I didn’t write about this race in the primary because there were five candidates running in the primary, four of whom would advance to the general election, and I thought that surely Doug Mann would come in last and I could just write about this race in October. That is exactly what happened. There are four candidates running for two at-large seats (which is to say, seats that are supposed to represent the whole city).
On the ballot:
Kimberly Caprini and Josh Pauly are both DFL-endorsed. Rebecca Gagnon is an incumbent. There are two open seats, so you get to vote for two people (but you don’t get to rank people because school board races are controlled by state legislation and not by the city).
As I’ve explained before, I generally have a bias toward incumbents in the Minneapolis School Board race because this is a terrible job that sees a ton of turnover. School Board members are paid about $15,000/year; it’s pretty nearly a full-time job and one of the major job responsibilities is to get yelled at by citizens who are furious at you for cutting programs at their kid’s school to balance the budget.
On the other hand, I didn’t like Rebecca Gagnon when she first ran, and I’m really pretty sick of her now.
It’s not necessarily a dealbreaker for me, but it does annoy me when a candidate promises to abide by endorsement, and breaks their promise. In Rebecca’s case, four years ago she benefited from the DFL slapping down Iris Altamirano after Iris appeared at an event alongside Don Samuels, which makes her decision to run against the endorsed candidate particularly ballsy. (The article doesn’t credit her with the DFL’s decision to slap down Iris, but I certainly can’t imagine that happened over Rebecca’s objections.)
The School Board gets to have a seat on the City Planning Commission. Rebecca Gagnon used her seat to push for a law loosening restrictions on billboards, without disclosing that her daughter was a lobbyist working for looser restrictions on billboards.
Then there’s the PTA funding thing. One of the ongoing issues of equity in Minneapolis is the incredible disparities between the wealthy schools and the poorer schools:
Last November, the ninth annual autumn fundraiser for Burroughs Community School in southwest Minneapolis, organized by the school’s Parent Teacher Association and held at Mill City Nights in downtown Minneapolis, netted the school $73,000 in one night. Guests paid $35 to $40 admission and bid on such prizes as opera tickets and a Florida timeshare stay.
Across town in Northeast, Sheridan School’s annual art crawl fundraiser last year netted $314. Their Parent Teacher Organization’s balance for last year was around $3,500. Meanwhile, Nellie Stone Johnson Community School on the Northside currently has no PTA.
There’s currently a rule in place in Minneapolis that forbids the wealthy schools from using these funds to pay for staff salaries. Last year Rebecca Gagnon pushed to remove that rule:
Looking back a little further, back in 2014 she was responsible for a $400,000 no-bid contract for Al Flowers to run a character-building extracurricular, despite this program having no website, phone number, or organizational backing. It went on the consent agenda, the part that gets approved with no discussion.
WedgeLIVE wrote an excellent piece this week about Gagnon’s issues which I then re-tweeted, saying that maybe instead of even making a post I’d just point and say “that!” One of my readers then got in touch to pass along a comment from a Minneapolis teacher who was very fond of Gagnon. She said that Gagnon came to school events and meetings, stayed late to talk to faculty, and was always willing to take time to listen to feedback and explain her decisions.
However, that teacher works at a school located in a nice area of the south part of the city. And one of my major concerns about Gagnon is that I think she’s a much better school board rep for south (and particularly southwest) Minneapolis than she is for north Minneapolis.
So I put out a call for Minneapolis teachers from North Minneapolis and talked to a couple of friends-of-friends. Their experiences were starkly different. Which frankly does not make me feel any more warmly disposed toward Rebecca Gagnon. Showing up at events and listening to teachers is great….unless you’re showing up and listening to the teachers at the wealthy schools, and the teachers at the high-poverty schools have never met you. In which case it suddenly stops being a great example of your interest in connecting with people and becomes a great example of the things that fuel the ongoing disparities across the district.
That leaves Sharon El-Amin plus the two endorsed candidates, Josh Pauly and Kimberly Caprini.
Sharon El-Amin is a black woman and a Northside parent. She got into trouble last month for some homophobic and transphobic posts she’d made to social media in 2016. After some initial fake-apologies and “this was taken out of context” protests, she has apologized sincerely. I think the apology is sincere and her embarrassment does reflect the change in her attitude in the last two years; however, I think this cost her quite a lot of support that she’s not getting back, and 2016 was really not long ago.
Josh Pauly and Kimberly Caprini are the two who are endorsed by the DFL, and especially after Sharon’s old posts surfaced, I think they’re the two with the best shot at beating Rebecca Gagnon. Josh Pauly has worked for several years as a classroom teacher and I think would bring a useful perspective to the board. Kimberly Caprini, like Sharon, is a black woman and a Northside parent.
While you’re here — did you click over to read the article I linked up above about how Minneapolis schools in high-poverty areas frequently don’t even have a parent-teacher organization, let alone the sort of community they can effectively fundraise from? Here’s another article that lays out some of these differences in really stark terms. If you’re feeling fired up to rectify a very small amount of the injustice here, here are some fundraisers at Northside schools (all part of Minneapolis Public Schools, none of these are charters) that you could donate to.
A math teacher at North High would like an iPad for classroom use and needs to raise $491. At time of writing, he’d raised $0.
A second grade teacher at Jenny Lind would like materials to help her kids stay organized. She needs $375 of the $474 cost.
A first grade teacher at Jenny Lind would like an Osmo. I’m not 100% sure what that even is (some sort of educational technology thing, I think?) but JFC it is all of $158, the sort of cost that can be raised at schools in wealthier parts of town by sending out a polite e-mail to the classroom parent mailing list. Surely my readers can buy this teacher an Osmo?
And finally, this isn’t a Northside school, but 100% of the students at Green Central Park Community School qualify for free lunch and 12% are homeless or highly mobile. The teachers there would like to take their fifth graders to Wolf Ridge, and environmental learning center near the North Shore. They need to raise $6,006 to do so.
(Since I’m editing, I’ll note — the iPad, the organizational materials, and the Osmo are all funded! The Wolf Ridge trip still needs quite a few donations to make it happen. Please consider donating, even if you can only toss in a couple of bucks.)
I would encourage my readers to vote for Kimberly Caprini and Josh Pauly, and also to donate to one of these fundraisers.
EDITED TO ADD:
Rebecca Gagnon sent me an e-mail and asked to meet to talk, so I met up with her at a South Minneapolis coffee shop. (She was actually doing a “come share your concerns with me!” event.)
She took issue with things in pretty nearly chronological order.
The Iris Thing
She said Iris hated her and said that Rebecca had told her that she had no business running for office as the mother of young children. Rebecca says she never said this; she asked Iris if she had support, because she’d run a campaign with young children and it’s tiring, and this was a five-minute conversation in a loud convention hall. Also, she says she didn’t have anything to do with the smackdown. I pointed out that she did not speak against it. She said no, that’s true, because at that point Iris had made it clear that she was running against Rebecca and not with her, so Rebecca was not inclined to put herself out for Iris.
She also talked a bit about her opposition to Don Samuels in that race. Don was supported by the school reform movement and Rebecca views them as The Enemy. I asked her what Don’s been like on the school board and it sounds like he hasn’t particularly pushed that agenda.
The Al Flowers Thing
Rebecca said that the thing Al is actually really good at is encouraging grassroots involvement in stuff in North Minneapolis. Like, at one point they had a bunch of money from the Feds to do summer tutoring, but hardly anyone had signed up, so they hired Al to get kids into it and when he got finished they had the opposite problem and had to prioritize and do a waiting list. The CSI project was also pay-for-performance so they only spent $20K, not the $375K they budgeted, and also since it was on the consent agenda, everyone voted for it and no one pulled it out of the consent agenda so she’s not sure why this got blamed on her and not, say, Kim Ellison.
The Billboard Thing
She talked to someone from the city who said she was not considered to have a conflict of interest, but recognizes that it was a bad call to just go with that instead of saying, “just so everyone knows, my daughter is working for a lobbying firm involved in this.” She said the school board has gotten more conscientious about avoiding the appearance of corruption. She blamed naivete for not thinking it was a big deal. (She has been in elected office in Minneapolis since 2010; I think her naivete card has expired.) Also, someone on the school board has to be on that committee and no one wants to do it, and she doesn’t know why WedgeLIVE has treated it as such a big freaking deal. Finally, she hates billboards, but the current monopolistic setup is stupid. (Possibly it is. I’m not a huge fan of Clear Channel.)
The Fundraising Thing
She was not proposing that schools be allowed to hire staff with fundraised money; she was asking if it was possible because parents had been asking her if they could do this and why not, and she wanted to know if it was a state law, a policy, or a practice. She said it was a practice, not mandated by state law or anything else, but that she recognized that it created some problems in terms of seniority, etc., and the solution she found was to allow these schools to hire outside contractors with the fundraised money rather than adding district staff.
I asked her why she thought the DFL had not endorsed her. She said she thought this was because of personality conflicts on the board. I commented that she has been absolutely steadfast against school privatization, which I would have thought would have made the union happy, but they didn’t like her either. She said that she thought this was because one of the proposals she favored for the district’s financial shortfall was to give everyone (including the unionized teachers) a five-day unpaid furlough, basically — cutting the school year by five days, and everyone’s pay by five days.
So, take that for what it’s worth.
I liked her better one-on-one than I ever have listening to her speak. She clearly works hard.
I would still vote for the DFL-endorsed candidates; the responses I heard from the Northside teachers were really vehement, and the chasm between their feelings and the Southwest teacher’s feelings was truly enormous. I think Northside teachers feel like they’re forgotten, and unsupported, and like the board does not understand their problems or care about them. I would in particular really like to see Kimberly Caprini join the board, because she’d be another Northside voice.