Hennepin County seats on Minneapolis school board?

Mike Opat, Hennepin County Board chair, used his State of the County address to propose a role for the county in helping to run the Minneapolis schools.

It was an idea, Mike Opat said, that came out of a plan this winter at the State Capitol to give control of the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts to the mayors of those cities.

That bill went nowhere. But it inspired the Hennepin County Board chairman to suggest in his State of the County address Thursday that the County Board appoint a couple of members of the Minneapolis school board.

"We have a decent quilt. But what we need is a fabric woven of a philosophy to assist kids early and consistently. I am proposing a radically different way to position ourselves on issues of education and kids," Opat told county and business leaders and assorted officials at the Plymouth Creek Center in Plymouth.

Hennepin has a moral and financial stake in the future of its children, he said, given that the county provides the safety net for those who drop out of school and can't get a job.

It was one of two county initiatives Opat proposed Thursday. The other would promote wellness programs to "improve our collective health" and avoid "bankrupt[ing] our future in health care costs."

The 28-minute address was the first State of the County speech Opat has delivered since 2009. Using the county's budget as a road map, he listed achievements and heralded the county's management during recessionary times, calling the state of the county "one of flat budgets and property tax levies."

He said Hennepin needs to improve roads in the inner-ring suburbs and make new roads more attractive and efficient. He said the county will continue to press for state funding for the proposed Southwest light-rail transit line, which was shut out in this year's bonding bill.

Stake in students

Opat floated the idea of county appointments to the Minneapolis school board in the larger context of a more active role for Hennepin with students throughout the county. Struggles in school, he said, can lead to truancy issues, child protection, family court and teen pregnancy, all "phenomenally expensive," he said.

Hennepin officials recently began meeting regularly with the county's 17 school superintendents to discuss ways of working together on things such as truancy information and sharing social workers.

But Opat said more needs to be done. Intrigued by the idea of having mayors appoint school board members, he said "county appointments to the Minneapolis school board is perhaps a better avenue for change," given Hennepin's stake in Minneapolis students.

Minneapolis school board members are elected. Several cities nationally have gotten involved in school district management in recent years, but county involvement has been centered mainly in the South.

After the speech, Opat said county appointments would represent "a vested formal interest" in Minneapolis schools that could result in more effective collaboration between the two entities.

"I don't want to take over the schools," said Opat, a graduate of Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis. "I'm not trying to force anything down anyone's throat. But people have to face up to the graduation rate. ... I think we need to move more to the front."

Idea welcomed

Other commissioners, most of whom attended the speech, expressed interest in the idea.

"We clearly have an interest in a well-educated populace in Hennepin County," Jan Callison said.

Peter McLaughlin said he's open to talking about it: "We've got a constructive role to play in helping the students of Hennepin County succeed."

Alberto Monserrate, who chairs the Minneapolis school board, said he welcomed the idea and would like to know more specifics. But he said the Minneapolis district would benefit more from stability than change, and that he wasn't certain governance is the big problem.

"If somebody can show me that kind of change has a positive effect on kids, I'm open to it. I just haven't seen it yet," he said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak opposed the mayoral control bill introduced this session, but he's intrigued by the idea of reserving a seat or two on the school board for mayoral appointment, spokesman John Stiles said Thursday. "He doesn't have any thoughts on whether the county should" make an appointment, Stiles said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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