Mayoral control of schools? Not likely here

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS and CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: April 25, 2009 - 9:49 PM

The U.S. education secretary is calling for big-city mayors to take over struggling urban school districts. Local education experts don't think it's necessary here.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman often says that education is the key to many things that make a city successful, including economic development, crime fighting and neighborhood stability.

"Every mayor has to make education their Number 1 priority," he says.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan takes it one step further -- he wants more big-city mayors to follow the lead of Michael Bloomberg in New York City and take over their cities' school systems to help improve their leadership and stability.

"Where you've seen real progress in the sense of innovation, guess what the common denominator is?" Duncan asked. "Mayoral control."

That said, could the mayors take over the schools here?

So far, many Minnesota education experts agree, the answer is no.

Minnesota's urban school districts -- Minneapolis and St. Paul -- certainly have their challenges. They have large achievement gaps, declining enrollment, schools that are being forced by the federal government to restructure, and quick leadership turnover in recent years.

Both Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak have educational initiatives being run out of their offices, from early childhood learning programs to after-school enrichment to financial aid help for college. And both mayors are said to be considering a run for governor in 2010.

Education experts, however, say that the schools in the seven U.S. cities where mayors have completely taken over were spinning out of control, fighting community outrage about the state of the schools and, in the case of New York City, accusations of corruption by elected officials.

"We have room for improvement, but I don't think we are in that spot in Minnesota," said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union.

Both Coleman and Rybak say they're not planning a whole or partial schools takeover anytime soon; they'd rather work with the schools.

Smaller step possible

Mayoral control doesn't necessarily mean a mayor has to completely take command. It could mean that a mayor charges a key aide to act as a liaison with the district to help create complementary programs. Or it could mean a mayor gains the ability to appoint a certain number of people to the school board to fill gaps in its makeup -- say, geographic or ethnic -- or in skills such as finance.

Rybak supports having that ability not only because it would lead to better representation on the school board, but also because it ties the work of the city into the work of the schools, according to spokesman Jeremy Hanson. Although Rybak has been critical of Minneapolis schools in the past, he is supportive of current Superintendent Bill Green.

Rybak "thinks that having that kind of mayoral appointment -- of one or two seats -- combined with a system that also has citizens elected to the school board, would be another way to help tie the city and the school district together," Hanson said.

Coleman was unclear about whether he would support such an initiative.

Tom Madden, chairman of the Minneapolis school board, opposes the idea. He said he thinks that could create a more highly charged political atmosphere around the board.

"What if the next guy is a mayor you don't like? What if it's somebody that's not supportive, and what does that really do for kids?" Madden said.

Districts that might be ready for mayoral control would show consistent poor progress on standards, tension around district management and a community push for the mayor to get involved, according to Kenneth Wong, chairman of the Brown University education department who has studied the issue closely.

"When a mayor is involved," he said, "responsibility is clarified and accountability is improved."

But it has also fallen apart when some mayors proposed it -- Los Angeles is one example. There also is spotty test-score evidence as to whether students in districts run by mayors do any better than others.

St. Paul and Minneapolis schools were under city control until the 1950s.

Not allowed by current law

Nothing in Minnesota law allows a mayor to take over or appoint school board members, so legislative action would be required.

Minnesota Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said he proposed in 2005 to give the Minneapolis mayor the authority to appoint board members, but he was "resoundingly rejected" by his colleagues.

He since has sponsored legislation, passed and later approved by Minneapolis voters, that says some Minneapolis board members will be elected by region of the city, while some are still chosen at-large, so he's not interested in trying it again.

Mayoral appointments, he said, "seemed to be one way to build a structural relationship between the city and school district."

Stan Alleyne, a spokesman for Minneapolis Public Schools, said that when Minneapolis voters chose to elect some board members by region last year, they made it clear that they wanted more elected representation, not less.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul teachers' union, said that the union could work under whatever political system it is given.

But an effective mayor, she said, shouldn't need to take over a system by force.

"The power to appoint school board members feels like a really politically lazy way of getting your point across," she said. "If you're a politically astute mayor, you don't need the power of appointment to get the people you want elected to the school board."

ejohns@startribune.com • 612-673-7460 chavens@startribune.com • 612-673-4148

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