Minneapolis school board members' phones are buzzing nonstop, their e-mail inboxes filling with hundreds of messages daily. Union members are picketing in front of their houses. And on Wednesday, one board member resigned, citing broken trust.
The board governing the state's third-largest school district is under fierce pressure as the Minneapolis teachers strike stretches into its second week, leaving 28,700 students without classes until a contract agreement is reached.
In announcing his resignation, Board Member Josh Pauly said, "Trust is broken and needs to be rebuilt."
Many board members have also said they are frustrated with the situation, and in at least one other case, with the split among their colleagues. But they say they are united in a desire to end the strike and get kids back to school.
"We are involved in ways that board members in Minneapolis have not been before, and we still feel we are at a stalemate," said Board Chairwoman Kim Ellison. "That's indicative of the fact we're willing to do what we need to do to get our students in class."
Ellison began attending mediation sessions on March 6, after union leaders pushed for board members to be present at the negotiating table. A few other board members have been in some mediation sessions to talk about specific issues, and others have spent recent days waiting at district headquarters to be on hand if needed.
"The number one reason we're calling on board members is because it is their names on our contract," said Greta Callahan, president of the teachers chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. "These are people who we publicly elected and who we usually share values with."
She said a mediation session that included three board members was "when we've seen the most progress."
The teachers union endorsed all of the current school board members at some point except Adriana Cerrillo and Sharon El-Amin. But in Ellison's most recent election, the union didn't endorse her or her opponent.
Board role in negotiations
In Minneapolis, the nine-member school board sets the parameters for the district's negotiating team of human resource leaders, associate superintendents and other district leaders. The board meets in closed executive session to consult with and direct the negotiating team on latest proposals.
Once an agreement is reached, the school board ultimately ratifies the contract with Minneapolis teachers and support staff.
Having the board advise a separate negotiating team of staff is one approach in contract negotiations, said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. Other districts in the state choose to have board members on negotiating teams from the start.
"I want to be clear: Our board is actively involved with every decision point — that's our role," said Minneapolis School Board Member Jenny Arneson. But just like the union has a negotiating team, so does the board, she said. "Not every teacher is at the negotiating table."
Board Member Nelson Inz said the negotiations team has staff members with necessary expertise. What might make sense to a board member could have complicated ramifications for the district, and that's something district staff can explain, he said.
School board members are also not full-time district employees, and most of them have other jobs. Minneapolis school board members are paid $20,000 annually; the chair and vice chair receive $22,000.
This week, the district has been holding news briefings almost every day, where members of the school board's executive committee give brief statements about negotiations. They have reiterated the board's desire to end the strike and said that their latest offer represented a "financial limit."
At least two other board members not on the executive committee said they did not know about the first news conference on Sunday until it was over. Since then, Ellison said invitations have gone to all board members.
Pauly said the initial disconnect was "disappointing" and showed how "disjointed" the district is now. He has served as an at-large board member since 2019; his term was set to run until 2023 and he wasn't planning to run for re-election.
He was one of four board members who, in October, voted against renewing Superintendent Ed Graff's contract, which is still being negotiated and has not come back before the board for approval.
Ira Jourdain was the only board member who voted "yes" and doesn't sit on the board's executive committee. Jourdain on Tuesday joined educators on the picket line.
"The board is definitely fractured and that goes back to the October meeting," said Cerrillo, who also voted against renewing Graff's contract.
Pauly said he's frustrated with what he called a lack of meaningful action toward district priorities of literacy, equity, social and emotional learning and support systems for students.
"We create committees and reports, but the action piece seems to continuously be missing," he said.
In a statement Wednesday, Ellison said: "In recent years, school board service has been increasingly difficult and at times deeply personal and confrontational."
She noted an uptick in school board resignations nationwide.
"We are always doing our best to serve our students and city but we also need to take care of ourselves and our families," the statement read. "Public education is at a pivotal moment and it's time for our city to come together in supporting our children. We wish Mr. Pauly the best in his next endeavor."
'The toughest job'
Inz said the board has done a good job of "collaborating and being clear with the negotiating team and staff about what our priorities are."
Each member gets a vote, and the bargaining team looks for board consensus. Executive committee members are also elected to those roles by the full board, he added.
"There's a lot of work to be done yet," Inz said. "I don't know that I can fully assess how well the board has done until we have that contract agreement."
Board Member Kimberly Caprini said the board is united in wanting to get students back in schools.
"This is the toughest job I've ever had in my life," she said. And it will remain difficult even after the contract is settled, Caprini said: "All I can think about is, 'How can we come back together?' We as a community have to figure out what that looks like."