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Supporters of North High School listened to speakers during a rally in Minneapolis prior to the school board’s vote on the future of the school. School closings are among the contentious issues the school board deals with.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

A new day dawns for Minneapolis school board

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • January 6, 2013 - 11:29 PM

Four newly elected members of the Minneapolis school board will take the oath of office Tuesday, the culmination of a seven-year push for a more diverse and representative governing board.

When a wave of school closings hit Minneapolis in 2005, some of the parents who jammed public meetings in protest felt left out. They had no designated school board member to contact. So a legislator from one of those areas floated the remedy of electing a majority of the school board from districts, an idea approved by the Legislature and then Minneapolis voters.

November's election of Tracine Asberry, Kim Ellison, Josh Reimnitz and re-election of Carla Bates completes the board's expansion from seven to nine members, and with four minority members, creates what's probably the most diverse school board in the city's history.

The district is in a much different environment as the calendar hits 2013, no longer hunkered down against declining enrollment but instead scrambling to find enough classrooms for modest gains in student numbers that are projected to last for at least five years.

It enters that environment with a much different board. For the first time, people elected from geographic constituencies will control two-thirds of the board, much the same system as the Park Board long has used.

Advocates say it's too early to judge the new system -- after all, the board isn't facing geographically fraught decisions such as closing schools. A nearly majority minority board has been elected, with minority board members holding four of six district seats, versus none in three city-wide seats.

But there's also been less competition for district seats, with only one primary election needed. Others worry about an increased burden on staff serving the board and observe at least some signs of provincialism.

The diversification of the board began with a 2006 law carried by Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, and ratified by voters in 2008.

The seating of the board completes a transition that began in 2010, when representatives of the city's three eastern districts were elected. Three more were elected from west-side districts in 2012.

The irony is that the 2008 election also filled gaps for the two parts of the city that complained loudest over lack of geographic representation. Jill Davis of northeast Minneapolis, an area that sustained the closing of Holland, Putnam and Webster schools, plus nearby Tuttle, won a city-wide seat that year. Jenny Arneson, who lives not far from Davis, joined her two years later as the East Side's first district board member.

Meanwhile, Bates was elected city-wide in 2008 from an area between Hiawatha Avenue and the Mississippi River where Cooper, Longfellow and Howe schools closed; district representative Hussein Samatar, the state's first Somali-born public official, joined her in 2010. The district system also helped Latino voters get their first representative in Alberto Monserrate.

An odd duck

Nationally, Minneapolis has been an odd duck among the 33 big-city districts that fill seats by elections, according to Council of the Great City Schools, their trade group. Only five of those districts filled board seats solely city-wide, while 18 did so entirely by districts and 10 use a hybrid district-city-wide model like Minneapolis now does.

People who previously felt unrepresented notice a change. "I do think it matters that there's a person assigned to an area that can be a point person, rather than everybody's in charge of everything so no one's in charge of anything," said Sarah Nassif, who lived by Howe, which reopens next fall. "I'm just so thrilled that it turned out the way it did."

Across town, Dean DeGroot said he sees more educational opportunities at Edison High School. DeGroot helped found Public Education Northeast in response to the school closings. "The big benefit is you know who to contact instead of getting on the horn to seven or eight people," DeGroot said. "They also know the neighborhood."

City-wide view - or not

But sometimes representing an area can cross the line into parochialism, an assessment some district staff have leveled at Arneson's stance on some Northeast enrollment and school pathway issues. They say she's argued for policies that would tend to make Northeast schools more white, although schools like Edison, which attracts only 29 percent of the high-school-age students in its area, live off North Side enrollment.

Arneson said she doesn't try to place students in her area above others and she tries to make good decisions for the entire city.

"It isn't really about kicking anybody else out, but it's about keeping people who are leaving," she said, adding that inequities in rigorous courses between Edison and other city schools have been reduced.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib

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