The Eden Prairie school board could come closer to reflecting the growing diversity of the suburban district if the election Tuesday swings the way Asad Aliweyd and Murshid Barud are hoping.
Aliweyd and Barud, two of the seven candidates running for the board’s four open seats, are Somali. For as long as former and current board members can remember, board members have been white — even as the number of white students in the district has been steadily dropping.
“A Somali native school board member would bring a little bit more different perspective and a diverse opinion on the board, where it’s lacking right now,” said Barud, a former community liaison for the district who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2013.
Both men say they are running to represent all students in the district, while also bringing in new ideas. And their platforms, focused on closing the achievement gap, aren’t that different from those of the other five candidates.
But it’s an election that guarantees board turnover. Only one incumbent, Dave Espe, is seeking re-election.
The other candidates for the four at-large seats are Jeffery Saxton, a proponent of expanding technology; Greg Lehman, who is advocating for more rigorous curriculum; Adam Seidel, who wants to strengthen elementary education, and John Kohner, who said he wants to help continue Eden Prairie’s excellence.
The election comes at a time of relative calm for Eden Prairie schools, but tensions over school boundaries and management changes aren’t that far gone.
“We’ve really spent the last four years really cleaning up a lot of issues we had in the district,” Espe said, noting multiple leadership changes in recent years.
A changing Eden Prairie
Five years ago, many parents balked at a superintendent-led push to change school enrollment boundaries. The plan championed by then-Superintendent Melissa Krull changed the boundaries and bused elementary students to other schools partly to more evenly integrate the district and to ensure that low-income students weren’t concentrated at one campus.
Krull resigned in 2011 and was paid $100,000 to leave with nine months left on her contract. Supporters felt her plan would continue to narrow the achievement gap.
Since 2008, the district’s black student population has risen three percentage points, and its Asian population grew by nearly four points. Meanwhile, the percentage of white students has continued to decline, from about 75 percent in 2008 to about 62 percent in 2015.
“The students in Eden Prairie have had such great exposure already in their young lives to the differences and dynamics around having a mixed population at school,” Kohner said.
The district doesn’t track the number of Somali students, but Barud said that about 13 percent of the district’s students are Somali.
That community’s perspective is needed on the board, he said.
Frederick Hess, who is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said school boards still reflect an older American population that demographically looks more like the country did 20 or 30 years ago.
He worked on a national study in 2010 that found that 80 percent of school board members were white, 12 percent were black and 3 percent were Hispanic. Larger districts were most likely to include minority board members.
But when newer groups such as Somalis come together, Hess said, they can “become increasingly active players in school board politics.” The added diversity can make a community feel like its voice is being heard, but it could also prompt fights over race or ethnicity, he said.
The Minnesota School Boards Association doesn’t track diversity issues but is going to start keeping an eye on them, said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the group.
Outside the metro area, the Mankato school board election includes a candidate originally from Somalia, Abdi Sabrie.
Minneapolis school board member Siad Ali is Somali.
It will take time to see more people of color elected to local office as the country becomes more diverse, said Aliweyd, a former math teacher at Eden Prairie High School.
“The school board and the city councils are not reflecting the change,” he said. “But that change will come, for sure.”