On Sunday, the Star Tribune reported the following about the Minneapolis school board (“After year in crisis, a gut check,” Jan. 17):
“With its national search in shambles, national and local educators say it won’t matter who the board chooses to be the next superintendent if its nine board members do not make major changes to how they conduct themselves.
“In the past year, the board has been accused of micromanaging the superintendent and allowing more than a few meetings to get out of control, with protesters forcing board members to stop conducting business. Other times, the board has seesawed on controversial issues, like budgets and curriculum materials …”
It might be tempting to vilify this board as particularly incompetent. But I don’t think that’s fair or helpful, because the Minneapolis school board has been a mostly dysfunctional form of governance for decades. Its levels of crazy wax and wane as it lumbers from crisis to crisis. Board members regularly deliver drama and long speeches, but very little change in how the district delivers education, even as the schools systematically fail children of color, who now make up two-thirds of the enrollment.
Maybe it’s time to ask this often-overlooked question: Should we really be asking a random group of local political activists to oversee a $783 million annual operation with 7,000 employees, essentially during their spare time in the evening? After they’re done with their day jobs?
I mean, just try to imagine any scenario where this ends well. And no, I’m not arguing that we should start paying school board members full-time salaries. Because we have two bigger governance problems.
First, our school board is too big. In 2012, the board went from seven members elected at-large to its current nine members — with six members elected from Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board districts and three elected at-large. State Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, pushed this change through the Legislature, saying it would make it easier for local activists to run and represent their specific part of the city, which would lead to more board diversity, and so on.
Unfortunately, the change seems to have made the board even more parochial and chaotic. Seven members were already a lot. But so far, when nine people are in charge … honey, ain’t nobody in charge.
Second, the way we select members does not attract people with the skills needed to lead a giant operation tasked with educating 38,000 children. With the district’s huge budget and lucrative contracts beckoning like a Powerball lottery, Minneapolis school board elections are far more overtly political than those in surrounding suburbs and smaller cities.
In order to get elected to the Minneapolis board, you usually need to get the DFL Party’s endorsement, a truly tortuous process dominated by longtime party hacks. I write this as a DFLer/hack who regularly goes to the notorious, all-day DFL school board endorsing conventions. The teachers’ union dominates the process. Their goal is to protect their contracts; potential candidates are carefully screened to make sure they toe the party line. Nothing in this endorsement process attracts or rewards smart, experienced, gutsy or creative leaders. In fact, it’s pretty much hard-wired to produce the opposite. Yes, it’s possible to run outside of DFL endorsement. But it’s expensive. Plus, the party and the union tend to ferociously attack anyone who tries to go around them.
In short, the way we govern the Minneapolis Public Schools basically guarantees its continual dysfunction. As the board gets weaker and the education wars get more toxic, it’s probably going to get worse.
So, what should we do? There are no perfect governing solutions. The Legislature would have to approve any changes. But here are two options:
1) Downsize the board to five members and make them mayoral appointees. A smart mayor would appoint a demographically diverse board with a mix of skills and experience in finance, management, teaching, strategic planning and communications. Board members would serve two- or three-year terms. Under this method, I think we could attract higher-caliber leaders and give them more political protection to make tough decisions.
Does this deprive voters of a direct say? Yes, but most voters have no idea whom to vote for in school board elections, anyway — that’s why they tend to skip it on the ballot, blindly guess or just follow the endorsement.
Another variation would be to have the mayor appoint four members and the voters elect three.
2) Downsize the district into four new, separate districts — North, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Minneapolis — and have each governed by a five-member elected board. Under this plan, each new district would have one or two high schools, a few middle schools and a handful of elementary schools. This would make them closer in size to a lot of suburban districts, more attuned to the specific needs of families in those neighborhoods and perhaps — hope springs eternal — easier to manage.
Lynnell Mickelsen blogs about education at Putkidsfirstmn.org. Her three children graduated from the Minneapolis Public Schools.