Closing the achievement gap, increasing transparency and boosting community involvement in schools are key issues for the candidates seeking two citywide seats on the Minneapolis school board.
Voters in Tuesday’s primary will eliminate two of the six candidates running for the board’s two citywide seats now held by Rebecca Gagnon and Richard Mammen, who is not seeking re-election. Three district seats are also open, two of which have unopposed candidates.
All citywide candidates agree that closing the achievement gap between students of color and whites in Minneapolis is key to the district’s success, but they differ on how to do so. The race highlights strong divisions over how the district should deal with underperforming schools, how often children should be tested and how school money should be allocated.
Gagnon, the only citywide incumbent, says her focus continues to be on the budget and finding ways to give more money directly to classrooms. She said she is opposed to shutting down schools that have low graduation rates and test scores, and instead wants to see additional money going to improve the struggling schools.
“I don’t think charters do it better,” Gagnon said. “I wish we could turn to how we can help vs. how do we close the schools and let the charters in.”
Former City Council Member Don Samuels is the most surprising of the candidates.
Along with being the most dynamic fundraiser, he has gained support from national education organizations and local politicians like former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Samuels got money from Eric Mahmoud, who runs several charter schools in the city, and several donors associated with Teach for America, which recruits for teachers in low-income ares. Some candidates have criticized Samuels, a former mayoral candidate, for tapping into large national organizations. But he makes no apologies for his strong fundraising.
“I ran on a very education-dominated platform,” he said of his mayoral bid. “They were motivated to support me again.”
Samuels wants to improve the use of data to track the district, similar to how Minneapolis measures and tracks performance for departments, such as police, graffiti cleanup and lead poison levels.
Samuels’ strong fundraising and high-profile campaign have made him a target of the other candidates.
His opponents have criticized his 2007 recommendation to “burn North High School down” for its poor graduation rates.
“While I have apologized numerous times for the expression, I continue to share the same sentiment that there is a crisis in our schools,” he said referring to the achievement gap.
Iris Altamirano said the achievement gap in the district drove her to run for the board. The child of a school janitor who went on to graduate from Cornell University, Altamirano is focused on early childhood education, multilingual programs and community engagement.
Altamirano, who has the backing of the local janitor’s union and numerous City Council members, wants to increase funding for the district’s program that pays for preschool education for 4-year-olds in the district.
Ira Jourdain, a parent and human resources manager, wants to shift the district away from testing and invest more in special education.
Doug Mann, who has run for the school board eight times before, opposes longer school days and school years, which he says are filled with more seat time with the same or lower quality of instruction. He would like to reduce teacher turnover rates and increase support for teachers in high poverty schools. He favors seniority and tenure rights for teachers.
For Soren Christian Sorensen, St. Paul’s policy to give every student an iPad prompted him to run for the school board. He did not want to see the same thing happen in Minneapolis.
He said people want to find any solution possible to close the achievement gap, but not at the expense of putting children’s privacy at risk.