At one point in an otherwise raucous Minneapolis school board meeting, Becky and David Branch took to the podium, not to scold or rant, but to make the simple point that they were proud of their son, Noah, the first student representative in the board’s history. The Branches got a little choked up, and Noah even turned away briefly, as if he would, too.
It was the sweet spot of the meeting, Noah’s last as a nonvoting board member. The job will now go to Shaadia Munye, another student at Patrick Henry High School.
The meeting was eventually interrupted by protesters, who stopped the board from taking a vote on whether to offer interim Superintendent Michael Goar a contract. Earlier in the evening, it voted unanimously to withdraw support for Sergio Paez because of concerns over alleged mistreatment of special needs students in one of the schools in his previous district in Massachusetts.
Noah spoke only once at the meeting, but he drew applause, mostly because the 17-year-old made more sense than most of the adults who spoke that night. Noah simply pointed out that board members who had voted 6-3 for Paez for the job were now attempting to pretend Goar was the right choice all along. Even this junior in high school could sense the political backtracking.
At a north Minneapolis cafe a couple of days later, Noah explained his comments and spoke eloquently and candidly about his experiences watching from the dais how the school district was run.
“The whole night, people talked about how they wanted the best for the children,” he said. “Only three people thought Goar was the top candidate, so if they really wanted the best for the children, why would they put him in?”
Noah bristled at the way some board members who didn’t vote for Goar tried to justify a contract now, saying he was equal to Paez.
“No,” said Noah, shaking his head. “You voted for someone else, so by definition he was second best. There were so many moments in that meeting where I wanted to laugh, or cry.”
After Noah was chosen by his classmates to represent them on the school board, people started to ask him about his interest in politics.
“If you had asked me if I was interested in politics before I became a board member, I would have said, ‘What does the school board have to do with politics? It’s about education.’ ”
Noah laughed. “I did find out it was way, way more political than I thought it was.”
He was especially intrigued by the process to find a new school leader. Some of the candidates impressed him, but he also found himself wondering “how in the world certain people made it in to the top six.”
“Sergio Paez was my favorite, by far,” Noah said. He found Paez smart, dedicated and “very respectful,” and he answered questions as if Noah were an equal.
“My thing is, I just don’t get it,” Noah said of the board’s decision. “I don’t get why they didn’t pick him.”
Noah said he was prepared to tell a personal story at the final board meeting to illustrate why Paez shouldn’t be blamed for every student interaction in his former district. But the board moved the agenda item to honor Noah for his work from the first item to the last of the evening, and it was pre-empted by the protest. Noah had to leave during an intermission because the meeting went so late.
“It was sad,” he said of the meeting. “It was the saddest meeting I’ve ever been to. First, there was so much negativity in the public comments. Even as critical as I am, I think Minneapolis Public Schools do some things right. Seldom does anyone get up and say ‘thank you’ to the board, and when they do, there is this sense of relief. I can’t imagine sitting up there every time and having people personally attack you in public. Masochism is the only answer [for being a board member].
“I didn’t find the protest sad,” he added. “I was sad for the reason they were there. They were there because the board does not represent the voice of the people.”
Few people knew that Noah just happened to be wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt underneath his shirt and tie. He admits that he thought about revealing the shirt, but decided against it. “I almost went out with a real bang the other night,” he said.
Noah said he was also sad to learn the televised meeting went dark for those watching at home for part of the time the protesters chanted. “There’s always an agenda, it seems.”
Noah said board members were good to him and helped him with procedures, though he never did get around to reading Robert’s Rules of Order. Board members also encouraged him to speak up. “They told me not to censor myself, and most times I didn’t pull any punches,” he said. “I hope my voice was an influence. I was pretty vocal on Reading Horizons [a controversial literacy curriculum, dropped after critics called some of its materials racist]. That was one of my biggest issues.”
No one directly lobbied him to take a side or support them on issues, Noah said, but he detected that “sometimes they tried to plant a little seed so you kind of knew they wanted you to say something.”
Noah’s mother works for MPS and his father is a former MPS principal, and both encourage him to speak his mind.
“We kind of butted heads before the meeting,” Becky Branch said. “I tried to rein him in a little bit. But I was being hypocritical. We raised him to be independent and to express his opinions. I’m really proud of him. Every word that came out of his mouth on the board were his words.”
The logical question, one that many have asked him over the course of the year, was: Did your experience on the school board make you more or less interested in serving as an elected board member in the future?
“The thing is, on the school board you are going to get caught up in politics,” Noah said. “That said, I would probably not want to get into politics, no thanks.”
Asked what he wants to do for work, Noah mentioned being an oncologist or hematologist. “Are you getting that it’s pretty much anything as far away from politics as possible?
“I enjoy watching politics sometimes, but I will be a spectator for the rest of my life,” Noah said, gleefully breaking the first rule of politics (never say “never”) with a little hoot and a fist pump. “Whoo!”