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Osseo school district has a problem with race. Its board doesn't seem to know it.

Though kids of color make up the majority of students, the Osseo school board appears frozen in a different time.

Though kids of color make up the majority of students, the Osseo school board appears frozen in a different time. Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash.com

Robert Gerhardt changed his Facebook cover photo on April 20. It’s now a black-and-white photo of Al Gore with a 2009 quote saying the North Pole would be ice-free by the summer of 2013 because of “man-made global warming.” Gerhardt topped off his new photo by posted a long string of comments pretty much dismissing this whole climate change thing.

“There is nothing on Earth that didn’t come from the earth,” his comment under the post reads. “We aren’t putting *anything* into it.”

“OK Bob,” the next comment down reads.

The problem for a man who doesn't believe in basic science is that Gerhardt, until last month, was the chairman of the Osseo School Board. Though he’s been on the board since 2014, his Facebook page didn’t matter much until a Feb. 20 meeting. It was a week after a mass shooting ripped apart a Parkland, Florida high school when Gerhardt decided to share his idea for protecting students: armed volunteers.

He later changed his stance: On second thought, arming teachers would be wiser. 

His comments prompted parents to look at his social media. What they saw didn’t put their minds at ease.

“Umm, yeah. I’m just going to put this one out there and leave it at that,” he said in a Google+ post. It was a photo of a building on fire with a caption that read, “Migrants Burn Down Hall: ‘There’s Not Enough Nutella and Gummibears!’”

Concerned parents started to pass around some of the more flagrantly tone deaf memes. Pictures of Obama photoshopped as a criminal. A photo of a young black man with the headline “Minnesota Muslim Man Eating Bloody Meat Horrifies Citizens,” with the comment “Thank a Democrat. Thank Obama. You aren’t even safe from this wonderful ‘diversity’ in small town America.”

He denies posting the “bloody meat” photo.

The Nutella and Gummi Bears one, he admits, was him -- but he doesn’t think it’s racist or anything.

It’s worth saying a few things here about the district Gerhardt was overseeing. The Osseo School District, which spans Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Corcoran, Dayton, Maple Grove, Plymouth, Rogers, and Osseo itself, hasn’t had the best track record dealing with race.

Only 43 percent of its students are white, but white people make up the vast majority of the staff, and the district has been repeatedly called out for its failures to address the achievement gaps between white students and students of color. In 2015, it was one of the districts implicated in a suit against the state for allowing districts to make boundary changes that racially segregated their schools.

It also hasn’t always responded well to people calling out racism. That same year, Sharon Booth, a Brooklyn Park High School special education teacher, sued the district, saying her complaints about the principal and assistant principal’s racially charged comments got her fired. Booth, who is black, claimed a racial epithet was used during a staff meeting, while staffers would refer to black male students as “thugs.”

Into this climate came Gerhardt, suggesting the district arm its predominantly white staff to patrol its mostly non-white student body. The district got a deluge of emails from parents, and one particularly pointed letter from Me to We Racial Healing, a Minnesota group trying to address white privilege. They wanted Gerhardt off the board.

He resigned in March, leaving it up to remaining board members to choose a replacement. It offered a chance to course correct -- a chance to make sure everyone in the community had a say in the trajectory of the district. And that, Me to We organizer Andrea Morisette Grazzini says, is what local parents want.

At the time, there were no people of color on the board. 

The open seat attracted nine applicants, with plenty of excellent choices among them. Take Kelsey Dawson Walton, an African American parent of five students, who also happens to lead a Penn Avenue community improvement project for Hennepin County.

Or Bernadeia Johnson, the former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.

Or Jesse Winkler, a youth pastor and a parent to four African American students, who serves as an administrator to the Minneapolis Board of Education.

These candidates didn’t make the final three.

Instead, the board chose former member Dean Henke. His experience, proponents said, could get them through until Gerhardt’s term expires in January. The board is now composed of five representatives from Maple Grove, and one from Osseo – two of the eight cities Osseo represents.

Henke is also a white man and a former GOP Senate candidate – which Facebook commenters couldn’t help but notice.

“It makes no sense to me why he was chosen,” Grazzini says. Sure, Henke has experience, but all that means to her is more of the same problems with race and achievement gaps that the district has been having for years. She sent her concerns about the selection in a letter to the board members, and none of them responded.

“I would have liked to see more candidates from our applicant pool representing diverse backgrounds move on to the final round,” member Jessica Craig says. “Not all of my top three candidates made it through.”

Tanya Simons, a Mexican-American applicant, says she’s disappointed. She feels like the board passed on a chance to show they were listening to the community. 

“There have been some groups that have been asking for a different representation… and I had an opportunity to respond to those concerns,” she says. “It’s disappointing that that was not the case.”