A majority of the Minneapolis school board will be elected on Nov. 4 — five positions on the nine-member board will be on the ballot. Three seats are open because three members — Richard Mammen, Alberto Monserrate and Mohamud Noor — are stepping down. Incumbents Rebecca Gagnon and Jenny Arneson are seeking re-election.
The election offers an opportunity to select a reform-minded majority. Here’s why that matters:
While modest gains have been made at some schools, the Minneapolis district continues to struggle with wide learning disparities between white students and students of color. Those gaps demand more immediate action. Board members cannot be timid about dropping failing initiatives, expanding successful ones and making staffing changes. District leaders must also do more to rebuild public confidence.
Following a couple of enrollment increases, officials had expected an additional 900 students this year — but got only two. That will result in the 34,000-student district losing nearly $5 million in state per-pupil aid. About 20,000 Minneapolis students attended charter or other schools in 2013.
With those and other challenges, it’s crucial to elect a board that stands firmly for child-centered change and practical partnerships. That will take courageous leaders who will shake up the status quo. Those most likely to be change agents in the citywide race are Iris Altamirano and Don Samuels.
Altamirano, 34, is a former SEIU activist, community organizer and Wellstone Action graduate who is now a stay-at-home mom of two. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, her personal history helps her relate to struggling students and families. After laboring in Texas fields as a child, she worked hard in school and earned a scholarship to Cornell University.
She sees herself in Minneapolis public school students and believes they can thrive if the district focuses on early education, bilingual education, and assuring that teachers and principals are more effective. As a board member, she would help bring educators, communities and families together to “deepen the conversation’’ about how best to address learning disparities.
Former Minneapolis City Council member Samuels would also be a good addition to the board. As a mayoral candidate last year, he was often asked why he wasn’t running for school board. That’s because the 65-year-old former business executive and owner made education a top campaign issue.
To call Samuels passionate about kids and education is an understatement. In his sometimes “fire and brimstone’’ enthusiasm, he has made a few insensitive remarks for which he apologized. But no one questions his commitment to students or his willingness to raise the tough questions and push for change. As the council member from the North Side for 11 years, he saw much of his work through the public safety and education equity lens. He started the Hope Collaborative to bring best practices from around the country to Minneapolis to inspire educational change.
Incumbent Gagnon, 43, is board treasurer and is seeking a second term. She’s hard working and has done a good job of reaching out to various communities across the city. Our concern is that she won’t be among the strong voices for effective change.
Also running is Ira Jourdain, 38, an active parent of students in the district who works in social services for the Division of Indian Work.
While two board members will be elected citywide, three will come from geographic areas of the city that correspond to Park and Recreation Board districts.
Only one of those districts has a contest. The best of the two candidates for District 5 is Nelson Inz, 45, a teacher at a St. Paul Montessori charter school. Also on the District 5 ballot is Jay Larson, 39, a cemetery manager and an active volunteer at the Lake Nokomis Community school. He has also served on a district parent advisory committee. Both have invested significant personal time to improve education for kids. We give the edge to Inz for somewhat deeper knowledge of education issues, and his experience with a charter program could bring a more independent perspective to the board.
Incumbent Arneson from District 1 in northeast and newcomer Said Ali from the south-central District 3 are running unopposed.
Though the school board race is supposed to be nonpartisan, the DFL endorsed candidates Ali, Altamirano, Arneson, Gannon and Inz.