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Can–or should–the Minneapolis School Board Be Saved?



(photo credit: Jerry Holt, Star-Tribune)

The Strib has a piece up about the Minneapolis School Board, currently in the spotlight for botching the search for the next superintendent.

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 even helpful. The Minneapolis School Board has been mostly a dysfunctional form of governance for decades. Its levels of crazy wax and wane as board members come and go, delivering drama and long speeches, but very little change in how the district delivers education—even as it systematically fails children of color who now make up two-thirds of the district’s enrollment. 

So maybe it’s time to ask this crucial and often over-looked question: Should nine political activists be overseeing a $783 million annual operation with 7,000 employees, …essentially during their spare time in the evening? 

I mean, just try to imagine any large-scale scenario where this might end well….You can’t. Because it doesn’t. And no, I’m not arguing 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 the park board districts and three elected at-large.  Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis) pushed this change through the state 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, etc.

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 board does not attract board members with the skills needed to lead a giant operation tasked with educating 38,000 children. With the district’s $783 million 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 endorsement, a truly tortuous process dominated by long-time party hacks and I write this as a DFLer and hack who regularly goes to the notorious, all-day DFL school board endorsing conventions. The teachers’ union dominates the process; their goal is protect their contracts; and potential candidates are carefully screened to make sure they toe the party/union line.

Nothing in this endorsement process attracts or rewards smart, experienced, gutsy or creative education leaders. In fact, it’s mostly hard-wired to produce the exact opposite.

Yes, it’s possible to run outside of DFL endorsement. But it’s expensive and the party and union tend to ferociously attack anyone who tries to go around them.

In short, the way we govern Minneapolis Public Schools guarantees its continual dysfunction and bad results. And 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 state legislature would have to approve any governing changes. But here are a few options:

1) Downsize the board to five members and make it mayoral-appointed. 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 more high-caliber leaders and give them more political protection to make tough decisions.

Does this deprive voters of having a direct say? Yes, but most voters have no idea who to vote for in school board elections anyway, which is why lots of them skip it on the ballot, blindly guess or just follow the endorsement.

Another variation would be to downsize the board to seven;  have the mayor appoint four members and the voters elect three.

2) Downsize the district into four separate new 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,  January 18. 2016
















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