Monday, November 03, 2008

Cam Gordon on Minneapolis School Board Accountability

I am encouraging folks to vote for the ABC/Establishment of School Board Election Districts Referendum
The ballot question reads "SCHOOL DISTRICT BALLOT QUESTION 2 – ESTABLISHMENT OF ELECTION DISTRICTS FOR SPECIAL SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1. Shall the Board of Special School District No. 1, Minneapolis Public Schools consist of six members elected by district and three members elected at-large for a total of nine members? Board of education members elected on or prior to November 4, 2008 shall complete their terms. The six districts shall be of equal population and shall initially coincide with the six park board districts for the Minneapolis Park Board. Three districts shall be given even numbers and three districts shall be given odd numbers."

This would create a board with some members elected at large and some from districts assuring that more families and all areas of the City are represented on the Board. Currently, 48% of school districts nationally elect some or all of the Members from districts. Over the last three years the majority of school boards that received awards for their quality of governance, relations with their communities, and progress on closing the achievement gap from the Council of Urban Boards of Education where boards that were elected by districts. Eleven School Boards in Minnesota currently elect their schools board by some sort of District including the state's largest- Anoka-Hennepin.

As a parent, I have had children in the Minneapolis Schools for over 20 years and it has been a persistent problem connecting with and getting effective and responsive representation from the School Board members, however talented and wonderful they may be. The at-large structure appears to make it most likely the board members will listen to staff and listen to each other and less likely that they will spend time attending and listening to residents at PTO, neighborhood association or other community meetings. Additionally, given the large number of schools throughout the City, it has never felt like anyone on the school board had the kind of in depth knowledge about the particular community, neighborhood and schools near where I live that would lead to me to believe that the particular concerns of those schools and neighborhoods were being reflected and represented well on the School Board.

As a City Council Member I know how valuable it is to have Colleagues on the City Council who do understand, and are accountable to, the residents in their particular part of the City. It helps me understand problems better and find solutions to them that serve the interests of the entire City. I also see how having a Park Board member, state legislators and a County Commission from particular parts of the City also helps me be part of a team or teams, who can work together to serve the neighborhoods we represent. There is no one from the School Board, however good they maybe, who I can turn to and work with in the same way. This was particularly clear earlier this year when schools in and near my ward were fighting for survival. Geographic representation has advantages. Don't get me wrong. I also believe that at-large representation can be valuable too and have often wondered how City Council decisions might be improved if we had one, two or three people, besides the mayor, representing the City as a Whole.
They are both valuable and with its blend of geographic and at-large representation I think that the re-structuring offered by this referendum provides the balance we need to make our school system work better for everyone.

At-large plurality elections are known for being the very hardest for minor party, independent and grassroots candidates to win. Running city-wide forces candidates to depend on doing well in the areas of our City where voter turn out is the highest and not to be as concerned with those areas where there are fewer voters. It also means that candidates typically need more money and/or the endorsements of major parties or well funded groups in order to campaign city-wide.

I believe that this amendment (that is endorsed by both the Green and DFL parties) will improve the School Board's responsiveness and accountability to the people of Minneapolis. It will ensure that every part of the city has a representative, which the current at-large election cannot do, and that there would be at least one board member able to develop a deeper understanding about each area of the City that they will be able to bring to the table during important school board policy decisions. Equality of geographic representation will help the public trust that tough decisions that can sometimes pit neighborhoods against each other are being made with equal concern about the fate of all Minneapolis neighborhoods. This new election method will provide more opportunities for diverse cultural and political voices to gain a seat at the table.


Cam Gordon

Seward neighbor and
Minneapolis City Council Member, Ward 2

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