School Board candidates speak at forums

One event was virtual; another was held in person with social distance

School Board forum
An Oct. 8 School Board candidate forum, held in person in a Northeast Minneapolis TV studio, highlighted the candidates' visions for community engagement and reopening to in-person classes.

Two early October School Board candidate forums highlighted the candidates’ differences of opinion on the recently passed Comprehensive District Design (CDD) restructuring plan and their priorities in the event of budget cuts.

An Oct. 5 forum, held over Zoom by the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, included District 4 candidates Adriana Cerrillo and Christa Mims and at-large candidates Michael Dueñes and incumbent Kim Ellison.

An in-person forum hosted Oct. 8 by the League of Women Voters Minneapolis included Cerrillo, Mims, Dueñes, Ellison and District 2 candidates Sharon El-Amin and incumbent KerryJo Felder. There was no in-person audience. 

Sitting inside the Metro Cable Network Channel 6 TV studio in Northeast Minneapolis, the candidates were socially distanced and wore masks when not speaking. 

District 2 covers North Minneapolis, and District 4 cover includes downtown, Bryn Mawr, Kenwood, Cedar-Isles-Dean, Lowry Hill, East Isles, ECCO, Lowry Hill East, Whittier and Stevens Square. Incumbent Bob Walser did not seek reelection.

 The District 6 School Board seat also is on the ballot this fall, but incumbent Ira Jourdain is unopposed.

Below is a brief rundown of candidate responses from the two events. Here are the videos of the forums:

League of Women Voters forum:

Lowry Hill East forum:

Dueñes and Ellison

Dueñes, a former college professor and dean and current policy analyst who has a son at South High School, said he was drawn into the race because of his opposition to the CDD.

The plan, which passed on a 6-3 vote in May with Ellison’s support, redistributes students and programming in an effort to increase equity and save money. Many parents and staff, including Dueñes, have said the district hasn’t made clear how the plan will achieve those goals.

Ellison, the ex-wife of state Attorney General Keith Ellison and mother of Ward 5 City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, is in her ninth year on the board and was elected chair this past January.

She said her runs have been inspired by her passion for children and her experiences as a former teacher and community member working on issues of educational equity.

Dueñes and Ellison said the district should follow state guidance when reopening from the pandemic. Both are against having police officers work in district schools and said the district was right to end its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department in June after the killing of George Floyd.

Still, Dueñes said, individual schools should have been allowed to decide whether they wanted to keep their specific school resource officer (SRO). Ellison voted against an amendment that would have allowed North High School to keep its officer, who has deep community ties.

Dueñes said the board was wrong not to follow district policy and require a comprehensive equity audit of the CDD and that he worries the district could be sued because of its special education changes. Ellison said the official equity audit is a long and resource-intensive process and that the district closely scrutinized how the plan would affect all students through a less-intensive equity process.

She also said the newly centralized magnet schools will give students more equitable access to programming and will free up funds to spend on neighborhood schools.

Both candidates stressed community engagement, with Dueñes pledging to visit one school in the district every week and Ellison noting her efforts to hold coffee hours. Dueñes said he’d like to see a closer audit of the district budget, while Ellison noted how district leaders have been creating “pro forma” budgets months before presenting their full budget in the spring. 

Cerrillo and Mims

Cerrillo, a Mexican immigrant, consultant and longtime activist, said community engagement is critical to her and that she plans on being a frequent presence at District 4 schools if elected.

Mims, a Hennepin County social worker who focuses on racial disparities, said she wants to be an advocate for the young people who aren’t well served by the school system.

Both candidates said they’d follow medical advice when reopening from COVID-19, acknowledging the importance of good communication and helping those most in need. They also both agreed with the decision to remove SROs from schools and said the district should invest in mental health resources for students.

Mims said the district needs to emphasize community engagement when implementing the CDD this year, taking the time to hear concerns from families and making sure communities feel like they’re being listened to. Cerrillo said she advocated for having interpreters at School Board meetings during the CDD process and said school site councils must be utilized during implementation.

In the event of budget cuts, Mims said, decisions need to be made equitably and a priority should be placed on retaining teachers of color. Cerrillo said her priorities would be therapists and 1:1 support for students, noting the difference that has made for her nephew who attends Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center, a magnet school in Loring Park.

Both highlighted their efforts in community engagement over the years, with Mims noting efforts to start a youth program and Cerrillo noting her experience advocating for families struggling to navigate the school system. Both also said they do not support suspending or expelling preschool students and that the district’s curricula should be reflective of all of its students.

El-Amin and Felder

El-Amin, a former small business owner and parent with longstanding ties to North High School, said COVID-19 has highlighted the disparities between schools in different parts of the city.

She said her priorities in the event of budget cuts would be to retain teachers of color and ensure that the needs of families remain championed.

Felder, a union organizer who was active in efforts to prevent the closure of North in 2010-11, said she has been a champion of capital upgrades to North Side schools.

She said she has been focusing on community engagement for years and would prioritize mental health resources and keeping teachers of color in the event of budget cuts.

El-Amin said she wants to make sure the district is following proper protocols for social distancing and cleaning before returning to in-person classes. Felder said she’d like to see a cure to COVID-19, adding that the disease causes a lot of neurological issues and that some teachers don’t feel comfortable returning in-person.

“I think we would be in a different place if our schools were fully funded,” she said.

Both women agreed with the SRO decision but said schools should have been allowed to keep their individual officer, noting the beloved Officer Charles Adams at North. (Felder was the author of the failed amendment to allow schools to retain individual officers.)

El-Amin said she didn’t completely support the CDD and that more resources should already be coming to North Minneapolis. Felder blasted the plan, saying it doesn’t create equity at North and that District 2 schools will continue losing students to other zones. “We’re getting double-shorted,” she said.

Both said they’re supportive of the district following its policy and completing equity audits of major policy decisions, though Felder wants an audit of the audit process. El-Amin said she’d like to host community roundtables where families could raise concerns and to use community radio stations and newspapers to get information out. Felder said she’s “got the ear” of local TV stations and that they and local neighborhood associations are great avenues for disseminating information.