<b>Sandra Miller: back after a hiatus and in some ways, back to the future </b>

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October 25, 2004 // UPDATED 4:27 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

Former Board member would emphasize reading, neighborhood schools

Among the six Minneapolis School Board candidates competing for three seats in the Nov. 2 election, Sandra Miller can claim a longer institutional memory than any of them.

The 61-year-old spent her early years at Warrington Elementary School, Bryant Junior High and Central High School -- Minneapolis schools that are long gone. As a parent, she guided her five children through the same system. Currently, most of her 13 grandchildren attend city public schools -- and a 3-year-old great grandson is on deck.

Miller served on the Minneapolis School Board for one term (1998-2001) but said she decided not to run for re-election because her husband of 44 years, Butch, needed a kidney transplant. His operation was a success, and now she is back.

Miller, one of two black candidates on the ballot, finished fifth among 16 candidates in the Sept. 14 primary; she will have to do better to capture one of three seats up for grabs Nov. 2.

She said she did not seek Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) endorsement last spring because she works for Minnesota Court of Appeals Chief Judge Edward Toussaint, Jr. Miller said a court official told her Minnesota's judicial code of conduct prohibited her from seeking partisan political endorsement.

She also did not have DFL endorsement when she won in 1997. She thinks her experience and name identification will be enough to win again and has been campaigning vigorously to ensure that it happens.

"The role of School Board member is to be an ambassador to the parents, the staff and the students of the Minneapolis schools," Miller said. "People say it is a thankless job, but I found it to be very rewarding."

Miller's priority is closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students. She thinks reading should be the district's top priority and that it is the parents' responsibility to make sure kids like reading before kindergarten. Reading to kids, she believes, makes them eager to learn.

Miller would like Minneapolis to emulate a St. Paul schools program called "Everybody Wins." It recruits volunteers to read once a week with a child throughout the entire school year. A school bus even picks up and drops off the volunteers for free.

St. Paul resident Beverly Anderson started the program, which is used at one of that city's schools, and travels around the country promoting its virtues. Why Minneapolis hasn't used it, Miller doesn't know -- but she wants to change that.

"We'd like to see more parents in the schools because that way they are making the school staff accountable," she said. "There are plenty of parents involved in the schools who can reach out to help those who are not involved and bring them in."

Miller believes in that students should stay in their own neighborhood for school. That's a thorny issue in Minneapolis, since kids living on the same block often go to different schools.

Said Miller, "When I was growing up, you lived in the neighborhood where you went to school. The teachers and the principal lived in the same neighborhood, and so did the police and the firemen. Everybody knew everybody else. There is much more mobility now, and people don't go to school or work in their communities."

According to Miller, community schools are a trend in Minneapolis in part because busing costs have gone sky-high. A lot of parents want their kids closer to home, she said. "The advantage of it is that parents can get to schools if necessary," Miller said. "If their kids are going to schools across town or in the suburbs and [the parents] haven't got a car, it makes it too difficult to participate in school activities."

Although parents can now choose to bypass their community school or send their kids to public charter schools, Miller prefers the old, tightly controlled community system. She said it makes the neighborhoods safer, everybody keeps an eye out for the children and everybody gets to know everybody else.

Should the district dump magnet schools and expand the choice program?

"I don't think we should necessarily reduce magnets; we could put them into the community schools," Miller said. "Any decisions about expanding community schools or magnets should be decided by the community; we should see what the parents want."

That opinion is a departure from her previous School Board term. During that time, the NAACP sued the state of Minnesota because it felt that black students living in the city were not getting a quality education. Miller was the NAACP's education chair during that time.

The suit established "The Choice is Yours" program, allowing 500 low-income, urban students to transfer to suburban school districts annually. While noting the benefit of the program, Miller also acknowledged its drawbacks. She personally knew 11 families who, after giving suburban schools a try, brought their children back to the Minneapolis because their children were treated like outcasts.

"People want to be in their own neighborhoods," Miller said. "Yes, maybe your child will get a better education in the suburbs, but why should they have to go through all that when there is a school across the street or down the block from where they live?"

Miller's first Board term had many accomplishments. Board members helped pass a school referendum for smaller class sizes, worked through the NAACP lawsuit and passed a standardized elementary-school curriculum so that low-income students who change schools frequently didn't get left behind when enrolling in a different Minneapolis school.

Among her new proposals is a vocational school for high school students and a one-year transitional school to help assimilate immigrant students into American society.

Since Miller last served on the Board, the state of Minnesota agreed to pay for a greater share of local school expenses, but their cash has not kept up with rising costs. Miller said she resents the fact that state legislators control the district's purse strings and have no knowledge about what goes on in Minneapolis classrooms. She said that when she was on the Board last time, it invited legislators to tour the schools as their guests, but only two or three ever showed up.

"The Legislature tries to pass themselves off as educators instead of the educators being the educators," Miller said. "How can they decide how much money can be given out to education when they do not understand what is going on? They are not meeting their responsibilities. We need to get them out of the Capitol and into the classrooms."

Regarding the hot-button issue of school closings, Miller said that they are going to happen because the district cannot afford to keep the buildings open and everybody knows it. But she was critical of how the School Board handled it.

"Don't say you are closing the schools and then turn around and say 'oh, that was a mistake,'" Miller said. "You can't be wishy-washy. As elected officials, the board is supposed to lead, but they didn't show leadership.

"They waited until the 11th hour to ask for suggestions," she said. "Some people had great suggestions, which they ignored. The way it happened made people mad. It's no wonder people don't trust them."

Miller is in favor of teacher realignment, which caused controversy this summer by keeping more-senior teachers in the district, even if they were transferred to unfamiliar specialties such as special education.

"To me, realignment is almost a necessity to keep all teachers employed," she said. "If a teacher has two licenses and the district needs teachers in a specific area, we need to put them there so that other teachers can keep their jobs.

"Maybe they don't have the expertise because they haven't taught in it for a long time, but I hope that the school district is going to give them the support that they need to bring them up to speed."