Election 2022: Minneapolis School Board At-Large

Well, this turned into kind of a clusterfuck of a race. Here’s who’s on the ballot:

KerryJo Felder (DFL-endorsed)
Collin Beachy (DFL-endorsed)
Sonya Emerick
Lisa Skjefte

In the primary, I said I would vote for KerryJo Felder because the school board suffers from chronic lack of institutional memory due to people rarely serving more than one term (KerryJo is not an incumbent, but served one term from 2016-2020) and Sonya Emerick because I was impressed by their responsiveness and thoughtfulness. It turned out that part of why I hadn’t heard back from Collin was because he’d had COVID — and I felt bad about that, but also, it was a primary, the DFL-endorsed candidates can be expected to sail through a primary, and so I was not super worried about it.

Lisa Skjefte has no website, although she has been coming to candidate forums.

I’m going to put a break here and FYI: this is going to get long. If you want to skip straight to who I would vote for: Collin Beachy and Sonya Emerick.

My primary recommendations got a lot more Twitter blowback than they usually do. In particular, Paul Cantrell (Macalester prof) had a long and compelling thread in which he advocated for voting for the union-endorsed candidates as a block. (His account is locked as I’m writing this, but he’s given me permission to quote and says he’ll unlock at least for a while when the post goes up.) Some key points: he thinks the school board desperately needs actual educators (“We have already plenty of nonprofit movers & shakers, businesspeople, career administrators, education reformers of various stripes, and yes, even MPS parents on the board.”) He goes on to say, “This is not just the longstanding discontent of every K12 district. The situation is dire. Minneapolis Public Schools right now are on the edge of a death spiral. By ‘death spiral,’ I mean scenarios where the district goes into total collapse. Enrollment is cratering. The budgets are a disaster. Teacher pay, once leading the state, is now at the bottom of the pack. Teachers are burned out, quitting in droves, having mental health crises. We are headed straight for receivership, a nightmare scenario where the entire district is dissolved and taken over by the State of MN. Please imagine a Republican Senate in charge of Minneapolis Public Schools. The well-meaning election guides I’ve read for this primary [pretty sure he means me] complete miss this. It’s all that this election is about.”

I read that and thought: OK. That’s a valid perspective, and as I look at candidates for the general election, that is a lens I will use. And my first conclusion was, he’s absolutely right about Collin Beachy! Collin Beachy is smart, thoughtful, prepared, and rich with the insider knowledge he’s talking about. Collin Beachy, I have concluded, is a no-brainer. Everyone should vote for him; we should have him on the board. But I feel very differently about KerryJo Felder.

Usually I try to watch a candidate forum when it’s a race where I’m feeling very uncertain. There was a LWV forum, but the DFL-endorsed candidates skipped it, because it was cosponsored by the Advancing Equity Coalition. (I asked the LWV what it means for a group to cosponsor a forum. “LWV Minneapolis invites other community organizations to co-sponsor debates and forums to help build the audience through promotion to their members, demonstrate good community partnerships, and provide the candidates the opportunity to appear before important and diverse constituencies. Co-sponsors also help identify locations for debates and forums that are convenient to the community and provide volunteers to help conduct the forum. Co-sponsors allow LWV Minneapolis to reach broader audiences than we wouldn’t be able to do on our own.”) I also caught the very end of a Zoom-based forum that was sponsored by the PTO of Hiawatha-Howe and Dowling, but they are not posting the video so I can’t watch the rest.

Anyway: failing a decent all-candidate forum that I could watch (and watch portions of more than once, because I take a lot of notes to make sure my quotes are reasonably accurate) I listened to the Wedge LIVE interviews with Sonya, Collin, and KerryJo. (Those are YouTube links but you can also listen to all three via a podcast app — search for the Wedge LIVE podcast to download them.) Initially I just listened; when I came back today to dig up some of KerryJo’s comments I used the YouTube video so I could link to a question directly.

One of John’s first questions for everyone is what really big, controversial questions they expect to have to handle. Sonya’s response (about 7:30 minutes in) is the Superintendent search; the financial crisis; relationship repair; and student achievement. Sonya also mentions decreasing segregation for students in special education, and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. Collin Beachy (5:30 minutes in) mentions fallout from the CDD (and notes that simply re-drawing the boundaries may not be an option); he says the biggest thing we have to be focused on right away is hiring the new superintendent, and talks about basing decisions in his values.

This discussion starts about 5:20 minutes in the interview with KerryJo. KerryJo lists busing, attendance zones, and school closures before getting to the financial crisis: “I guess the last one is, are we going to be able to stay open and not go into receivership?”

Here’s the next bit, transcribed.

John Edwards: Let’s take the last two questions. Are some schools going to have to close?

KerryJo: Mmm. I think so.

John Edwards: And the receivership question. Is that like — a real fear? Some people are very afraid of it. Could that happen?

KerryJo: Well — I was reading, some people give us till 2024. But, hm. I don’t think we’re going to. I think we’re better than that. I think they’ve really underestimated Minneapolis and y’know who we have here so — I don’t think it’s going to happen.

This did not leave me feeling like she had a handle on the fiscal crisis.

KerryJo also gave a long interview to Southwest Voices, which you can read here. Some highlights (MW is the interviewer, Melissa Whitler):

MW: One of the things that you said was that there are curriculum choices that are wrong. You also brought up the new math is only being taught in some schools. I’m wondering, can you give an example of a curriculum that’s in use that you think they should stop using or replace with something else?

KF: We can go back to structured math, or Singapore math. After using it in one school in Minneapolis Public Schools. They’re using it at Blake.

MW: This year, the district has rolled out a new elementary math curriculum. Every school got new books, new materials, new classroom materials. The teachers have had professional development. It’s going from a model of having something different in every school to now there’s this one curriculum that every elementary school is supposed to be using. I’m wondering, have you looked at that and how do you think that relates to this issue of having different schools have access to different materials.

KF: Yeah, I’m not a fan of that at all.

MW: You’re not a fan of everyone having the same one?

KF: No, I’m not a fan of schools having different.

MW: Have you looked at what’s new?

KF: I haven’t looked at it. I just asked about eight people. That’s what I always do. It’s my favorite number. So I asked eight people in different areas of the school district and what they thought about it. That’s kind of where I get my answers from. I am not a professional. So I asked the professionals.

Melissa Whitler’s followup question established that KerryJo had confused the Benchmark reading program (which is “balanced literacy,” which I agree sucks) with the new math program. One of the other DFL-endorsed candidates, Lori Norvell, is a former math teacher who’s excited about the new math curriculum.

Later, from the discussion of the CDD:

MW: So would you be interested in doing that if you are on the board, changing the boundaries again?

KF: That’s what I’m talking about, yes, but it’s gotta be student by student, family by family. Now it’s not just changing lines. Now we have to go to each and every family and go what do you want? It’s got to be done like that and nothing else.

MW: How do you do that in a place as big as Minneapolis?

KF: I don’t know. I was hoping maybe a Google doc.

KerryJo circles back to the discussion of the math curriculum later to complain about it some more; she also talks about how much she and all the other endorsed candidate talk to each other (but apparently the eight people she asked about the math curriculum didn’t include Lori?)

She gets increasingly disorganized at the conversation goes on:

KF: But I do want the kids to have the arts, though. So that they know these things.

What would it look like if we had closed the schools and moved our teachers into the arts? But you know what? They didn’t want to do that because their pride is too much, and that’s what it is.

None of the people that I’m working with, their pride is that big. And that’s what’s wrong with the school board that we have now. And that’s why I don’t trust the plan that they have. Because they should have closed schools last year. So that they didn’t have to pull arts this year and that’s just how I feel about it. And you can’t change my mind.

I think it is combined. It’s not that you actually have to close schools, you can combine schools. And if you combine schools, maybe you can combine some programs to give kids more than what they have right now, you know, what an idea.

And then she says maybe schools could be closed temporarily, for a single year. And she says “We have to close FAIR for sure. We’re letting go of that. And close 800 on Broadway, and move that, and somehow have somebody else take that over. 800 is for the children that we failed. We’re trying to help them find jobs now. We put money into that.” (FAIR is the downtown Arts magnet — and according to what I found on Google it’s pretty significantly under-enrolled so closing it might be a good idea, I don’t know. 800 Broadway is Community/Adult Education, providing classes for adults trying to get GEDs or learn English, and it serves thousands of students.) She’d also get rid of the entire Teaching & Learning department at the district:

MW: You’d get rid of the entire teaching and learning department?

KF: I would get rid of the people in it.

MW: Really?

KF: Yeah. I’d maybe save one. When you put all of the people in there, you could add all those years up and I could pull out a teacher that can match him. And we could have the teachers do that. That can be their summer job and they can get like little stipends throughout the year to fix kinks or do whatever. And we could have one person dole that out.

I’ll note: I don’t have a clear sense of what this department does, but I can tell you that in a big organization like a school district that serves tens of thousands of students, there are some administrative jobs that are pretty critical if you want to provide any sort of cohesive instruction and I’m going to guess that 86ing the entire Teaching & Learning Department would have some worrying results.

It is an absolutely bonkers interview … but this brings me to the other thing that broke this week about KerryJo, which is this, a Facebook post from the mother of her stepkids. I’m going to C&P some of the text, since not everyone has a FB (it’s a public post):

I don’t take outing people or sharing personal messiness lightly but I have a laundry list of reasons not to vote for her. The latest and final reason occurred over the weekend where she put my kids, who she’s referring to when she calls herself an “MPS parent”, in danger while out of state. I’m grateful they are back with me and safe.

She is in no position to make decisions on behalf of anyone’s child. This is my ex-husband’s current wife, our kids’ stepmother, and she’s running for school board in Minneapolis.

Somebody tag the DFL, SEIU, MFT, Minneapolis AFL-CIO because they are endorsing an abusive narcissist who almost caused a wreck because she was drunk and on pain killers while in Maryland, assaulting everybody including my ex while he was driving. This on a trip where my fifteen year old daughter was supposed to tour colleges and get her first taste of college life.

And I hate to have to say this, but I’m not a bitter ex-wife. I left, I didn’t cheat, and I’m not jealous. Until she’s shown me who she is, I’ve embraced her in my kids’ lives because having grown up in a blended family, the more village the better. I have no illusions about that being easy. But up until a few months ago, my kids were not allowed to stay at their house because she is a habitual line stepper who will lie and exaggerate to get my kids, especially my son, into trouble since she’s been told not to put hands on them. So she finds other ways. Maybe that’s that resourcefulness everybody appreciated about her. It works both ways. I only agreed to our previous split-week schedule because they missed spending time with their dad outside of weekly Thursday night dinners and it seemed like things were getting better, but we’ve danced this danced before.

I’m still talking to my kids and we’re all home today to rest, recover, and recoup. But I am angry and have barely been able to sleep since Saturday night when my kids called me from outside a suburban Maryland frat event, scared and angry because they didn’t know anyone and everyone had been drinking, they didn’t know their father and stepmother’s whereabouts, and couldn’t get back into the venue because it was basically a bar with a bouncer.

In the wake of this, KerryJo’s campaign manager resigned. Southwest Voices has a response from KerryJo:

Recently my bonus-children’s biological mother made a post on social media expressing valid concerns about my behavior this past weekend on an out-of-state trip. I want everyone to know that I am taking this situation very seriously and working to repair harm however I can with everyone involved.

I have already consulted with my doctor about a potential substance abuse issue related to Severe Osteoarthritis throughout my whole body and my use of emergency prescription painkillers I had weaned myself off of earlier this year. I intend to start an intense counseling program with a new mental health professional whose qualifications cover all aspects of this situation.

This is a very stressful time for my whole family. Due to the situation and extended flare-up, I have taken this week off to support my husband. My family and I would like to ask for privacy as we work through this situation. Thank you.

So — the allegation, which she does not dispute, is that while she was in charge of children in a location far from their parent with primary custody, her use of substances, and her behavior and loss of self-control while affected by those substances, put those kids in real danger. Like, at minimum, that’s what’s going on. In a pinned followup post, the mom of the kids adds (in response to KerryJo’s message to Southwest Voices), “There is no work being done by her end except to clean up her image.”

At the suggestion of someone on Twitter, I watched a strike postmortem video (KerryJo starts talking around 43 minutes in) and the MFT screening forum video (jump to 2:34:56 to see KerryJo’s opening statement and be ready to use your right-arrow key a lot to skip through all the candidates who are no longer in the race as this forum took place in May.) Watching these, I was struck by how much more focused KerryJo seems than in the more recent interviews — it makes her union endorsement more understandable.

But between some of the really deeply weird stuff she says in the more recent interviews, and the allegations (that she does not dispute) about substance use and the effect it’s having on her life and the people around her, I just do not think she should be on the school board in the next term. I don’t think it would be good for KerryJo; I don’t think it would be good for the school board.

ETA: Vann Daley did a press conference on 11/2 where she discussed more details of what happened. Vann starts speaking 8 minutes in; after stepping back, she then comes back to the podium at 26:15 to add a last comment.

So, OK: on to Sonya.

Sonya Emerick is a nonbinary autistic parent of two kids, one with significant disabilities. Two things I particularly like about Sonya are that they research obsessively and give long, thoughtful answers to questions, and that they have what I think of as the autistic commitment to radical honesty even when it does not benefit them. In a conversation on Twitter about the people working on their campaign, they said yes, Sara Spafford Freeman (we’ll get to her in a minute) was their Campaign Manager and then added “Additionally, because transparency is my jam for real, Heather Anderson is also on my campaign team. I will answer any question you have about that. She’s a personal friend with BoE campaign exp. There is no AEC overlap.”

AEC stands for the Advancing Equity Coalition and seems to be the crux of the hostility to Sonya. (Sara Spafford Freeman is on the board and Heather Anderson is on the staff of the organization.) The earlier version of this post had an overly complicated deep dive that turned into a series of edits and I’m just going to take most of that out and say the following. I don’t have any particular desire to defend AEC as an organization and they are loathed by several people I like a lot. But fundamentally, I think the rabbit hole of, “is AEC evil, and if so, exactly how evil is it” is tangential to the actual question at hand, because it’s not the AEC staffers who are on the ballot, but Sonya Emerick, and it seems really clear to me that Sonya is coming to this race with their own opinions, and if they get onto the school board, they’ll be making decisions based on values that include a commitment to unions. The main point I tried to make in my discussion of AEC was just this: if you don’t know anything about them, and you go looking, the stuff you will find is largely benign. I do not expect Sonya to have extensive insider information on them, and I don’t consider their level of contact with the group to be a dealbreaker.

Campaign finance info dropped after I first wrote this essay, and Sonya got donations from Sondra Samuels, Steve Cramer, and several other people I don’t like. Which does not surprise me at all because yeah, those people hate the union! and Sonya is a candidate who’s not endorsed by the union and has a shot at winning! Sharon El-Amin (who was not endorsed by the union) got endorsed by some real jerks, but as far as I can tell she was not a major villain of the strike and strike aftermath and this past spring she got beloved North High principal Mauri Friestleben un-fired. And I am sure she got donations from a whole lot of people I don’t like at all and if I’d written about that race (I didn’t) I would almost certainly have endorsed KerryJo.

Sonya knew Sara Spafford Freeman through work at Juvie: “We connected through literacy work partnering with Hennepin County Juvenile Justice pertaining to literacy screening for justice-involved youth at probation intake.” Sonya also volunteered at a few AEC events but discontinued working with them when they filed to run for school board.

Regarding the teacher’s union, Sonya says they would have applied for endorsement but was not certain they were running in time to do so. They are a union member and their family participated in the picket line during the strike. Regarding charter schools, they’re opposed to the privatization of education but are not willing to say they’d ban charter schools from existence, which I’ll note is not something the Minneapolis school board has the power to do or they would have done it years ago. They support the equity goals of the CDD but are not sure if they’d have voted for it.

Fundamentally, regarding Sonya’s connections to AEC, here’s what I think: I think they like AEC’s stated goals. If AEC’s secret real goal is to undermine the union and replace MPS with privately-run charters, I do not think Sonya is going to be remotely on board with that. They’ve kept their son at MPS despite the district having failed him repeatedly and pressure from the district to pull him out and send him to a charter; they are clearly committed to the Minneapolis public schools; they are in a union.

Sonya is endorsed by Outfront Minnesota, Samantha Pree-Stinson, the Socialists (there are so freaking many socialist groups — FYI, this is the one that endorsed Sonya) and current school board member Adriana Cerrillo.

Will Sonya do stuff you don’t like if they get on the board? Absolutely. So will Collin and KerryJo. Minneapolis schools are facing a fiscal crisis; even if the legislature fixes the cross-subsidy problem, they are still very likely to have to make a bunch of unpopular choices, like closing schools (and I’ll note, KerryJo has said straight up that she’s going to close schools.) Whoever gets elected will also hire a superintendent and regardless of who they hire, I think odds are extremely high that the new superintendent will go on to do things that piss everyone off. Endorsed by the MFT or not, School Board members seem to speed-run the political cycle I talked about with the Park Board a few years ago.

I’m pretty sure Kim Ellison was endorsed twice by the DFL and MFT (in 2016 and 2020) and she’s the Board Chair who oversaw a two-week strike. Kimberly Caprini was endorsed by the DFL and MFT in 2018 and is the school board member who referred to the post-strikthe calendar change as “consequences for your actions.”

I have not said much about Lisa Skjefte, the fourth candidate on the ballot. She’s an Anishinaabe woman who has worked for several Native-led nonprofits and is a health equity specialist at Children’s Hospital. She doesn’t have a website but Sahan Journal’s interview and the Southwest Voices interview have some good information about her. Asked why she ran, she says that her community asked her to run, and “we have this kind of community, if you are asked, then you show up.” The Southwest Voices interview has a lot of interesting insights about engaging with communities that have often felt unheard: “There are voices that we’re not hearing from, and sometimes the system is designed for the loudest in the room.”

I have a couple of hesitations about Lisa, one of which is simply that she doesn’t have a website. It’s not hard to set up a website; it’s a good way to provide basic information about yourself to the community you want to serve. She also does not seem as prepared for the job as the other candidates (and that’s particularly unfortunate in the context of the school board because it’s a truly unpleasant job in a lot of ways, and I want candidates to be emotionally prepared for how much serving on the school board will probably suck.) That said: if you’re unhappy with both KerryJo and Sonya, I think Lisa is a reasonable choice.

ETA: I also saw someone ask if you could just vote for one candidate in the race. Yes, you can vote for just one candidate; since there are two open seats, you will then be letting other voters decide who fills the other one.

One really good thing about this race: everyone I contacted was very committed to supporting and protecting LGBTQ+ kids in the district. (I did not e-mail Lisa Skjefte — her affidavit of candidacy only had a phone number, plus without a website it feels kind of intrusive to get in touch with a candidate who has not publicized their contact information. But in looking at her interviews and other info I found about her, I saw nothing that telegraphed homophobia or transphobia.) I’ll also note that Collin is gay, and Sonya is nonbinary and married to a woman. If elected, Sonya would be the tenth trans school board member in the entire US.

So a week or two back, it looked like WordPress had deleted most of my subscribers? But now it’s back to saying I have 10,143 instead of 473. But if you rely on e-mail to notify you I’ve posted, and this is the first post you’ve seen this year, you should know I’ve posted a bunch of other posts! I’ve covered most of the races except for State Auditor (will try to get that up) and the other contested school board race. (There are no contested judicial races this year in either Hennepin County or Ramsey County. That’ll probably get its own post because people keep asking me about judicial races.) Also, if you’re not a subscriber, plugging in your e-mail in the subscriber box (you may have to do this on desktop rather than phone) will get you an e-mail every time I post. That might not sound appealing, but if it does, now you know.

If you’d like to make a donation to encourage me to keep working on these, I am highlighting a science teacher at Sullivan STEAM magnet who needs some better computers so his students can actually program the cool robots they got. Or, you can donate to the Movement Voter fundraiser I created; I explained back in May why I’m fundraising for the Movement Voter PAC and the fundraiser is still active.

In addition to writing political commentary, I write science fiction and fantasy. My book that came out in April 2021, Chaos on CatNet, takes place in a future Minneapolis. It’s a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and signed copies of both books are usually available from Dreamhaven and the NOW REOPENED Uncle Hugo’s (it’s at 2716 E 31st St in Minneapolis, in the former Glass Endeavors.)


8 thoughts on “Election 2022: Minneapolis School Board At-Large

  1. THANK YOU for updating your post! I have been incredibly concerned about KJF as a school board member and at-large candidate. Upon reading about her alleged struggles with substance abuse, I am also concerned about her as a person. I hope that she (and her family) gets the care that she needs. I also hope that she withdraws from the race so that she can recover and so that our Board does not lose precious time making things right for students, families, and teachers.

    I am very excited to vote for Sonya!

  2. I have always appreciated the level of work you do on this blog. Thank you for spending so much time pulling together info.

    Even if individuals involved in AEC may be well intentioned and platforms sound good, the bigger context for me is that orgs like these are not the ones doing the work of caring for kids and connecting to kids in order to understand the day-to-day at school and they are not coming to this work with the intention of supporting those who do. In a nutshell, the story I have heard multiple times is that educators have been harmed by this organization. It sounds like you’ve reached out to AEC basically asking them if they did harm. Can you help me understand this better? Would you expect them take responsibility if they had harmed? Is that how you expect you would know harm occurred?

    • Let’s see. I looked up news coverage in which AEC had appeared. I looked up AEC on Twitter to see what people had said about them, and what I found was a lot of “everyone already knows that they’re evil so no further details are required” rather than any actual details of what they’ve done. When I spoke with Collin Beachy, I asked about the LWV forum that he and the other candidates had skipped (which was cosponsored by the AEC), and he described a bad interaction on the picket line with someone he said was associated with AEC; when I included that in the post, AEC then contacted me to say that they had not been on the picket lines but that teachers they’d been advising/supporting had been out with petitions to keep the carveout for BIPOC teachers during layoffs. This fit pretty precisely with what Collin had described, which was someone getting really aggressive and shitty when he declined to sign something. And this seemed to explain a lot, because “taking sides on a fight happening within the union” was clearly something that would piss a lot of people off! AND IS ALSO NOT GREAT BEHAVIOR. And “oh, that’s not US, that’s people who we were merely PROVIDING A PLATFORM TO” is a framing that also seemed pretty clearly … I mean, yes, technically that’s not you, I had better fix that.

      But look: I spent literally days trying to sort out what AEC had done to convince everyone that they were anti-union pro-charter reformer-in-the-worst-sense Betsy-Devos-esque public-school-destroying assholes and I found zero details, even on Twitter, which is usually the best source for this sort of info. When I have to explain an organization I started out not knowing a ton about, I try to base my explanation on information I can link to. When everyone treats it as a given that an organization does harm, but no one anywhere has described the harm, that’s not helpful!

      ESPECIALLY when the actual question at hand is not, “is AEC awesome” but “is AEC so self-evidently evil that anyone with ANY connection to ANYONE involved in the organization is clearly contaminated.” The actual question I’m trying to answer (or was, before I got derailed into endless discussion of AEC) is just, could a reasonable person assume that AEC is a reasonable organization doing reasonable work? Based on the publicly available information that you’ll find if you go looking? And the answer to that is, yes, absolutely. Therefore, regardless of the specific level of evil-ness of the organization, I don’t think Sonya’s level of engagement with AEC is disqualifying.

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