If anyone had any doubts about the DFL's hegemony over the makeup of the Minneapolis School Board, the results of last week's primary should have laid them to rest. A few weeks ago, the names Lydia Lee and Peggy Flanagan were known only to a hardy band of education activists within the party. But on primary day, the pair buried the 16-person field of school board candidates, with each triumphing over the third-place finisher by a better than two to one margin. (The top six candidates will advance to a run-off election for three seats.)
It's apparent that the DFL endorsement was the overwhelming reason why Lee and Flanagan, in that order, vanquished all comers in the primary. Neither woman offered up specific programs to aid the ailing district that aren't currently being tried by the existing board. Lee, a 56-year-old retired math teacher who is Chinese American, and Flanagan, a 24-year-old youth worker for a small Minneapolis nonprofit and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, both argue for greater diversity in the schools. And both advocate closing the achievement gap between white students and nonwhite students. (It's questionable how many voters actually learned about these unexceptional positions from either their individual websites or an August candidates' debate sponsored by the Urban League and KMOJ radio.)
Ironically, the likely ascension of Lee and Flanagan to the board after the November election creates the distinct possibility that greater diversity may leave the seven-person body without an African American member. This, despite the fact that the board sets policy for a school district that currently possesses a 43 percent plurality of African American students. Not coincidentally, there was not a single black candidate in last week's primary field endorsed by the DFL.
The third-place finisher in the primary, Sharon Henry-Blythe, is an African American incumbent who was endorsed by the party in her previous, successful bid for office. But Henry-Blythe has recently been outspoken about the need for the local teachers' union to allow more flexibility in its seniority guidelines, which have resulted in such fiascos as this summer's teacher realignments and the massive layoff of low-seniority African American educators. The union is a major force within the DFL.
In November, Henry-Blythe or another incumbent, fourth-place finisher Dennis Schapiro, would seem to have a good shot at being reelected. But in late October, less than two weeks before Election Day, the district is scheduled to announce its preliminary plan for closing some schools in the district. This emotional and controversial action is sure to stir up anti-incumbent sentiment among voters whose schools will be shuttered. That offers hope to fifth-place primary finisher Sandra Miller, an African American and former board member, and sixth-place finisher David Dayhoff, a Republican campaigning on a platform of greater control at the neighborhood school level.
In short, that third board seat looks to be hotly contested. But the other two, surprise surprise, will belong to the DFL.