Minneapolis could be looking at its most expensive school board race yet this fall.
Former City Council Member and mayoral candidate Don Samuels and Andrew Minck jumped into the race for the two citywide seats this week, bringing the field up to seven.
They’re likely to draw support from the same school reform forces who helped Board Member Josh Reimnitz set a spending record for a board seat in 2012. Campaign contribution limits recently were doubled to $1,000 for citywide seats.
In Samuels and Minck, voters also will find candidates more likely to call for a shake-up in how schools are run than incumbent Rebecca Gagnon, union-backed Iris Altamirano or Ira Jourdain, among the better-known candidates.
“This just did get very interesting,” former board member Chris Stewart said about Tuesday’s last-day filings.
Of the five seats on the nine-member board up for grabs this fall, three are district spots and two are at-large openings. At least three of those elected will be newcomers.
Samuels boasts considerable name recognition from his days as a City Council member, and as a 2013 mayoral candidate he focused a major part of his campaign on school improvement. He’s married to Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, an initiative created to give families and children the resources to thrive from “cradle to college.”
The election also could represent a test of the strength of the DFL endorsement, which has almost always determined the board winner for the past 25 years.
Gagnon brings incumbency and a campaign work ethic that out-hustled better-known candidates to win in 2010 without the DFL endorsement she now has. That has political handicappers suggesting Gagnon and Samuels are the candidates to beat for citywide seats. The other incumbent, Richard Mammen, isn’t running.
The potential loser from this week’s election filings is Altamirano, making her maiden bid for public office after working as a political director and organizer for a union representing janitors and other lower-paid workers. She was well-positioned with the usually dispositive DFL endorsement, and has been touted by supporters as a Hispanic to replace outgoing Alberto Monserrate in speaking for an ethnic group accounting for nearly one in five district students.
“I can’t do anything but run my own campaign,” said Altamirano, who is running for an at-large seat.
In addition to having name recognition, Samuels was able to raise nearly $168,000 in his mayoral race, more than four times the record set by Reimnitz when he won a district seat two years ago.
But former board chairman Tom Madden said Wednesday that the name recognition for Samuels is easily worth the $15,000 to $20,000 a citywide campaign usually needs. Samuels ran third in the mayoral contest, but nearly equaled Mayor Betsy Hodges for second-choice votes and earned more third choices than any candidate in the city’s ranked-choice election.
However, name recognition cuts both ways. For example, Samuels took heat in 2007 from some when he metaphorically suggested burning down North High School for its high rate of academic failure. He later apologized for the remark. The district eventually did, in effect, what Samuels suggested by phasing out the existing high school program and replacing it with a different academic program.
Mayoral election results suggest voters may have forgiven him, given that he drew 33.5 percent in the north Minneapolis voting precinct, nearly twice the results for the second-best candidate. Education reform was one of Samuels’ major campaign planks last year.
Minck has campaigned in part on the argument that he brings practical experience as a current employee of Teach for America, which supplies quickly trained teachers to high-poverty classrooms. He is a former member of its teaching corps and a former charter school administrator.
Reimnitz, too, came from nowhere to defeat a union-backed candidate, getting substantial support from school reform groups, especially financial contributions from outside the district. But he’ll need to perform far better in the Aug. 12 primary than his last-place finish among the four candidates who sought DFL backing.
Although Gagnon has the advantage of incumbency, she’s also the only one of four board members-elect from 2010 left to face voters after signing a controversial letter on teacher union letterhead urging the board to settle a contract dispute. Besides party endorsement, Gagnon’s run is likely to be helped by her ubiquitous presence at school meetings around the city.
Non-incumbent candidates for the two seats will also need to sharpen their messages on how they’d improve schools and close the achievement gap. Those are easy buzz words, but they’ve offered few specifics in campaign forums about how they’d accomplish that on a board largely limited to setting policy and financial oversight, with only the superintendent reporting to it.
Jourdain has done that somewhat since he applied unsuccessfully to be appointed to the board seat vacated by the death of Hussein Samatar. He’s a human service professional who argues a board member ought to have children in the system.
Also running are Doug Mann, who has campaigned often on issues of racial equity, and newcomer Soren Christian Sorensen.