What makes a school board work — or not?

Minneapolis Public Schools District Headquarters
Minneapolis Public Schools District Headquarters (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Related content: See our special Mpls School Board election coverage: MPS Board candidates talk to the MSR

What makes a good school board? According to a 2005 published article by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, there are five key characteristics: primary focus on student achievement; effective allocation of resources across the entire district; ensuring the return on investment; effective use of data; and community engagement.

“The best school boards understand that student learning is job one,” summarized the article, noting that nearly every school board in this country fails to meet all five characteristics.

The Minneapolis public school system was created in the late 19th century, and the school board was a result of a merger between the St. Anthony and Minneapolis school districts after the 1878 election. Several years ago the Minnesota Legislature allowed school boards and voters around the state to decide whether or not to expand. The Minneapolis board decided to expand from seven to nine members and set up district representation with two at-large spots in 2009.

The nine city districts were redrawn in 2010, and a non-voting student representative was added in 2015. Each member serves a four-year term, and they can run for reelection as often as they like.

Bernadeia Johnson
Bernadeia Johnson Photo by Charles Hallman

The Minneapolis School Board meets regularly on the second or third Tuesday of each month at the Davis Center. According to its website, the city school board’s main responsibilities include hiring the superintendent, who serves as its CEO; overseeing the district’s budget, curriculum, personnel and facilities; and the board is “responsible for policies that govern education for Minneapolis Public Schools students.”

Currently, eight candidates are vying for four open seats in this year’s election. In recent years the Minneapolis School Board has been oft-criticized for questionable decision-making, micromanaging the superintendent, being disconnected from the community and being dysfunctional. School boards are often criticized when they are charged with dealing with ongoing issues such as low graduation rates and budgetary concerns, said Michael Casserly of the Council on Great City Schools in a published article.

“I do feel like one of the things that’s problematic of a school board within urban centers is that every four years there is a new group of people, a turnover every four years,” explained Former Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson in an MSR phone interview. She served as superintendent from 2011 to 2015.

“If the superintendent changes, and the board changes, it is hard to get traction on work,” she continued. “It’s hard to get something really going. The people who were committed to the vision of the superintendent are gone, and the people who are on don’t like the superintendent and want to change what happened.”

It has been nearly two years since Johnson stepped down from the position of superintendent. The Minneapolis board is “high up there on the dysfunction scale,” said Johnson, who also worked in St. Paul and Memphis school districts. “I’ve been with some boards [where members] wanted to fight [with one another]. When you have dysfunction like that, it affects the work. You have people who won’t speak to each other, who won’t problem-solve together. You have people in collusion to remove the superintendent. That’s dyfunctioning to me.

“I can be objective about it,” reflected Johnson. She added that her relationship with the board as a whole was challenging at times, and she never felt the board’s full support during her tenure. “I feel like I have learned a lot and had time to think about it.”

Furthermore, Johnson noted that the present city school board setup has made it more political than ever. “It encourages board members to be more myopic, more focused on their area. Even though they talk about the entire city, what I found were board members who came to the table thinking about their districts and not the entire school district.”

Board members with single-issue agendas “and folk who are in it for their own glorification” can be bothersome as well, said Johnson. This makes decisions for all kids — especially a school district such as Minneapolis, with a diverse student population — even more challenging.

“There are a lot of shenanigans behind the scenes in terms of getting resources as well,” said Johnson. “It absolutely plays out in the inequities.

“I feel that sometimes school boards feel the pressure from the community,” Johnson said. “I think school boards need to realize that…results aren’t going to happen overnight. School boards have to stand up for the superintendent, too.”

Is there a “perfect” school board member?

“You need someone who’s had experiences supervising people, had experiences in meetings and experience in how to work with people,” responded Johnson. This, as Johnson explained, is better than persons elected who “come aboard because they are mad about something. They advocate for it and push and push to get what they want for their select group of parents or community…and [are] tone deaf to the needs of others.”

Some members use their board position as a springboard to a political career, Johnson pointed out. “School boards have been stepping stones or training grounds for people who want to serve in municipal positions, especially city council,” she added.

Some believe that a school board selected by the mayor might be better, said Johnson. As for the current eight-candidate slate, “I think that in each race there is a clear choice. There are people that I feel would be better suited in terms of temperament, togetherness, and them knowing that they are not the lone person to make change but have to do [so] in a collective way… Ultimately my wish [is that] every board would stand behind the superintendent.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.