a Minneapolis City Council member since 2003, Don Samuels made a run for the mayor’s office last year promising to attack the achievement gap from City Hall.
Samuels never got the chance, but he’s transferred the detailed education platform from last year’s campaign to this summer’s race for a citywide School Board seat. The job he’s after now comes with similarly long hours, but a lower profile and significantly lower pay.
“I hope what it means to people is I’m not in politics for money or for … political power,” he said.
Describing himself as “an outcome guy,” Samuels pushed for better use and analysis of district data to help close a persistent achievement gap. He advocates for longer school days so students spend more time in the classroom and would use his seat on the board to push for more early education funding.
His plan for improving the effectiveness of teachers pairs more intense evaluation with higher compensation. He would push to give more power to principals to assemble their teaching team.
A public figure longer than any of the other citywide candidates, Samuels carries some baggage from his political career, including his infamous call to “burn North High School down!” in a 2007 Mpls.St.Paul Magazine profile. He describes that now as a “primal scream” over the inequitable outcomes for Minneapolis students.
Now 65 years old and moving into another phase of his political career, Samuels said he feels a sense of urgency and is “willing to take some risks now, to say and do things that might” be controversial.
Soren Christian Sorensen
A community activist who lives in South Minneapolis and is active in the DFL, Soren Sorensen has raised two main issues in a campaign he has largely waged online.
Sorensen said he was inspired to run for office by St. Paul Public Schools’ decision to give each student an iPad beginning next year, at a cost of more than $5.7 million for the 2014–2015 school year alone. As he has written on the progressive online hub dailykos.com, Sorensen is deeply concerned about spread of Internet-enabled devices in the classroom, arguing that it exposes students to potential government surveillance, child predators and corporations seeking to monetize their data.
“I strongly believe that it is unwise to encourage children to spend more unsupervised hours on the Internet,” he wrote in one post.
Sorensen said he’s also interested in the farm-to-school movement after a recent attempt to start a market farm in northern Minnesota. He was joined there by his girlfriend and her son.
The trio is back in Minneapolis, and his girlfriend’s son is on a waiting list for a seat in the district’s High Five preschool program. Sorensen recently started a job at a Target distribution center.
He said he was in the audience at a recent School Board meeting and was inspired a discussion of the district’s English language learner programs. Proficiency in multiple languages “is a benefit to everyone,” Sorensen said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Doug Mann advanced to the general election only once. Mann has done so four times.