Still Bozos: Minneapolis School Board members resist electoral reform

It is disappointing, but hardly surprising that the primary opposition to new legislation that would reform the way Minneapolis School Board members are elected is coming from the board members themselves. Sponsored by Rep. Jim Davnie and Sen. Wes Skoglund (both DFL-Minneapolis), the bill would have school board representation mirror that of the Minneapolis Park Board, with six members each elected from a specific geographical district and three more chosen on an at-large, city-wide basis. Currently, all seven school board members run city-wide.

This is the third year in a row Davnie has introduced the bill, but, as he says, "Objective observers have said they think there is a good chance of it passing this year. It has passed both committees required in the Senate and awaits action on the Senate floor. It passed two committees in the House last year and all it needs to go to the floor is to go through the education policy committee that passed it last year--it is a parliamentary issue--and the chair has assured me that we'll get a hearing."

Why is the third time apparently the charm? The disastrous "resignation" of Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles earlier this winter further soured opinions about the board's credibility and responsiveness to parents in the city, a disconnect that Davnie believes existed before the board helped usher Peebles out the door. "Parents are frustrated that when they have an issue with a school, they don't know who to call. Because all the board members are elected at-large, nobody really knows all the school families and has both the formal and informal networks established to understand where your particular area of town is coming from. This bill will help the board be more grounded within the communities they serve."

But board chair Joseph Erickson told the Star Tribune earlier this week that he thinks the district would be better served by a board that treats the system as an "organic whole" and warns of turf wars as "different parts of the city vie for resources." That's a disingenuous statement given persistent and longstanding sentiment, particularly among parents on the northern side of town, that the board is biased toward the more affluent southwestern neighborhoods. In particular, they point to the most recent spate of school closings, which mostly spared the southwestern area. And parents with children in schools in more impoverished neighborhoods cite the recent contract the board negotiated with the teacher's union, which continues to afford an enormous amount of leverage for teachers with seniority to determine where they are placed, enabling the most experienced teachers to create quality enclaves in schools where there are fewer social problems.

Asked who is opposing the bill, Davnie says, "The school board has repeatedly come down to testify against it. I know that both Joe Erickson and [board member] Lydia Lee were at the Senate Education Committee. Otherwise, I know of no other opposition at this time.

"Mayor Rybak is a strong supporter this year, and that is a new development," Davnie continues. "I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think education was one of those quiet but everpresent issues during his election last year, with a lot of people telling him that they want to see the board more responsive to schools. And now this year he is supporting the bill. You can draw your own conclusions."

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