Mpls Schools Supt. Johnson offers perspective on mayoral race

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September 19, 2013 // UPDATED 6:54 pm - September 22, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Minneapolis Public Schools Supt. Bernadeia Johnson has a favorite saying: “So goes Minneapolis Public Schools, so goes the City of Minneapolis.”

It seems the mayoral candidates have bought into that notion as debate about how to turnaround troubled schools in the city and improve educational outcomes for students regardless of their zip code or income level has dominated discussions throughout the campaign season. 

“People are finally getting that there should be some urgency to changing the trajectory of outcomes for students,” Johnson said in an interview this afternoon.

While she said she doesn’t plan on endorsing a particular candidate, she shared a list of ideal attributes of the next mayor.

“[The next mayor] should know and understand his or her influence, and though they are not directly responsible for the district, that they would use their influence and their ability to convene multiple audiences to convey urgency and support for the vision of the superintendent and Board of Education,” she said. “Their interest in education must be real and authentic because the people of Minneapolis will hold their feet to the fire.”

Johnson said she’d like to see the next mayor have a point person on education to stay abreast of issues facing Minneapolis Public Schools. She’d also like to see that person continue the city’s STEP-UP program championed by Mayor R.T. Rybak that matches low-income youth with summer internships with businesses, public agencies and nonprofits across the Twin Cities.

Additionally, she’d like the next mayor to be accessible and commit to meeting with her and the Board of Education on a regular basis.

Johnson also had high praise for the outgoing mayor, calling him a “great listener and an exceptional communicator.”

She said she was touched by a present he gave her — a paperweight she keeps on her desk with the following question on it: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

“Him giving this to me was really important because I make a lot of decisions people don’t like,” she said. “He gave me this off of his desk. It’s a reminder that you have to go about this work as if you won’t fail. You have to go into it with optimism.” 

Mayoral debate on educational reforms gets heated 

Earlier this week, six Minneapolis mayoral candidates discussed schools issues and shared their ideas for shoring up the achievement gap in the city’s schools at a forum at the Mill City Museum.

The candidates who participated in the debate — Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels, Stephanie Woodruff and Cam Winton — agreed on many policy points throughout the forum, which was sponsored by MinnCAN and several other groups devoted to educational reform. Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor, served as the moderator.

They all voiced support for Supt. Johnson’s “SHIFT” proposal — a vision for reform released in May designed to decentralize power within the district and give more autonomy and flexibility to principals to make decisions that best suit the needs of their schools.

Former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes called Johnson’s plan “bold.”

“This is a time when we need to take risks. We can’t settle for the status quo and we can’t settle for the same paradigms,” she said. “… We know as parents that kids do better when they have small class sizes, when they have teachers who engage with them in a very personal way and when they have longer school hours.”

Council Member Hodges (13th Ward) said students who spend more time in the classroom and have teachers who reflect the student body they are teaching have better educational outcomes.

She said the superintendent’s plan would empower students to thrive in the classroom and would allow school and community leaders to get more information about what works inside the classroom.

Council Member Samuels (5th Ward) said he applauds the plan, but said reform won’t happen unless the new mayor is a champion and partner with the superintendent.

“It’s going to take courage because right as we sit here and she negotiates that contract the forces of the status quo are coming at her hard,” he said. “This ain’t pretty. It’s Minnesota nice until the negotiations begin, and then Bernadeia is going to need a human shield, and I’m a volunteer.”

Samuels talked about his work with the Hope Collaborative, which he launched with his wife Sondra and Joe Nathan, among others, eight years ago.

“We brought in 10 schools that had these kind of principles,” he said. “This is not new. I shifted eight years ago. … This shift has been going on for a long time, and now it’s time for the entire system to shift. I want to be the leader to lead that shift.”

Woodruff, a business executive and a member of the city’s Audit Committee, said she would make improving the city’s schools her number one priority.

“The only way this is going to happen is that me, the mayor, rallies the community and we all have skin in the game,” she said.

She also pledged to defer half of the mayor’s salary — $53,000 — into a separate fund. If students of color in city schools don’t improve on test scores by the end of her first year if elected, she wouldn’t collect the other half of her salary. Instead it would go to the schools and funding for learning labs. She also wants every student in Minneapolis Public Schools to have a tablet.

Independent candidate Winton, a wind power attorney, said the “SHIFT framework is exactly the direction that our district needs to go.”

He said he’s asked School Board members and union members for an update on Johnson’s plan.

“They don’t seem to be making a whole lot of progress, which frankly is baffling to me. It’s shocking to me,” he said. “When I walked out of the auditorium after the SHIFT proposal, I thought this is the greatest proposal that has been handed down. Bernadeia was like Moses on the Mount … she had the tablets. She had the way forward. Why aren’t we there?”

Winton said the teacher unions have for too long been able to prioritize the needs of adults over the rights of children in the city. 

Earlier in the debate, the tone got heated when Winton posed a “pop quiz” to the audience asking which candidate had been taken to task by Rybak in a MinnPost interview posted earlier in the day. He was referring to Andrew, who the mayor called out for implicating him and Hodges as supporters of the Koch Brothers efforts to reform schools. Rybak also criticized Andrew for saying he wasn’t supportive of charter schools.

“On education, Mr. Andrew has cast his lot with the forces of status quo. Please don’t be fooled,” Winton said.

In a rebuttal, Andrew said he’s “never been in anybody’s pocket.”

“In all of the years I’ve served in public office, I have been respected as an independent thinking person," he said. "I have a titanium spine, and I’m not bashful about standing up to any individual or any group of people. I am here tonight because I care about our kids.”

He added “we can’t have a mayor that is divisive or a bomb thrower.”

When asked earlier in the day by the Southwest Journal to respond to Rybak’s criticisms in the MinnPost interview, Andrew said: “R.T. is right. He nailed it. He knows I have a proven track record of supporting our children and of collaboration, and that I should be called out for dragging the Koch brothers into this discussion. I care deeply about our community and kids. It is the major reason I got in the race, and pledge to channel my passion to positive results.”

As for charter schools, he said the ones that are successful need to be supported and those that aren’t should be shut down.

As for detailed policy proposals on education, Hodges has unveiled plans on early education and one outlining her ideas for dealing with the achievement gap. In mid-August, Samuels released his education platform, which points to cities where mayors have successfully made an impact on the schools, among other things.

Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine did not attend the education forum at the Mill City Museum, but he released his ideas for improving the city's schools Thursday. While acknowledging the mayor has limited power over the school board, if elected, he would push the School Board and superintendent to make sure principals are held accountable for the successes of their schools; support policies that train teachers and administrators to be culturally competent; continue to strengthen the partnership between School Board and Park Board; and prioritize smaller class sizes, among other things.