Two years ago, Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, successfully ushered in a bill that would enlarge Minneapolis public schools' board of directors from seven to nine members, with three elected citywide and six from geographic districts, similar to the city's Parks and Recreation Board.
On Nov. 4 city voters will decide the fate of that proposal in an environment where it's been largely overshadowed by the district's $60 million a year excess levy referendum.
When he was pushing the bill through, Davnie argued that the school board was unresponsive and needed to be reconfigured in a way that made it more accountable to residents. In addition, certain areas of the city, specifically northeast and north Minneapolis, had few of their own on the board throughout its more than 50-year history.
Minneapolis' school board has since become more stable and functional but supporters say the proposal guarantees representation from all parts of the city and gives parents just one member to contact. Yet critics argue it could decrease minority representation and lead to infighting and deal-making. Voters rejected a similar proposal in 1987.
Davnie said having a board member from each ward could help the district garner support for pressing issues such as levy issues or strategies to reverse declining enrollment. He said the only additional costs for the plan, which would be phased in over two election cycles, would be salaries for the two board members. The statute directs the school board districts to align to the existing Parks and Recreation Board districts.
"We know that Minneapolis has experienced sharp declines in enrollment and continues to experience those," he said. "The steepest declines are in areas of the city that have been historically underrepresented on the school board. If people don't feel heard and don't feel like board members are responsive why should they put their kids there?"
Anoka-Hennepin -- the state's largest school district -- divides its board into geographic districts. Bloomington's legislators touted a similar proposal at the Capitol last year but it was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
In the past a disproportionate share of board seats have gone to candidates from southwest Minneapolis. It's historically had greater community involvement and more residents with professional backgrounds. The current board is among the most racially and geographically diverse boards in the district's history with four minorities and two North Siders. Northeast Minneapolis, however, does not have a representative on the board.
Still, not everyone is convinced district-based seats are the answer. Former Board Member Judy Farmer said district-based board seats -- commonly called the ABC (Accountable, Balance and Community) referendum -- make sense on the surface but have drawbacks.
"For as long as I'd been on the [school] board it was the most diverse board in the city," she said. "Seventy-three percent of the current board are people of color."
Typically geography-based elections often are seen as a way to increase minority representation in cases where the majority of people who show up on Election Day are white.
Farmer said a district system could also lead to situations where a disproportionate number of candidates run for seats from one area and candidates run unopposed in another area.
"People don't decide against running for the school board because it's citywide," she said. "The things that stop them from running are that it pays $13,000, it takes a lot of time and you get a whole lot of grief."
She also pointed to the influence of the DFL endorsement -- most people who get onto the board have it -- and how the dynamics of that process might change if board members are elected from wards.
"I think people who are courageous and do something for the good of the city but makes their own neighborhood angry would have a lot of trouble getting elected and getting endorsed," Framer said.
Board Member Tom Madden, of south Minneapolis, said he isn't convinced the district-based plan would reduce diversity or lead to infighting. He said the plan could open doors for candidates, specifically lower-income residents who don't have the resources to run for citywide seats. As for increasing the board from seven to nine members, Madden said "it's all relative."
"Whatever the main arguments are against it that can happen already," he said.
Madded added: "For the first time ever in the history of Minneapolis, we've managed to be balanced in just about every way possible and it took about a hundred years to get there. We're half men, half women, racially we've got a good balance but we're still missing some folks who could add to board."
According to the Minnesota Association of School Boards, 13 out of 341 school districts in the state used district-based board seat configurations.
Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395