Lynnell Mickelsen’s analysis of the Minneapolis school board (“Righting our schools’ ships, for students’ sake,” Jan. 21), ascribes the Minneapolis Public Schools’ recent and ongoing difficulties to the board’s size and means of selection. While it would be instructive to look at how the board might have acted differently to date in addressing the district’s difficulties, my purpose here is to examine the case for changing the structure of the board itself.
Mickelsen sees four problems: the number of school board members (too many), the part-time nature of the work (insufficient to the task), the selection of six of the nine members by geographic area (too encouraging of parochial thinking) and the political nature of the DFL endorsement process (too subject to influence by “party hacks” and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers). Her solution is to create a five-member board selected by the mayor and to split the district into four smaller ones.
Mickelsen does not explain how a smaller board would improve the quality of decisions. The current size of nine may not be optimal, but there was little explanation as to why five would be an improvement. Within reason, a larger membership allows for greater diversity of expertise and perspective. Sufficient numbers also are needed to facilitate the work of subcommittees and to provide points of contact for citizens. This would seem to be important, since Mickelsen does not propose to alter the part-time nature of the board.
As to mayoral appointment, it is worth noting that DFL endorsement of mayoral candidates occurs at the same conventions that now endorse “random” candidates for the board. While it is true that more voters give their attention to mayoral than school board races, it also is true that their views on mayoral races involve multiple issues of city governance. It is not clear that the schools will receive more informed voter attention simply because the mayor is involved. And while a smart mayor likely would appoint a demographically diverse group of people, the appointments need not reflect citizen concerns nor represent a diversity of opinion. I have to admit to some concern at the thought that the same unit of government that brought us municipal ownership of the Target Center and a huge subsidy for the Vikings stadium might turn its attention to school finance.
Finally, splitting the district into fourths would risk making formal and permanent the already-concerning role of geography in achievement for Minneapolis students.
Meanwhile, we have the district and board that we have. Board members and administrators likely would appreciate sound suggestions on the actual budget and policy questions they are charged to address.
Brad A. Peterson, of Minneapolis, teaches at a nonpublic school and is the father of a 2015 Washburn High School graduate.