Five candidates — one incumbent and four challengers — are competing for two citywide Minneapolis school board seats in Tuesday’s primary in a race that has touched on equity issues, budget strife, a referendum and steering the district into the future.
A voter can choose up to two candidates. The four highest vote-getters will advance to the general election in the fall. The seats are now held by two-term incumbent Rebecca Gagnon and first-term Board Member Don Samuels, who is not seeking re-election. The challengers are Kimberly Caprini, Sharon El-Amin, Doug Mann and Josh Pauly.
Board Members Jenny Arneson, Siad Ali and Nelson Inz are running unopposed in other district races.
The DFL Party and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers have endorsed the same slate of candidates — Pauly and Caprini. Getting the party’s nod and the union backing, both say, gives them exposure.
“It’s a stamp of approval,” said Pauly, a former Minneapolis teacher and south Minneapolis resident who is making a first bid for office. He said his top priorities are giving students access to wraparound services, smaller class sizes and making sure the district’s reserves aren’t used like a credit card.
The perpetual practice of dipping into district reserves — now at a dangerous low — to cover chronic deficits was ceased in June. To erase a projected $33 million deficit for 2018-19, leaders of the state’s third-largest school system approved an $18.4 million reduction in the central office and a nearly $15 million cut in school allocations.
That means finances are tight, but the Minneapolis school board recently approved two referendum questions for the November ballot: to increase the district’s annual operating levy by $490 per student, which would raise $18 million, and to create a $12 million technology levy. District leaders have depended on voter-approved operating levies to offset what they claim is a lack of state support in areas such as special education and English language learners.
Meanwhile, school board members directed district administrators to immediately restore $6.4 million to secondary schools and to downsize the central office, raising a red flag with equity advocates. Gagnon pushed the proposal to restore the $6.4 million, defending her action as a way to appeal to parents to ensure that they back the district’s push for $30 million annually in new funding this fall.
In the end, the move hurt her chances to secure the support of the party and the union, Gagnon said. But she touts her experience as key to helping new Superintendent Ed Graff gain footing as he prepares to roll out a strategic plan to address, among other things, the district’s fiscal stability.
“We need some stability and experience on the board, and it’s a difficult conversation if you can’t hit the ground running,” Gagnon said.
Caprini, an active parent and a north Minneapolis resident, said voters are paying attention to the “incohesiveness of the board,” which she argues is the main reason parents flee the district. “A whole lot of new parents are paying attention, and the equity piece is definitely on the forefront,” said Caprini, who ran unsuccessfully for a school board District 2 seat in 2016.
Newcomer el-Amin, a North Side resident, said being a parent coupled with her business management skills would help the district allocate funds equitably.
Mann, who has unsuccessfully run for the school board 10 times, said he opposes the district’s referendum and the strategic plan, which is still in the works. The north Minneapolis Folwell neighborhood resident says he would create policies to reduce teacher turnover rates and increase support for struggling schools. He says he supports seniority and tenure rights for teachers.