School Board candidates talk issues of racial justice

Oct. 26 candidate forum included conversation about school resource officers, teacher diversity

School Board candidate Bob Walser answers a question during a forum Wednesday at New Creation Church. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Candidates for the Minneapolis Board of Education laid out their visions for the district during a forum Wednesday at New Creation Church in North Minneapolis.

The forum centered around issues of racial justice, with candidates answering questions about the districtwide presence of police officers, known as school resource officers (SROs), teacher diversity and racial bias.

The issue of SROs drew the most contrasting answers from the candidates. The topic received public attention in September, when the School Board voted 7-2 to extend for one year its contract with the city on school resource officers at a cost of $1.275 million, despite objections from several speakers during the public-comment period.

Here is a breakdown of what the candidates said:

District 2: Kimberly Caprini and Kerry Jo Felder

Caprini, who has two kids in MPS, said her work in the district from attending School Board meetings to volunteering and serving as a member of the Northside Schools Collective has given her a idea of district policies that need to be changed.

Felder, also an MPS parent, a cited her efforts in preventing the closure of North High, her work as a community organizer and volunteer experience in the schools as reasons for her run. She advocated for full-service community schools, broader student services and a need for more diverse faculty in the Northside schools.

When asked if the district should change its approach to providing adequate and stable support staff, Felder said the North side has to “show up at the Capitol and demand more money for students.” Caprini said the district needs to make sure that needs are being met and that partners are held accountable.

Caprini said she isn’t necessarily against SROs, adding that she wants to find out more about alternatives to having officers in schools. Felder said she is not in favor of SROs in schools. If an officer is to be in the school, she said she would prefer he or she have grown up and live in the neighborhood in which he or she work.

When asked about how to promote teacher diversity, Felder said the district needs to make sure education-support professionals are becoming teachers and suggested the district recruit from historically black colleges and universities. Caprini said it’s important to find out why teachers of color have left the district.

Caprini said she would like to see Harrison Education Center, which serve high school students with severe and emotional behavioral needs, close within the next two to three years, when asked about removing racial bias from the label of special education. She added that teachers need to recognize their implicit biases and that the district has to “hold their feet to the fire” on doing that work.

Felder said the district has done a better job with improving the diversity of its teaching pool by starting the hiring process earlier. She said change will come by really listening to teachers of color, stressing a need for exit interviews when teachers leave.

District 4: Josh Reimnitz vs. Bob Walser

Reimnitz, the incumbent, grew up in North Dakota and taught fourth grade in Atlanta before moving into the nonprofit section in Minneapolis. He said equity “is still and first and foremost thing that I care about when I come to school board meetings,” adding that he also focuses on increasing academic rigor, “rich, whole curriculum” and focused governance.

Walser, an MPS parent, said he is running his campaign “based on values of supporting the people who can do best work with our students.” He said he is concerned with the influence of outside money in the school board race, saying local voices should control the system.

Walser said his endorsements from area legislators will help him better work to secure state funding for schools, something that has decreased over the past 12 years. He said he doesn’t have enough information to make a “comprehensive judgement” on the issue of SROs.

“It doesn’t feel like a good idea to me,” he said, “but I would respect the voice of the community if it felt like a good idea.”

Reimnitz voted for the SRO contract in September but said he later apologized to the board’s student representative for his vote.

“I was looking at it from my lense and my own experience, which is different than the other people who were speaking,” he said.

He stopped short reversing his position on the policy, however, saying he’s working with students and community members to shift policy on the issue.

Reimnitz said the district is improving its teacher diversity through hiring practices and pointed to partnerships with LearningWorks and Breakthrough Twin Cities as efforts that could bring more diverse teachers into the district.

Walser said teacher diversity is not a problem specific to Minneapolis. He said teachers are the most important people in the system and indicated there is a lack of respect for them.

“We have people who come into this state with five weeks of teaching experience who say, ‘I’m a teacher,’” he said in a veiled reference to Teach for America, a program that places recent college graduates in low-income schools after limited training. Reimnitz is an alumnus of the program.

“Is that respecting those teachers? I think not.”

Walser said professional development is not enough to remove racial bias from the label of special education, adding that he doesn’t “think there is a magic bullet. It’s a problem we have to solve together.”

Reimnitz said removing racial bias from the special education label is an issue of adult behavior, noting that 90 percent of referrals come from 10 percent of teachers. He added that more engaging and culturally relevant curriculum would help with this issue.

He said the issue of a lack of communication is endemic across the district, noting his work on a new policy manual that would require the district to engage families 45 days in advance of any major changes.

District 6: Tracine Asberry vs. Ira Jourdain

Asberry, the incumbent, presented herself as a “champion of Minneapolis Public Schools” for over 20 years, adding that she was “talking about culturally responsive curriculum at home before it was a term.” She said she strives for accountability, community engagement and transparency as well as racial equity, responsive relationships and rigorous and well rounded education.

Jourdain brought up his endorsements from the DFL and the teacher’s union, his career in human services and said he is running because of his experience as a Native American parent and professional background. He said the district needs to start paying attention to what happens to kids outside of the classroom.

Jourdain said he supports SROs in schools at this point but said he doesn’t believe the district would need them if it had the right tools in place. He advocated for a restorative justice component to the district’s recently passed racial equity policy and said schools need to add a cultural component so that students recognize the diversity of each other.

Asberry voted against the SRO contract in September. She remains against the use of SROs, she said, because of tension between students and the officers and because of “the idea that being brown and black is a crime (and) the idea that we have not remembered what it means to have a police officer in a space.”

She said she would “definitely look at the contract” but did not suggest an alternative to the use of SROs.

Jourdain said people need to understand that there is institutional racial bias and that children of color are disproportionately labeled as having behavioral disorders. He said children who have the label of behavioral disorder often have pent-up energy, presenting 30 minutes of recess as a potential solution.

Asberry said it’s important to acknowledge that there are teachers who disproportionately over-identify black and brown kids, noting a need to examine all aspects of the system to achieve racial equity.

“If we are truly about racial equity,” she said, “we will mess with everything for our kids.”

At Large: Kim Ellison vs. Doug Mann

Ellison, who currently represents District 2, also talked about ensuring students have the support they need both inside and outside the classroom. She voted to approve the SRO contract in September and said the district doesn’t have any alternative to the officers this year other than calling 911.

“That’s not an alternative in my eyes,” she said.

She noted that new Supt. Ed Graff has said the board will look at school climate, saying they will be “having a very different conversation” a year from now.

Ellison said she supports the district’s Grow Your Own program that helps aides get teaching licenses as part of its effort to increase teacher diversity. She said teacher leadership will help solve the problem of racial bias in special education labeling and that the district needs to listen to students and their families to measure success of changes.

Mann did not attend the forum but said in a submitted written response that police officers should not be embedded in schools. He said officers must be called into schools to deal with crimes but should not have anything to do with enforcement of disciplinary policy.

He said the district needs “governance based on equitable principles,” must take steps to shrink its pool of newly hired teachers, reduce exposure of students to inexperienced teachers and lower teacher-turnover rates.

He said special education students should be assigned to mainstream classrooms to the greatest extent possible and that the district needs more support staff to help with these efforts.