Carla Bates pushes Minneapolis school board to think in fresh ways, but her candor can draw flak.
The only Minneapolis school board member to vote to delay a $40 million addition to Southwest High School, she fanned the flames when she made an offhand comment implying that students at Southwest — the most successful in the most affluent part of town — didn’t matter as much as the students at the other high schools.
She recognized her misstep, apologized and laid out her reasoning in an opinion piece, arguing that the district should first equalize the quality of its high schools.
But being on the losing side of a controversial 8-1 vote and taking minority stands on other issues comes with a price.
“It’s always hard, just being a human being,” she said in a recent interview. “It is emotionally difficult to take stands that are unpopular.”
Long a fighter for more funding for the city’s most poor and diverse schools, she is the school board member most consistently willing to stand apart from board colleagues, sometimes doing independent research and taking a different approach to problems.
It was her number-crunching that seemed to tip the board into its current deep discussion about funding inequities among Minneapolis schools.
Using district data, she found a wide variation in median salary among schools, reflecting the average longevity of their staffs. Because the district allocates dollars to schools based on the average cost of a teacher’s pay, some equity advocates contend that the pay difference amounts to a hidden subsidy to schools such as Dowling or Lake Harriet ($78,000), compared with one such as Olson Middle School ($51,000).
“I see these equity issues kind of like a red flashing light,” she said.
She was one of only two board members to vote against a teacher contract in 2012 that she said didn’t make changes fast enough, a decision that cost her some personal friendships.
Jill Davis, a former board member, couldn’t be more opposite from Bates on labor issues but appreciates her candor and recognizes that Bates often grasps new information faster than her peers.
“It can take a little while to figure out Carla,” Davis said. “She looks at a big picture. She’s pretty good at looking at a problem or issue from different angles,”
Fighting for the underdogs
The concerns that Bates laid out about the 450-student Southwest expansion are part of a pattern of speaking up for underdogs. What about the four district high schools where the share of graduates going to two- and four-year colleges is less than the two-thirds of Southwest graduates who start four-year college the following fall? Why not use online learning to even out high school learning? Why not shift high school attendance boundaries?
In addition, she helped launch a district task force to focus on the transition of older special education students into adult living. She prodded the board of a west metro integration district to admit more special education, homeless and English learner students.
Her pushback on expanding Southwest risked alienating the most politically active block of voters in the city. Making room for different students in the integration district will mean an end to sibling preference. But Bates drew 73 percent of the vote in her 2012 bid for re-election to her citywide seat, four years after she crowded out an incumbent in her maiden run. Nevertheless only two of her fellow board members publicly endorsed her in 2012.
She was known as an outspoken, even brash, Seward Montessori parent before her 2008 run. She’s evolved into a board member praised by her colleagues for her smarts and her preparation for board discussions, but she’s not always diplomatic, as the Southwest gaffe illustrated. The holder of a doctorate in American studies, she manages information technology for the University of Minnesota’s Psychology Department and is working on a master’s degree in curricular instruction.
Her degree emphasis on instructional technology reflects her university work and her belief about where teaching should be headed, with a blend of in-class instruction and online lectures or guided coursework.
But she’ll keep voting as she sees it despite the repercussions. “I do not take it lightly,” she said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438