Minneapolis school race could heat up

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2014 - 8:48 PM

With precinct caucuses Feb. 4 and the balance of power on issues at stake, three incumbents are set to run, one won’t and one is uncertain.

With a majority of Minneapolis school board seats to be filled in November, this year’s campaign will take shape this month as the Feb. 4 precinct caucuses loom.

Incumbents will need to defend the district’s painfully slow progress in reducing the racial achievement gap; some say they want to stay to see efforts launched by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson to address the gap bear fruit. They say the district has been put on much sounder footing for finances and long-term planning on their watch.

There are two citywide incumbents, Richard Mammen and Rebecca Gagnon, both first-termers. Gagnon has declared for another term, and Mammen has said he’s intending to run again.

Mammen is a proven campaign fundraiser with deep connections in the city. Gagnon won in 2010 despite a late start. She is said this year to be well-organized for the campaign and has been ubiquitous at school and community events.

However, both may carry some baggage from signing a letter on union letterhead before taking office, along with fellow incumbents Alberto Monserrate and Jenny Arneson.

Two lesser-known candidates, Doug Mann and Dick Velner, have said they’re running.

Contests in the districts

The three seats to be filled from districts representing specific parts of town could produce more challenges. Only Arneson in the northeast Minneapolis District 1 has said she’s seeking a second term. She has generations of family roots in the area, and no known opponent.

There’s a contest in District 3, which lies between Interstate 35W and the Mississippi River. Siad Ali, a staffer for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, has announced his candidacy, and Abdulkadir Dahir Abdalla also said he plans to run. There’s no incumbent because Hussein Samatar died in office last summer, and his appointed successor, Mohamud Noor, is seeking a legislative seat.

The wild card is in Nokomis area District 5, where Monserrate is trying to decide whether to run again or to devote more time to his expanding Latino-focused media business. “If I can figure a way to balance both my day job and my service on the board, I’ll probably run,” he said in an e-mail. Stepping down as board chairman after two years may ease his time crunch. Monserrate said he’ll decide this month.

With DFL precinct caucuses scheduled Feb. 4, time would be short for those who would take Monserrate’s place. Two potential candidates are said to be waiting for his decision.

But a hardworking candidate can overcome a late start, as Gagnon proved by defeating better-known candidates despite waiting until May to run in 2010. Filings this year open May 20 and close June 3.

Mammen also lives in Monserrate’s district, meaning that a vacancy would give him the option of downsizing from a citywide campaign. He said he hasn’t ruled that out, but those who know him say the lifelong Minneapolitan has a citywide focus.

Some say that based on his performance in the mayoral campaign, they’d like to see outgoing Council Member Don Samuels run; he couldn’t be reached. A Samuels supporter from the reform camp, legislative staffer Abou Amara Jr., ruled himself out of running this year in an e-mail. Labor-supported Patty Wycoff said she’s not running.

What will advocates do?

Also yet to be seen is what role will be played by the coalition that helped Josh Reimnitz raise $40,000, a record amount of spending for a school race in 2012, when he beat Wycoff. Reformers lined up behind former Teach for America teacher Reimnitz, while the teacher union supported Wycoff.

“We’re always willing to identify strong candidates who are going to put the achievement of students first,” said reform-effort leader Daniel Sellers, who has headed the 50 CAN education lobby group and Teach for America organization in Minnesota.

Have any been found? “It’s still early,” Sellers said. “We’re talking with folks, but nobody I would feel comfortable talking about.”

Ex-Mayor R.T. Rybak, who now assumes his biggest school role to date as director of the nonprofit Generation Next, said he’ll spend several months listening to candidates before getting involved in the election.

Some incumbents, notably Mammen, chafe over periodic reminders that in 2010, before they were sworn in, four of them signed identical letters on teacher union letterhead urging the board in office then to resolve teacher contract negotiations. They later apologized.

They point to other accomplishments, such as a better credit rating, a new discipline policy that emphasizes restorative measures to keep students in school, a new equity framework designed to evaluate district actions, a five-year enrollment plan and the reopening of schools.

 

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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