Mission: Impossible

A radically retooled Minneapolis School Board tries to stop the bleeding and start over

''What we've inherited is a big ball of ugly," says Chris Stewart. "No matter where you touch it, pull on it, it's ugly."

The topic is the Minneapolis Public Schools, and Stewart is so engrossed he's been trying to get the same tidy, precise rectangle of chicken enchilada to his mouth for 15 minutes, without success. He picks the fork up, gets it halfway to his lips, and gets derailed by another thought. The fork hovers for a moment, and then slowly sinks back to the plate.

Stewart has served on Minneapolis's Board of Education for a scant six weeks, during which time it's become clear that there will be no honeymoon. The backlog of business left undone by the last board is too big, the weeks ahead hold little but unpleasant decisions: Some 13 schools and programs will probably need to be closed, contract negotiations with the teachers' union haven't begun but are already threatening to turn nasty, and over the next three years a $50 million budget shortfall is forecast.

And those are just the fires that need to be put out immediately. In the medium term, someone has to figure out how to stanch the exodus of kids leaving the district—25 percent in the last six years, with projected continuing losses of 4 to 5 percent a year.

"No one respects the board," Stewart says. "No one expects it to make things happen."

Even though most people would agree, this isn't the kind of talk people are used to hearing from politicians. Stewart doesn't seem to care. For starters, in a city where DFL endorsees are school board shoo-ins, he's a conservative African American evangelical—not the kind of guy who typically makes it through the party caucus. Moreover, he has already weathered Minneapolis's biggest campaign-season scandal.

Within hours of his election, Stewart was discovered to have authored a racially charged satire of white congressional candidate Tammy Lee's website. It wasn't intended for public consumption, but Stewart himself conceded it showed "horrible judgment."

The teachers' union wanted him to resign, the Star Tribune implored him not to take office. "The City Council was ready to pass a resolution against me, Chris Stewart, citizen," he says.

Who better to make unpopular decisions than someone whose reputation can't get any worse? "I have the luxury at this point to speak exactly what I think," he says, one hand headed back to the table for his fork, the other holding his tie back from the sauce. "And I don't bank shots."

Of course, Minneapolis Public Schools has a reputation problem of its own. In four years the district has lost 10,000 students and had four superintendents, two of whom left following flare-ups involving race. The board gave the third, African American Thandiwe Peebles, a $180,000 settlement to leave despite evidence that, in addition to having a caustic style, she used highly paid district staff to do university coursework she needed to complete to get her superintendent's license, to walk her dog, and to run other personal errands.

By the time Peebles left town, parents, teachers, and administrators alike had become so enraged that the board was forced to conduct entire meetings during which phalanxes of parents and activists stood in the back of the room jeering. Four of the seven board members decided not to stand for re-election; at least two, former board chair Joe Erickson and veteran Judy Farmer, were likely to lose.

In the end, Sharon Henry-Blythe, Peggy Flanagan, and Lydia Lee were re-elected. Joining them are newcomers Stewart, DFL activist and former Wellstone intimate Pam Costain, African American community activist Theatrice "T." Williams, and businessman Tom Madden—hardly the usual MPS cast of characters.

Much of Minneapolis sees the situation as hopeless. But by Stewart's lights, a board dominated by newcomers, and a to-do list frontloaded with the painful decisions that wore the last board down, is a tremendous opportunity.

Call it the fastest political rehabilitation in Minnesota history, but Chris Stewart might turn out to be the reformer with the best chance of actually unsnarling that big ball of ugly.

 

STEWART IS FALLING, HARD. HE'S been at Pratt Community School for about 20 minutes, and each new detail the two dads leading his tour reveal just deepens the infatuation.

This is bad. With just four classrooms and a student body of 90, Pratt, at first blush, would seem the type of school on the table for cutting. The dads are armed, however, and as they lead Stewart down a wide, tranquil hallway they unspool a backstory peppered with charm. The building dates to 1898, when streetcars running a block to the north on University Avenue delivered downtown workers home to what was essentially one of Minneapolis's early bedroom communities.

In the last five years, the building has undergone painstaking restoration, much of it paid for by the Prospect Park neighborhood association. The woodwork is original, as are the elaborate pediments on the facade. Sunlight streams in through retrofitted windows, turning the walls a buttery shade popular in Pottery Barn catalogs.

Outside the classroom where Stewart is supposed to read to kindergarteners, an easel holds a rainbow-hued poster welcoming him. Inside, 28 children quickly array themselves, criss-cross-applesauce, on a rug. There's some wiggling, and quite a few fingers that can't stay out of their owners' nostrils, but mostly the kids are astonishingly well behaved.

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