Election 2016: Minneapolis School Board, District 4

(By request.)

This is a genuinely interesting race. Here’s who’s running:

Josh Reimnitz (Incumbent)
Bob Walser (DFL-endorsed)

If you peel back the boilerplate rhetoric, this is kind of a contest between the school reform movement and the teacher’s union, although when I say “school reform movement” I want to be very clear about the fact that I don’t think Josh is on the side of monied interests who want to turn schools into for-profit businesses. I just don’t think he’s necessarily on the side of the teacher’s union.

Before going any further I want to talk about how I view teacher’s unions. I am not anti-union. However, I think it’s useful to acknowledge something that should be obvious, which is that the role of a teacher’s union is to advocate for and represent the interests of the teachers. Those often coincide (or at least overlap heavily) with the interests of the students. But not always, and I think it is legitimate, when electing school board members, to prioritize the interests of the students.

(In St. Paul last year, on issues that the teachers were furious about, students and parents were overwhelmingly on the same page. This was an election over things like discipline policies and school safety; the iPad rollout; the changes made to how schools were structured — everyone was angry about those changes. I think students are well-served by contracts saying that teachers get a lunch break, a prep period, decent salaries, good health benefits, small class sizes. However, I think that the procedures for firing unionized teachers are not in the interests of the students, and anyone saying so should be laughed at. Do they benefit students some of the time? Sure. Do I need to roll out my horror stories of genuinely godawful teachers who were shielded by the fact that it’s very difficult to fire a teacher? No, I don’t, because you can ask literally anyone who has a student in the Minneapolis Public Schools for their version of those stories.)

 

I also want to note that in Minneapolis school board races I give preference to the incumbent, because serving on the school board is a completely shitty job: you work full time (or more) for $15,000/year and a large part of your role is to be yelled at for all the failings of a large, complicated system. Few people run twice, and as a result the board has suffered significantly from a lack of institutional memory.

Josh Reimnitz won his seat in 2012, kind of implausibly given that he didn’t have the DFL endorsement, was an extreme newcomer to the city, and has no kids in the schools. (He has no kids, period. When he won four years ago, he was 26 years old; now he’s 30.) He’s a Teach for America alum, which straight up made him deeply unpopular with the teacher’s union. His partner Daniela is a charter school principal — yet another potential strike against him, although there’s a school board member who got elected who works at a charter, I think, so maybe this is becoming less radioactive.

Josh’s big project in the last four years was rewriting the policy manual. Apparently the Minneapolis school board purchased a policy manual back in the 1960s and hasn’t done any comprehensive updating since then. Josh has some explanation on his website for why this was important; I haven’t seen the manual, but I expect he’s correct that it’s a mess.

His endorsements are heavily former school board members. He quotes from Carla Bates, who says, “Josh is an informed and independent voice for Minneapolis students.  Over the past four years, I have admired Josh’s dogged focus on student achievement and fiscal accountability.  Josh works hard to insure alignment between our goals as a school district and our resources.  Josh knows how to prioritize and students are at the center of all that he does. As part of the mix on a 9 member school board, Josh is needed now more than ever.” I’ll note that I have a lot of respect for Carla Bates: my recollection is that when she was on the board, she was very willing to make unpopular decisions and she didn’t sugar-coat things, two traits that the board needs more of.

I kind of want to unpack Carla’s statement. “An informed and independent voice,” I think, means “he’s not in the pocket of the teacher’s union, but he’s also not a complete idiot.” (It might also mean “look, some outside groups donated a shit ton of money to get him elected last time, but he’s not in their pocket, either.”) When she says that she admires his dogged focus on student achievement and fiscal accountability, I’d read that as, “he’s willing to piss off his coworkers on the board by insisting they pay attention to this stuff.” When she says “as part of the mix on a 9 member school board, Josh is needed now more than ever,” I read that as, “would we want nine of this guy? hell no. But we definitely want one of him.”

The other thing that strikes me in comparing his endorsements to Bob Walser’s — I think (but I’m not 100% sure) that Josh’s come heavily from the members and former members who are not from the (wealthy) southwest neighborhoods — which is interesting, because District 4 is mostly made up of those areas (it includes Bryn Mawr, Lake of the Isles, and Lake Calhoun). His endorsements also come heavily from people who are retired, and no longer need the support of the DFL. (Bob Walser is endorsed by Kim Ellison, who’s from northeast and is an exception to this generalization, but she’s also currently running and currently endorsed, and there’s an explicit expectation of endorsed candidates that they back the other endorsed candidates, to the point that there was a kerfluffle two years ago when Iris Altamirano appeared somewhere with Don Samuels.) (Edited to add: someone left the correction that Kim Ellison is from North, not Northeast, Minneapolis. That doesn’t really affect the point here, though.)

The front page of Bob Walser’s website starts with the following statement: “As the only candidate in the District 4 race with a student in Minneapolis public schools, and as the husband of an MPS first-grade teacher, I know, first hand, how the decisions made by the Minneapolis School Board affect our students and teachers. I hear about it at my kitchen table.” There is a value in these personal connections, but I don’t think childless people should be automatically excluded from this particular type of public service.

He goes on to list three reasons that he’s running:

Equity must be our priority. Strong schools in every neighborhood today are the key to a strong Minneapolis tomorrow. I will fight for equity across all of our schools to provide the resources every student needs to thrive

Students are not data points. Data-driven education programs have their benefits, but effective education recognizes that every student is a unique individual. For every student to thrive, teachers and front-line staff must be empowered to address the needs of the whole child.

Our community should decide what best for our schools. Out-of-state billionaires are pouring money into Minneapolis school board elections and elections across the country. I support local, democratic elections for our school boar

My first thought on is “students are not data points” line was that he was making a pre-emptive strike against attempts to evaluate teachers based on student growth shown through test scores. Reading it again, though, he’s actually specifically objecting to data-driven instruction, where teachers are encouraged to use information from tests to see where their students are lagging, and shift their approach to bring those students up to speed. I’ve discussed this approach with a teacher; I was skeptical, but she says that while implementation can be annoying, it actually works really well. (I mean, obviously also students are unique individuals who deserve to have their unique needs addressed. The profound failures here were part of why I pulled my kids out of MPS; I blame, in part, the extremely large class sizes.)

Finally, he takes a swipe at “out of state billionaires” and links to an article from 2014. The race two years ago was startlingly contentious and expensive. It’s worth noting, though, that one of the major groups donating money said they were looking for candidates committed to “equity, transparency, and partnerships with community members,” and transparency is a 100% legit gripe to have with the board (the article goes on to talk about how the call for greater transparency came “after a no-bid contract was awarded to Community Standards Initiative, a community group that received a $375,000 contract to address the district’s achievement gap. The group eventually lost its contract for failing to meet its goals.” It’s legit to be suspicious of money coming in to fund school board races from outside the state but they are not always a bunch of conservatives trying to destroy urban education on behalf of The Man.)

In his “About Bob” section he emphasizes his local roots (Josh is from South Dakota) and his background as an ethnomusicologist. Both Bob and Josh are white men in a district where only about 1/3 of the students are white and that continues to have both segregation and enormous achievement gaps. There’s an excellent MNPost article I found about the race (seriously, go read that one) where both men apparently got asked about their knowlege and commitment regarding racial issues. Bob talked about his ethnomusicology background and added that a friend had given him the book A Good Time for the Truth, which is a series of essays about racism in Minnesota: “On an intellectual level, I sort of knew that stuff was out there. But it grabbed me and shook me personally. It moved it from an intellectual understanding to a much more gut level understanding. I think that’s what stories can do. Stories are powerful that way.”

This frankly made me wince. I mean I am really glad he is reading this book but if you’re at the point where you “sort of knew this stuff was out there,” holy shit, that’s where you were when you filed to run for school board of Minneapolis?

In the same article, Josh pointed out that at the DFL City Convention, the 30-35 supporters who stood up with Bob were all white. At these conventions, when someone is nominated they get to make a short speech and it’s pretty routine to have literally anyone present who’s wearing their t-shirt and doesn’t suffer from extreme stage fright to come stand up front behind them while they make their speech. The thought of having a candidate for Minneapolis school board who is surrounded by 100% white people makes me wince.

 

Josh also talks about how his partner “happens to be a person of color,” which also makes me wince, for the record. He also notes that she calls him on his privilege and it sounds like he’s receptive, which is good. (From the article: “He says he has his wife to thank for keeping him on his toes. ‘My partner, who happens to be a person of color, educates me fairly regularly about my privilege,’ he said, noting they’ll often debrief on his body language and comments after board meetings. ‘For instance, she reminds me that something as minor as sitting in a way that takes up a lot of space is totally a male thing,’ he said, laughing.”)

I mean — Bob’s emphasis on his local roots and his school connections are all designed to send the message that when it comes to school-related, community-related stuff, Josh is clueless and Bob is clued in. Having a pack of all-white supporters at the DFL convention undercuts that. Although his endorsements include a bunch of people of color, and I will also say that I disagree with Josh’s suggestion that the white crowd at the convention shows “who’s going to be represented” — I think that Bob would absolutely try to represent the interests of all the kids, regardless of race, and I am sure that Josh’s group was not a perfectly representative sample of the student population. However, I think that on issues of race, Josh sounds like he has a larger portion of a clue than Bob does.

Circling back to my original take on this race: I think that Bob very much represents the establishment here. Not entirely in a bad way — when I look at his supporters, I see a lot of people I like and respect. (I campaigned for Julie Sabo when she ran for the Minnesota Senate years ago.) But I get a pretty strong vibe of, “how dare this thirty-year-old upstart who’s not even from here try to tell us what needs to happen with our schools.

And yet, I don’t think Josh is pushing for anything particularly revolutionary. He’s updating a policy manual, which strikes me as the sort of thing that everyone knows ought to be done and no one’s had the energy to do. He’s independent, focused on accountability (including fiscal accountability), and willing to annoy the rest of the board. I see all those things as strengths. He’s also an incumbent, and see above for my pro-incumbency bias.

If I lived in this neighborhood, I think I would vote for Josh Reimnitz. But my priorities might not align with yours; I have a lot of friends who I think would vote for Bob.

I’ll also note that Bob served for a number of years as a board member at Tapestry Folkdance; I’ve danced there and have a number of friends who dance and teach there, so I e-mailed one of them to ask what she thought of the guy. She wrote back to say, “Really nice guy, awesome accordion player.” She added that they’d never served on the board together, but that his reputation around Tapestry was “someone who is incredibly dependable.” I’ll just note that this is much higher praise than it might sound. From my own volunteer experiences, the person who is incredibly dependable is the bedrock on which the endeavor rests and these people are gold and deserve everyone’s gratitude and regular deliveries of cookies. So … while philosophically, I would go for the guy who’s kind of a maverick, I don’t think Bob is a bad choice. He sounds like he’d also do a great job.

For those who are unpersuaded by my analysis and want more details, some other info I found but didn’t have reason to link above:

Profiles of the candidates from Southwest Journal, written in June
Josh’s campaign Facebook page
An article about Josh from 2012
Bob Walser’s Twitter
And I linked to this above but I’m going to link to it again:
A terrific MNPost article about this year’s race. The comments are also worth reading. (MNPost aggressively moderates their comments to keep them from turning into a cesspool.)

 

 

 

 

Election 2016: MN State Senate, District 63

My old Minneapolis district has the following two people on the ballot:

Patricia Torres Ray
Ron Moey

So, here’s my story about Patricia Torres Ray. Back when the seat opened up, Ed and I had gone to our caucus and signed up to be Senate District Convention delegates, so we were getting door knocked and called by all the various DFLers running for the open seat. Patricia door-knocked us as we were preparing for a St. Patrick’s Day party — cleaning house, peeling carrots and potatoes, etc. We told her we were happy to talk to her but she’d need to come in and talk while we continued to get ready for the party. Which she willingly did.

We really liked her. We actually liked several of the people running that year, but Patricia wound up being our first choice. And that was true for a lot of people: she was ahead on the very first ballot, and gained each time until she hit endorsement levels.

She’s smart, progressive, thoughtful, and good at her job. I’m still a fan.

Ron Moey has no website. Here’s what I was able to glean about him:

  • He runs a drain cleaning company I’ve heard of – Ron the Sewer Rat. I looked him up on Angie’s List and he has a ton of reviews and a solid A rating. If you need a drain cleaner, he’s a great person to call.
  • A Gun Owner’s PAC thinks he’s great.
  • The anti-abortion MCCL thinks he’s great.
  • Here’s the weirdest and most interesting thing I found. He also ran back in 2002 and filled out a questionnaire about education policy. This is still online. The thing I find sort of fascinating is how differently Republicans talked about education 14 years ago. Back then, the target of everyone’s hatred was the Profiles of Learning. And let me just be clear about this: I hated the Profiles of Learning. I still consider it one of the most jaw-droppingly misguided and badly implemented educational policy iniatives I’ve seen in my lifetime. It came from my own party, and I remember looking at one particularly dismaying set of state election results and saying, “well, on the bright side, hopefully they’ll ditch the PoL.” (They did.)

    But the questionnaire talks about protecting students from job training. (“The Profile of Learning and School-to-Work system are turning K-12 schools into job training centers where job skills training is replacing academic instruction. … Will you support legislation that protects students in K-12 schools by prohibiting all requirements that all students must participate in career skills training or other work-based curriculum, instruction or employment-related activity in career areas?” Ron answered “yes,” clearly the correct answer.) I think most Republicans these days are OK with in-school job training these days, but maybe not?

    He also answered yes to this one: “Nonprofit foundations and the federal government are promoting a massive expansion of an early childcare system in every state that will place the government in authority over parenting. An early childhood government education system will require government credentialing, and therefore mandate a government curriculum. State early childhood curriculum incorporates content aligned with the Profile of Learning and often uses material deeply offensive to parental values and beliefs. For example, the early childhood credentialing program called TEACH uses a curriculum that promotes childhood acceptance of homosexuality, engages in sexual identity training, promotes negative attitudes toward western civilization and history, rewrites history that reflects a bias against traditional values, and trains young children to be political activists. Will you support legislation that prohibits the state from usurping the authority of parents for their children or from requiring early childhood curriculum that is negative toward traditional values?

    I’m not even 100% sure what they were objecting to there — early childhood education programs like ECFE? (ECFE is a parent/child education program run through local school districts. I went to ECFE classes with Molly when she was a baby and toddler. I got some useful stuff out of the program.)  Universal Pre-K? Credentialling requirements for day care providers? The fact that the state can remove your children from your home for abuse or neglect?

    I mean, clearly they’re opposed to the book Heather Has Two Mommies but the precise objection here is genuinely unclear to me.

Anyway — Ron Moey has no website or online info and is endorsed by a bunch of people I don’t like, so I’d strongly recommend Patricia Torres Ray.

 

Election 2016: Minneapolis School District Funding Referendum

Minneapolis is voting on whether to extend an existing property tax levy to increase the funding of the Minneapolis public schools.

The actual question reads:

School District Question Renewal of Expiring Referendum Revenue Authorization

The Board of Special School District No. 1 (Minneapolis Public Schools) has proposed to renew the school district’s existing referendum revenue authorization of $1,604.31 per pupil, which is scheduled to expire after taxes payable in 2016. The revenue will be used to manage class sizes and provide supportive services and activities for students. The proposed referendum revenue authorization would increase each year by the rate of inflation and be applicable for nine years, beginning with taxes payable in 2017, unless otherwise revoked or reduced as provided by law. Shall the increase in the revenue proposed by the board of Special School District No. 1 be approved?

BY VOTING “YES” ON THIS BALLOT QUESTION, YOU ARE VOTING TO EXTEND AN EXISTING PROPERTY TAX REFERENDUM THAT IS SCHEDULED TO EXPIRE.

So let’s start by talking about how school funding works in Minnesota. Unlike many states, we do the bulk of our school funding statewide, through our state income taxes. Districts receive money from the state based on the number of pupils they have. If you live in St. Paul but would like to send your kids to an Eagan school, you can do that as long as you’re willing to get them there — for the most part, you can send your kids to any public school in the state you’re willing to transport them to, although if a school is full up they can turn away the non-resident kids.

I’ve been looking for the information on the base funding per kid, how much comes from the state, how much comes from local property taxes, and how much comes from these levies, and I’m not finding anything that breaks it down in a straightforward way. Apparently the base funding is $5,831 per kid, but that gets adjusted up in all sorts of ways. As of a couple of years ago, Minneapolis and St. Paul were both spending about $14,000 per kid and at least one article I found said that about $11,000 of that came from the state.

One of the ways you can increase the amount the kids in your district get: pass a tax levy to collectively raise your own property taxes and give the schools more money. Which Minneapolis has faithfully done during the entire twenty years that I’ve lived in the Twin Cities.

 

This is actually a renewal of an existing levy, so if it passes, your taxes will not go up from this vote. (They’ll probably go up, because I think Minneapolis raised property taxes generally, but the amounts here will stay pretty much the same.) Money from this levy covers 13% of the Minneapolis Public Schools budget, and there’s a spreadsheet showing what each school gets, if you’re curious.

The number I really wanted to see is how much a typical homeowner contributes towards this funding each year. That information is in this PDF. If you own a house worth $250,000, you will pay about $315 toward the schools in 2016 (under the current levy), and you’ll pay $291 in 2017 under the proposed new levy. (I have no idea why that number is going down slightly given that this is a renewal of something that already exists? These numbers are estimates, anyway, but you get the general idea.) Obviously the amount you’d pay goes up or down depending on the value of the property you own. (And if you rent, you won’t pay it directly but like all property taxes it will likely get passed along in rent increases, though I’ll note that if the property taxes didn’t go up at all your rent would probably still go up if your landlord thought they could get more in rent.) The levy runs for nine years, after which they will presumably ask to renew it again.

There’s a website for the Vote Yes for Kids campaign. It’s pretty content-free. (The PDF I linked up above is a lot more helpful — so is this FAQ.) No one has set up a website campaigning against the levy, at least that I found.

I endorse a “Yes” vote, and I would vote for this if I lived in Minneapolis, because I always vote for these. Even though it annoyed the hell out of me that they claimed twice that they were going to use the money to lower class sizes and class sizes in Minneapolis stayed appallingly large. This time they’re saying that they use the money to “manage class sizes,” whatever the hell that means. (To be fair, after both my kids were through kindergarten, I think they lowered kindergarten sizes. And my kids aren’t in MPS anymore so I don’t know what class sizes are like these days.)

 

 

Election 2014: Minneapolis School Board, District 5

Sometimes I do all my research by googling and reading web sites and articles. Other times I have questions I want answered. The problem with asking questions is that I never know how long to wait. On one hand, I don’t want to have to revisit races over and over as responses trickle in. On the other hand, I have both a deadline and a preference for doing things in order.

The other thing that’s hard about questions is that with Minneapolis races, I can no longer truthfully say that I’m trying to make up my mind about who to vote for and leave it at that. And when you tell people that you’re a political blogger trying to decide who to endorse, people get really wary, like they think you’re an absolute nut, at least if they haven’t heard of you.

Anyway, since I’m waiting on responses, it’s possible I’ll have to revisit this one. We’ll see.

The Minneapolis School Board has both at-large seats (there are two open, and four candidates; I wrote about that post already) and Districts (which are the same as the Park Board districts). I was happy when they implemented districts because as a Minneapolis parent who did not live in the bottom left-hand corner of the city I felt rather thoroughly ignored a lot of the time. It was particularly infuriating to drive past the gleaming windows of brand-new schools in Southwest Minneapolis when the district had spent years and years and years letting a closed-down school four blocks from me sit empty. (Not finding a new use for it, not selling it, just letting it sit there.)

They implemented the district-based seats four years ago and in fact almost immediately they came up with something to do with Howe. (They re-opened it, actually — it’s now grades 3-5 for Hiawatha-Howe, with grades K-2 down at Hiawatha. I have mixed feelings about that solution, but whatever, you know what, at least it’s not SITTING THERE EMPTY so I WILL TAKE IT.)

The guy who served as the District 5 school board rep for the last four years decided not to run again because it’s a high-stress full-time job that pays less than $15K/year. The candidates:

NELSON INZ
JAY LARSON

Nelson Inz

Let me just note quickly that if you go to the Secretary of State site and look up candidates, they’ll give you a link for Nelson’s website, but their link is wrong. They send you to a .com site, and it’s a .org site. I e-mailed Nelson’s campaign and suggested they call and have it fixed; I would expect that to be do-able but annoying. As of today, it’s not fixed. Fortunately for Nelson, he is VERY VERY easy to find with Google.

He’s endorsed by the DFL and by a long list of prominent local DFLers, including Jim Davnie (my former State Rep and one of my favorite politicians). There isn’t much on his website about issues, but as noted before, it’s rare that anyone says something in this race that everyone running wouldn’t sign on to.

The thing I found most interesting and startling about Nelson is that he’s a charter school teacher running for a district school board seat. (He’s actually served on a school board in the past — each charter school has its own board that hires and fires school administrators, allocates money from the budget, etc. Frequently some of the seats are reserved for teachers.) And, he’s endorsed by the DFL. I find this startling because charter schools have blown back up into controversy this year — Don Samuels is a fan of charter schools, and this is viewed by a fair number of people in the DFL as a good reason not to support him.

I e-mailed Nelson because I was curious how he was walking this particular line. I asked him to talk about his beliefs about charter schools vs. district-based public schools, and what the thought the Minneapolis school board’s attitude ought to be toward charter schools: partners? rivals? something else? He replied a day later to invite me to call him. I haven’t, because he said evenings were better and my evenings are pretty busy. (I think it’s safe to assume he doesn’t want me ringing him up at 11 p.m., especially given that he has twin toddlers.)

Anyway, I actually have a lot of optimism that someone who works for a charter school but was able to get the DFL endorsement might bring a balanced attitude toward charters. (Or, if he brings a superlatively negative attitude, at least it’ll be from a position of intimate knowledge?)

Jay Larson

Jay Larson is an MPS parent and mentions a lot of volunteering: he chairs the Site Leadership committee at his kids’ school (I’m not actually sure what that does), he’s on the PTA, and he represents Area B on the District Parent Advisory Committee. (I’m not actually sure what the DPAC does, either. When my kids were enrolled at Minneapolis Public schools, one of the things that drove me nuts were the endless robocalls, some of which were for things like the Area B Parent Somethingorother Meeting.)

His platform emphasizes that he’s an MPS parent. (I’ll note that Nelson is a parent, but not of an MPS kid; his twins are still toddlers.) He believes in strong community schools; since that’s kind of a no-brainer, I’m not sure if he’s actually trying to say that magnet schools are a bad idea or what. He wants to “support our awesome teachers.”

He lists no endorsements.

Anyway, I e-mailed him and asked him what he felt set him apart from the other candidate and made him different. He replied fairly promptly and asked me what my specific concerns were. (“In an effort to best answer your question, are there any specific things you know or are aware of in District 5 that concern you or hope to see different over the next few years?”) The District 5 specific concern I came up with: I know someone who wanted to send their kid to South High, whose kid was assigned to Roosevelt. This family pulled their kids from MPS entirely and sent them to a private school. I wanted to know what his solution would be here. Not so much because I feel like there’s a clear-cut right or wrong answer, just because I was hoping to get some sense of how he thinks about these problems.

He didn’t reply; it’s been four days. So, yeah, I don’t know. He said in his initial reply to me that he’s been getting several e-mails a day about his candidacy (suggesting that this was pretty burdensome) which makes me concerned that he has no real idea how much work serving on the school board entails. Also, “what makes you different from the other guy” is one of the most basic political campaign questions ever. It can be hard when you’re running against people whose values you generally share, but SURELY you have a reason why you continued your campaign instead of saying, “you know what, the other guy looks great. You should just vote for him.” Right? So tell me what that reason is!

My recommendation here is Nelson Inz. He’s qualified; his endorsements combined with his work history suggest that he’ll bring a balanced attitude toward charter schools, which I think is a good thing; he’s running energetically for the job.

Election 2014: Minneapolis School Board

Welcome to the most mysteriously contentious race of the year! This is a surprising one, actually. You rather expect the acrimony to be found mostly in races for jobs you can imagine wanting. I mean, I don’t want to be governor, but at least being Governor of Minnesota is a job that comes with some decent perks. You’re paid enough to live on and they lend you a spiffy house. Whereas the Minneapolis school board jobs are genuinely terrible. You’re paid a part-time salary (under $15K/year) for a more-than-full-time job where being hated by lots of people is a major function and anytime you have to make some painful and complex decision like whether to close down a half-empty school, at your next big meeting you can fully expect people to show up and tell you to your face that you’re a terrible person.

This is a race that also tends to be ruled by the DFL endorsement — the action is often at the endorsing convention. This year, the wild card is Don Samuels, who had no shot at a DFL endorsement for school board (the teacher’s union does not like him at ALL) but has the profile and name recognition to make a serious run without it.

There are four people running for two seats:

REBECCA GAGNON
DON SAMUELS
IRIS ALTAMIRANO
IRA JOURDAIN

Rebecca and Iris have the DFL endorsement, and Rebecca is an incumbent.

I’ll start out here by talking some about how I’ve approached this race in recent years. First off, I almost always vote for incumbents, unless that specific incumbent has really ticked me off. I think there’s some value in institutional memory, and the incumbents far more than the new recruits have a clear idea of what they’re getting into. In addition to being poorly paid and overworked, school board members get blamed for budget shortfalls that are, for real, entirely outside their control. They don’t get to decide their budget; the state does. They get to decide what to cut, and after listening to all the other candidates at the DFL convention saying that they would NEVER increase class sizes NEVER EVER, incumbent T. Williams sardonically noted that it’s easy to make that promise, but sometimes you have to go where the money is.

I also want to note that while I am not anti-union and I am definitely not anti-the-teachers’-union, I think it’s also worth remembering that it is their job to represent the interests of the teachers. Which is fine because teachers deserve representation and advocacy. But sometimes the interests of the teachers and the interests of the students do not fully align. The board’s job is to negotiate with the teachers’ union when the contract is up for renewal, so while on one hand I have no interest in a school board that will try to screw over the teachers, on the other hand I think it’s legit here that they’re sitting on opposite sides of the table; hopefully the negotiation process will not be acrimonious but it is a negotiation and not just “here, teachers’ union, everything you want is obviously what should happen.” Being disliked by the teacher’s union does not necessarily mean you’ll be a terrible school board member. It really depends on what it is they have against you.

Rebecca Gagnon

I was not super impressed by Rebecca when she ran the first time, but she definitely gets credit for running again. And although a ton of problems remain (like the achievement gap and the dropout rate), MPS has gotten markedly better over the last four years. They’ve stopped closing schools and started re-opening them. In a weird way, I think MPS benefited from the economic meltdown, financial crisis, and slow recovery. Minnesota does school funding through the state budget, and your district gets more money the more students you have. The recession and financial crisis were a complete disaster for private education; sending your children to a private school is totally optional, and will probably drop to a low priority if you’ve just lost your job or are afraid you’re about to. Anyway, a lot of Minneapolis-based students came back to the Minneapolis public schools.

But, they’d have left again just as quickly if their parents had felt their kids were getting a substandard education. In fact, there are a lot of good schools in Minneapolis. There are a lot of extremely experienced, committed teachers. There are at least a few really talented principals.

(Can I just note that people focus really strongly on quality teachers and tend to overlook the importance of principals? Good principals can make a huge, huge difference to a school. I’m not even sure how. I mean, half the time I’m not sure what they do. It’s clearly a really complex skill set, because for one thing, you have to manage teachers. Managing teachers is DAMN HARD, because a lot of teachers are very fond of working with children and not wild about dealing with other adults and in particular they want to run their own classroom and have the principal leave them the hell alone. Anyway, a good principal can turn a school around. A bad principal can ALSO turn a school around. I’m not even sure how they evaluate principals, especially given that the old principal at Molly and Kiera’s former school was once “Principal of the Year”…)

Her website says she’s in favor of balanced budgets, she voted for the new discipline policy designed to reduce suspensions (that’s a point in her favor, IMO), she supported the Safe Schools initiative (that’s an anti-bullying policy that particularly strives to protect LGBTQ students), and she helped to pass an Equity and Diversity Policy “that requires all board decisions pass the equity and diversity impact assessment to ensure we are identifying, addressing and eradicating institutionalized racism throughout all levels of MPS.” This is all good stuff, although for Minneapolis school board candidates, not exactly controversial.

I’ll add here that she refused to participate in a forum because it was co-sponsored by Students for Education Reform, a probably-astroturf group that has been campaigning for Don Samuels. She also refused to fill out the questionnaire from Educators for Excellence, which I think is rather unfortunate given that what they did with the responses was put them together in a convenient booklet. (I guess you might be concerned about lending them credibility, but frankly, I find agenda-driven questionnaires to be useful in ways not necessarily intended by the people with the agendas.)

Apparently SFER and E4E and various other lobbying groups have been spending absurd amounts of money in this school board race. (Specifically, pushing Don Samuels.) There was a blowup a few weeks back because Iris Altamirano (endorsed DFL candidate) appeared at an event with Don Samuels. I’d say there’s an overall perception that Dan is running against Rebecca; everyone seems to like Iris, and few people are taking Ira all that seriously. So, I can understand her suspicion of the groups that are Don boosters, although I kind of think she may be shooting herself in the foot by treating them like they contaminate all that they touch.

Don Samuels

Don ran for mayor last year, and I remember thinking that given how focused he was on education issues (which the mayor of Minneapolis has very little to do with) he ought to be running for school board. And now he is. And…I have some big hesitations about him.

He’s a board member at Teach for America. You know, I really appreciate the energy, drive, and idealism of people who teach with TFA but in point of fact, very few teachers are all that good their very first year. I do support alternative certification programs; I think there’s something really nutty about the fact that if you have a PhD in Physics, you can’t teach science to high school students unless you go and get a Master’s degree in Education. (I’m not saying you should be able to waltz in off the street with your PhD and teach high school students, I’m just saying that demanding a whole separate graduate program is not enforcing professionalism, it’s enforcing hoop-jumping.) But the thing about TFA is that it’s all about teaching for two years and then doing something else, so basically a bunch of kids in the neediest schools are getting one teacher’s Probable Worst Year Ever after another. This is not helpful.

I mean, with a newly minted teacher, someone has to be the first year, just as someone’s going to have to be the first patient intubated or stitched up by that new resident in the ER. If the person’s goal is to become a teacher as a career, then you know, some class full of kids will have to suck it up. But I have some huge reservations about providing an endless stream of two-year teachers to the students who most need really GOOD teachers.

If I were going to set up a program like TFA, I would exploit the enthusiastic recent graduates by employing them as EAs and one-on-one reading and math tutors and after-school enrichment providers. I might even add a coursework component and make this an alternative certification option.

Here’s the other thing about Don: I am super hesitant about these groups backing him. On the other hand, he’s also endorsed by RT Rybak and a whole lot of City Council members (past and present) as well as two former school board members.

So, looking at his actual website, there’s stuff I like and stuff I don’t like. “We often hear that poverty is a barrier in education that cannot be overcome. We know that is just not true. Two of Minneapolis’ best schools are Harvest Prep Academy and Hiawatha Academy, and those schools serve 99%+ kids of color, 95%+ free or reduced lunch kids, and yet their outcomes beat the state average by double digits every year.” Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Academy are both charter schools. And he’s right; they do a stunning job. Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul does, too, with a similar population. It’s absolutely worth asking what these schools are doing and how they’re doing it and what strategies can MPS try.

On the other hand, he wants a longer school day and year. At my kids’ old school in Minneapolis, they got twenty minutes total for lunch and recess, K through 8. Six and a half hours with a ten minute recess is bad enough. If the school day is getting extended, they also need to make recess (real recess) mandatory.

He talks about useful and timely data. He doesn’t acknowledge that he’s talking about still more testing. He talks about teacher quality: “Teachers cannot be viewed as interchangeable parts. We need to identify great teachers, no matter what their background and training, and empower them to succeed. Once we’ve done that, we should be aiming to get the best teachers in front of the neediest kids.” Here’s the thing about that. I can tell you about great teachers I had, and great teachers my kids have had. I can even tell you precisely what made some of them so great. But I cannot tell you how to measure it. I can’t tell you how to incentivize it. Neither can anyone else. The problem with identifying great teachers is that way too often it involves identifying teachers who are particularly good at teaching to the test, or teachers who are particularly good at being well-liked by their peers. You can use metrics with some professions but teaching is a really, really, really hard one to measure.

He also talks about Early Childhood Learning (which is great, we agree on that completely) and on the role and importance of parents (ditto).

Iris Altamirano

Iris has a compelling political biography: she was the daughter of a school custodian who went to Cornell University, shocking the socks off the local school superintendent who pulled her mother aside and said, “why YOUR DAUGHTER?” (to which she responded, “why NOT my daughter?!?”) (Don Samuels also has a compelling political biography: he’s an immigrant from Jamaica who came over, was really successful in business, and turned to community service. He still lives in one of the more challenging neighborhoods in Minneapolis.)

Her issues page emphasizes kindergarten readiness (by funding High 5), thinking about the needs of students who are new immigrants, good teachers and principals, and community building.

You know, this really is the problem with figuring out who to vote for in school board races in Minneapolis.

To be honest, I would love to see a candidate say that they want to say to hell with kindergarten readiness, let’s think about what kindergarten was originally supposed to be for and focus on first grade readiness. Originally, kindergarten was supposed to be universal preschool, where kids could learn their colors and work on their fine motor skills to get better with crayons and scissors and learn school behaviors like sitting down and paying attention. Over time we’ve transformed kindergarten into what we used to refer to as “first grade” and defeated the whole entire purpose of that preparatory year so now once again we’re dealing with a readiness gap between those kids who arrive knowing the letters of the alphabet and those kids who arrive never having experienced any sort of formal school environment in their lives.

I know, this is crazy talk. You would never ever ever in a million years hear a DFLer say that in Minneapolis, but I really think it’s worth considering as a strategy. They did, at some point after Molly’s (truly disastrous) Kindergarten year at her Minneapolis school, assign an aide to every kindergarten classroom, which is a really good idea. When Kiera was in preschool, I remember that in the younger rooms, the lead teacher would assertively lead everyone over to the rug for storytime while two assistant teachers would round up and redirect the kids who were having trouble changing over to this new activity. If a kid got restless during storytime, it could still continue while the assistant teachers soothed, quieted, distracted, or (if all else failed) removed the disruptive kid. It really helped with the process of socializing kids to the norms of a classroom.

Anyway, Iris has a truly impressive list of endorsements that includes Keith Ellison, most of the City Council members, a bunch of state legislators including the House Education Chair, a long list of current and former school board members, the DFL and all the unions (except for the Teacher’s Union, which opted not to endorse directly and instead instructed its members to vote for whoever the DFL endorsed).

Ira Jourdain

Ira was an extremely distant fourth in the primary. (Rebecca came in first with 31%, then Don with 27%, then Iris with 23%, then Ira with 6%.) This is largely being treated as a three-person race for two seats. Turnout for the primary was super low, though, making it hard to really suss out what’s likely to happen on Election Day.

Ira’s from the Red Lake band of Ojibwe (I think) and works at one of the human services organizations that serves Native Americans. His “platform letter” says that he thinks MPS is putting its resources in the wrong places. “For our youngest students kindergarten classes are too full. For our oldest students our high schools do not completely offer culturally relevant curriculum that engages them and welcomes them into their learning environment.”

I totally agree with him on class sizes. Minneapolis has appalling class sizes. The standard class size is 27 students K-3, 32 students 4-5, and I’m not even sure what happens in the upper grades. It’s ridiculous. The charter schools, all of which get less money per student, all manage to have much smaller class sizes. For a while Minneapolis blamed the fact that they had a bunch of half-empty schools that they were paying to heat; then they closed a bunch of schools so I’m not sure what their excuse is now.

I have some real hesitation about “culturally relevant” curricula. I went to an elementary school that was wildly enthusiastic about being RELEVANT and somewhat less worried about supplying factual content. Also, what kids need varies a lot. (He talks about that, too, saying that we shouldn’t use a one-size-fits-all standard of teaching.) There are kids who will learn science better if they’re exploring culturally relevant topics like ethanol and the water quality of the nearest lake; other kids want a more methodical and structured curriculum rather than a topic-driven one.

He also talks about wraparound services; this is the approach that says, “a kid is not going to do well in school if he’s not getting health care, if he doesn’t have enough to eat, if his family is homeless,” and tries to make sure that services to provide nutrition, stability, and health care are being provided. I totally agree in principle while also kind of resenting the fact that we’re dumping yet more stuff on schools. (It really should not be the school’s job to make sure kids have access to health care; it should just be a societal given.)

I think I’m going to come down on the side of Iris and Rebecca but I may change my mind before the election.

Election 2014: U.S. House in District 4 and District 5

Both District 4 (St. Paul and some suburbs) and District 5 (Minneapolis and some suburbs) are rather solidly DFL districts. The 4th District was last represented by a Republican in the late 1940s; the 5th in the 1960s. We do have Republicans running in both these districts this time around and strange things do happen, but these are not generally considered to be competitive races.

In District 4, here’s who’s on the ballot:

DAVE THOMAS – INDEPENDENCE
SHARNA WAHLGREN – REPUBLICAN
BETTY MCCOLLUM – DEMOCRATIC-FARMER-LABOR

Dave Thomas

So whereas the Independence candidate in the Senate race was running somewhere to the right of the Republican, the Independence candidate here (who is actually endorsed by the Independence party, unlike the guy in the Senate race) is running to the left of the Democrat. Whereas the Independence guy in the Senate race is your embarrassing bigoted uncle, the Independence guy in the Congressional race is your extremely liberal and overly enthusiastic very young cousin whose Facebook feed has more than its share dubiously sourced re-shares about the dangers of plastic water bottles or whatever it is this week. When you talk to him at family parties, he wants to buttonhole you about some ISSUE that he is currently passionate about. One Thanksgiving it was the paleo diet; another it was marijuana legalization. You don’t actually disagree with him about much of this stuff, mind you, but his passionate declarations of fervent belief make you realize that you’ve gotten old.

Dave Thomas doesn’t give a bio on his campaign website, which had me wondering if he was still in college. His Facebook page, however, says that he is “an Iraq War veteran, volunteer firefighter and works in the special education department at Brimhall Elementary in Roseville, MN. He is happily married with two beautiful children.”

Anyway! He wants a system of state-funded tuition-free public higher education, and in the meantime we should forgive all loan debt. He wants universal paid maternity leave. He wants a manned mission to Mars and a 5% increase in our National Park lands. He wants energy self-sufficiency in eleven years, he wants marijuana legalization, he wants the NSA to be defunded.

To pay for the stuff like tuition-free college, he wants a new tax code: “A sliding scale, percentage-based flat tax on all income generated (from the federal level) would rectify most of the problematic situations that our current code perpetuates.” I’m not sure what a sliding-scale flat tax is, other than contradictory sounding.

Under Veteran’s Affairs, he suggests that when members of the Armed Service go through extensive training equivalent to a technical degree, we call it an Associate’s Degree. This strikes me as possibly really reasonable (and wouldn’t cost anything extra — essentially it’s a way of upgrading the credentials soldiers are already coming home with into something employers recognize). I wonder why this isn’t what they do now?

Possibly the funniest, from the National Security section “It should be illegal to sell any seed which is unable to produce viable offspring.” So just to be clear: he thinks it should be illegal to grow seedless watermelons. (Marijuana: legalize and tax. Seedless watermelons: BAN.) (I’m sure he’s actually thinking of some of the varieties of corn developed by Monsanto that are specifically designed to make it impossible for you to save seeds. But his proposed legislation basically bans hybrid garden vegetables.) Dammit, Dave Thomas, YOU CAN HAVE MY SEEDLESS WATERMELON WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS.

Sharna Wahlgren

Sharna is the Republican. She provides a fairly standard political bio (community service on non-profit boards, work ethic honed by high school labor at the State Fair) and states that her priorities are fiscal responsibility, local solutions, and job growth. She’s got a paragraph about each. I salute her willingness to run in a race she’s going to lose, and her pragmatism in accepting that this is not a campaign worth investing a lot of time in.

Betty McCollum

Betty is liberal and hardworking, and has so far avoided embarrassing us with any scandals or criminal behavior. I kind of preferred being represented by Keith Ellison just because he upsets so many Republicans just by existing, but I really have no complaints about Betty. I’m going to vote for her.

In District 5, here’s who’s on the ballot:

LEE BAUER – INDEPENDENCE
DOUG DAGGETT – REPUBLICAN
KEITH ELLISON – DEMOCRATIC-FARMER-LABOR

Lee Bauer

I clicked on Lee Bauer’s website with trepidation, eager to find out which variety of Independence nutbar I’d find.

I don’t really want to make fun of him, but I wouldn’t vote for him, either. Lee is a blue-collar, working class, gay single father. (Based on the age of his kid, I’m guessing he had a brief marriage to a woman.) He’s earnest and means well but is overly fond of exclamation points and doesn’t know much about most of the issues.

For example, here’s his comment on drug costs: “Prescription drugs, by bring down the price of will benefit the ones with chronic symptoms and the older folks. How about asthma for instance, There is a drug called Albuterol, it was put on the market 1968, the year I was born, Albuterol 5 years ago was $17.00 cash with no insurance, but today it’s $57.00, and if you were to buy in Mexico its less than five dollars for three bottles. One bottle would last a month for most and this is one drug of many that can be lowed.”

I had basically the same question last year — WTF is up with albuterol prices? This is not a new drug; why does it cost so goddamn much? It turns out that this is due to environmental regulations. The old inhalers contained CFCs. CFCs were banned by an international treaty in 1996 because they were causing ozone layer depletion; the albuterol inhalers that used CFCs were phased out in 2008. The new formulation is legally a new drug and so it’s under patent again (or maybe it’s the inhaler design that’s new? I am not 100% sure.) Anyway, that’s why albuterol suddenly costs so much. There were a lot of things that the government could have done differently to mitigate the situation; I would be a lot more interested in his ideas if he got into any of that, but he doesn’t.

Anyway, a lot of his website is like that.

Doug Daggett

Doug has another fairly standard political bio (his first job was delivering the morning paper). He’s 50, married, a tech sales person, and reasonably competent with Twitter. He presents himself as a fairly moderate Republican, suggesting changes to the Affordable Care Act rather than demanding it be immediately repealed. (He thinks people should have catastrophic coverage policies and HSAs.)

The bit that made me roll my eyes and think, “so very Republican” was this bit on education:

We all want our children to have a great education and great opportunities. Yet in Minneapolis, most likely 1/2 of our children (46%) will not graduate. This is an economic and social disaster for all of us in the 5th Congressional District! We need a leader who will get Washington DC out of our schools and allow teachers and parents to decide what’s best for our children. Doug Daggett is that leader.

Minneapolis is doing a crap job, therefore get Washington DC out because local control is the answer!

Keith Ellison

Keith is a solidly liberal, hard-working Representative who so far hasn’t embarrassed his constituents with scandals or criminal behavior.

But what I really adored about Keith Ellison back when I was living in Minneapolis was being able to tell my out-of-town friends that I was represented by a pro-Choice pro-marriage-equality Muslim black guy. Keith Ellison has been making right-wing heads explode since he took his Oath of Office on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran.

Were I living in Minneapolis, I would definitely vote for Keith.