Storming 807

Mike Wohnoutka

Some years ago, Bob Rose asked me to speak to his 12th-grade Roosevelt High School social-studies class. It was during the Gulf War, and the two things I remember are that the room looked like a used bookstore (ratty magazines and second-hand paperbacks piled everywhere) and that the kids had a much better grasp of what was going on in Kuwait than anyone pontificating on TV. A teacher-figure straight from central casting--white-haired, earnest-looking, with a dash of ridicule around the eyes--Rose hovered in the background, jumping in occasionally with what seemed to be random questions: "What do you think?" "What do you mean, you think?" By the time it was over I was exhausted, but the kids stuck around for more.

At the time, Rose was telling me he planned to keep teaching until he didn't enjoy it anymore. Three years later, his doctor told him it might not be his choice to make. I hadn't heard from him in a while when, early this summer, I opened the Star Tribune metro section to find his face. It was gaunter than I remembered, but still as quizzical. He was running for school board.

This was an odd endeavor. Everyone knows that around here, few enough people care about school elections to make sure that the DFL sample ballot always wins. (Granted, a few years ago a woman named Elizabeth Swenson came from nowhere to make a healthy showing; but she had the right gender and name.)

But Rose made it through the primary, and there is a chance--albeit small--he'll pull through November 4. After all, the three DFL endorsees are all incumbents, and given the state of the schools that's not a plus. It would take 20,000 votes for him to win, Rose figures, or about one per city block. He's got an active and growing campaign cadre; a flier printed on ancient, but trusty equipment by an International Workers of the World veteran out in Montana (it's a long story). And he's been at all the public forums asking nasty questions, which alone should earn him a medal in this remarkably insipid election season.

CP: How did all this start?

ROSE: A lot of teachers really pressured me to run because they realized the incumbents were sailing along without dealing with the issues. Then it was July 14 and I got a call from a principal. He said, "Bob, it's just awful. Just go and check out this new building they got." Turned out 807 [Broadway, school shorthand for central administration] leased another building, over by the university campus. It's $400,000 a year, which doesn't include furniture or fixtures. The people they are putting in there were scattered throughout the system. But they wanted everybody to be together. Anything to be away from the kids.

So I came home and I really went crazy. I said I've spent 47 years in the public schools, 39 in Minneapolis. I've been to or watched every school-board meeting since 1968. And it's the same damn foolishness. Kids are always shortchanged, and the administration always gets the frosting, and the world is turned upside down. And Donna put her hands on her hips and said, "Either run for school board or shut up." The next day, the last day of filing, I went down and filed, and then I wrote 100 letters to people I trusted and told them what I had done. They all said they'd help.

CP: In your flier you name a couple of "key issues." You've already hit on "Wasteful Bureaucracy." What about "Social Promotion?"

ROSE: That's the one the incumbents are really defensive about. At every community meeting they say, "Research shows this, and research shows that." I don't care what the research says. My wife is still teaching second grade at Kenwood, and of 20 students she had last year, eight should have been retained. But the principal says you can't retain them. So now she sees them in third grade, and every day they're getting more lost than they were last year. By the time you get to 12th grade, some are going to read at the college level and some are not going to read at all. It's like you put kids in an ash heap. They're never going to have a chance.

I think we need a Marshall Plan for the schools. There should be such a thing as kindergarten that opens at 7 in the morning. You've got one teacher who works from 7 to 3 and another who works from 10 to 6, and those children will hear nothing but English--we have so many now who come in with very few words of English--and they'll get some discipline, some good inputs. And if there are parents who don't want their child away for that long, okay, then put them on the school bus [for] kindergarten from 8:30 to 2:30. Give people some choices. But of course there's no money for that. I get furious with our priorities in the system.  

CP: What do you think the priorities are?

ROSE: They say it's children, they always say it's children. The rhetoric is impressive. But there is no genuine reform, no concern for the grassroots. Everything emanates from downtown. It's a pampered elite down there--$90,000 salaries and a $250-a-month car allowance. Why would they need a car allowance? They bring retired administrators back for $150 an hour--a friend of mine was told to come back for the easy money.

But the average amount each teacher takes out of her pockets to subsidize the school every year is $678. Every teacher I ever taught with was always digging in their pockets, loaning kids money, buying things.

So I say, close down 807 one day a week. They have a four-day work week during the summer, why not the rest of the year? Most of those people are licensed teachers. Put them in the classroom every Friday.

I'll give you another example. This year, Minneapolis schools will get $48.83 million in compensatory aid, which is $10 million more than the year before. This is supposed to go to the [individual] schools, but the most they've gotten is 40 percent. The other 60 percent stays downtown. And at the school-board meeting September 30, the board said we're not going to send any compensatory funds down to the schools until those schools have a plan in place.

That board is so far away from reality. There isn't a school in Minneapolis that hasn't been planning for years. Those teachers and parents are not going to run away with that money. They are going to show where they need professionals, where they need ancillary personnel, where they need materials. They're going to have receipts, for heaven's sakes.

So that's the reason I'm running. I don't need it, but I thought, maybe just by virtue of being on the board and asking questions, I could make some changes. There are enough people who would support some of these ideas I've got.

CP: What would it take for you to get elected?

ROSE: I've looked at all the numbers from 1965 to 1995 and it's true that the DFL endorsement is tantamount to election. But they're in a tussle with me because I have good name recognition and I have so many people out there working with me. I want people to campaign for me who know me, who have worked with me or have been in my classes. They carry on the things they picked up in the classroom.

CP: What are those?

ROSE: First of all, I don't think you can teach any kid until they're ready to learn. You've got to find out where they are. Their sensibilities, their background, how fast they learn, who are the leaders, who are the people who are set in their ways--all the factors that go into assessing a group of 25, 30 people. Then I toss out feelers like you do when you go fishing, and I try to fish for some kind of commonality. Usually it's something very close to home, something they feel very strongly about or they've had an argument about or whatever.

With Columbus in '92, that was a natural. I went to the Smithsonian and brought out all the materials they had, did a lot of reading, and got many Native American speakers. We went back in history--what was Europe like before that period of exploration? What was the aftermath? There's no secret there. You don't stick to a textbook. You cannot teach by giving kids a textbook and writing the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter. That's not education. And I'm not sure that we're not going back to that with these graduation standards--everything cognitive, tell me the first three amendments to the Constitution, the first seven presidents.

The hardest thing to teach is attitude. And you don't get an attitude by talking. You get an attitude by being involved. How do you become more tolerant of somebody different than you? It's by becoming acquainted with them. And if you can't become acquainted personally, you can go through the literature, or you can get a video, eat some food, prepare the damn food, grind the corn.

I had a student teacher once, and we were covering the 1920s, how that period changed America, how we still have influences from it culturally, musically, and so on. So we decided we would do the Charleston. We took every bit of furniture out of the room and did the Charleston for a couple of days. This was a big guy. He had the kids in the palm of his hand.  

CP: Those things all sound as if they'd take a lot of time and money.

ROSE: Not that much. But you do need a good library. The libraries in the schools right now are filled with books that mean nothing to the students. So I used to have soapboxes, with a card catalog. One soapbox had maybe 25 copies of a Time magazine that had something about abortion. Another would have something about Abe Lincoln's view on slavery. Another had something about Marco Polo. I used to have 300 or 400, but I ran out of room.

But you know, that student teacher who did the Charleston--he couldn't get an interview downtown. He had a great resume, went to work in Kodiak, Alaska, in Japan, in Saudi Arabia. I was trying to get him back here, and he sent his resume in. They said, "We don't need any teachers." Now we find out they're 275 teachers short, and at South they have 40 students in a classroom.

CP: You taught at Roosevelt. In the Minneapolis school hierarchy, that's not considered one of the fancier places.

ROSE: No, not like Washburn and Southwest. A lot of working-class parents. But I think every school is about the same in many ways. The great thing with kids is, they're not set in their ways yet. They don't hide their ignorance. If you throw things at them, they grab them, they really build on them.

CP: What I'm getting at is that it seems as if you can get two very different kinds of education in the Minneapolis system. If you know what you want and how to get it, there are some incredible opportunities. If you don't...

ROSE: You know, I looked at South because they've turned out an awful lot of good students. I think the reason why South is so unusual is that yes, they have a strong faculty and they have a magnet. But the key, and the thing that can happen in any school, is the music program. If you have 150, say 200 students in music, that means you have a minimum of 200 parents that are supportive. And they are the core of the school, they set the tempo, and everyone else follows. It's about how you build a community. Roosevelt had some of the best music programs around. Now the emphasis isn't there. And it's not that the kids aren't as musical anymore.

Last night I met with a firefighter, an ex-student. He said you know, Mr. Rose--you're always Mr. Rose to the students--a lot of these new firefighters are scared to live in the city because they don't have the money to send their kids to a nonpublic school. They look at the public schools and they're just shaking their head. I said, "You know, I think they can be turned around." But it means taking those resources, $571 million in the budget--$571,397,863--and focusing that on children. We've got to say, "As school board members, we represent the citizens who own the schools. And it's our job to see that these citizens who are the owners of the school are educated, empowered."

CP: How much have you spent on the campaign?

ROSE: $818. To date.

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