Dennis Schapiro: a battered incumbent who wants another chance

Share this:
October 25, 2004 // UPDATED 4:28 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

While accepting some blame for a tumultuous term, he still wants to prod community to help with challenges the schools often face alone

Minneapolis School Board incumbent Dennis Schapiro took a lot of heat the past year for the controversies surrounding the Minneapolis schools. Yet he is working hard to get reelected to a job that sometimes requires 40 hours a week and pays approximately $13,000 a year.

"Yes, I did get beat up this year," said the 58-year-old Linden Hills resident. "But there are a lot of good things going on in the district. I think it is important that we say what we did right and accept responsibility for what we did wrong."

In the Sept. 14 primary, Schapiro came in fourth among 16 candidates seeking three open seats. Six candidates advanced to the Nov. 2 general election.

Members of the School Board seemed politically inept on several occasions, especially after Supt. Carol Johnson left in 2003.

The Board picked Johnson's Chief Operating Officer, David Jennings, to fill the position, and approved Jennings' recommendation to shut down nine city schools this year -- actions that ultimately never happened. Jennings, a white man, decided to drop his candidacy after receiving opposition mostly from the black community; the school-closing plan died after coming under attack from affected parents and Mayor R.T. Rybak, among others.

Said Schapiro, "We should have done more consultation with the community about Jennings before he was hired. All we had to do is make 10 phone calls [to opinion leaders] and tell people why we were doing it. But we didn't, and it started a firestorm."

Schapiro said he and Board members were surprised when Jennings ultimately decided to drop his candidacy.

"None of us on the board thought that Jennings would fold in the face of criticism," he said. "Had we known it, we might have circled the wagons around him and made it a battle, instead of ignoring the criticism. So we have to take some responsibility in all that."

As far as the school closings go, Schapiro explained that the board got a report in 2002 from an outside consultant reporting that the district's truancy efforts were so strong that more classrooms would be needed. However, last fall, another report stated the district had 800 classrooms too many.

"I was totally surprised at how serious an enrollment decline they were projecting. But there were things that we could not have anticipated like the way immigration was cut off following Sept. 11."

In part, he blames Jennings: "We bit the bullet and made a decision to close schools. As a Board member, you rely on the information you are getting from the people you hire. Jennings set us up, but it wasn't done with malice. I think he felt that it was the best way to get things done. He didn't want the discussion to go on endlessly. ... But he didn't engage the community."

Schapiro said the original school-closing plan had some real flaws, but it probably would have been better to go ahead with it. The Board will hear new closing plans Oct. 12 -- just three weeks before Election Day.

Schapiro thinks the situation with this summer's teacher realignment was more of the same. The School Board found out that several dozen senior teachers would have to be moved to new schools or assignments so late in the game that the options available were all bad. However, he said the district's legal counsel told Board members it would have cost $100,000 to challenge the realignment in court, and the district didn't have a chance of winning.

"None of us had the background to understand what the underlying trends were," he said.

The current Board, he said, is made of PTA types from South Minneapolis who do not have the human resources or finance backgrounds to manage an organization with a multimillion-dollar budget, thousands of employees and ten of thousands of students.

Therefore, Schapiro favors changing how School Board members are elected. Voters would choose four of the seven members in numbered "seats" (like judges) so challengers could run against incumbents directly, holding them individually accountable. The mayor, he thinks, should appoint the remaining three board members, so that issues of geography, race, income and skills can be dealt with.

"The civic elite has abandoned the Minneapolis schools because they don't send their kids to them. Recruiting board members who work as general counsels or the CEOs of large corporations, or the head of large church organization is better than electing DFL populists," said Schapiro, who sought but did not receive DFL endorsement this year.

He believes that these are selfish times in America, and nobody wants to pay for other people's kids. The racial divide is already an issue since 60 percent of the city population is white and 70 percent of the school population is minority. He worries that the Minneapolis schools might, in the next 10 years, become like the Chicago schools, a system that has been abandoned by the middle class and is essentially a welfare operation.

Schapiro's pet project is the Children's Agenda, which recently received a $50,000 planning grant from the Minneapolis Foundation. Its goal is to hold the entire city and not just the schools responsible for children's success.

The Children's Agenda has the approval of the School Board and the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board. He wants the entire community involved in such issues as health care, parenting practices, lead poisoning, stability and other children's issues. It is his idea that if kids come to school healthier, they will be better able to learn and make it easier for teachers to teach.

"Research shows that 70 percent of what happens outside of school is what shapes a kid's life," Schapiro said. "You can beat up on the schools if you want, but the truth is kids are not going to be able to do a better job until major emotional, financial and mobility issues are addressed.

"Homeless and highly mobile kids are treated badly and must have their issues addressed," he said. "They bounce from school to school and district to district and have no standardized curriculum or adult contact."

The state has taken over funding and oversight for much of the schools' operations, which limits what a School Board can actually accomplish, he said. But Schapiro thinks a good part of the problem confronting the schools is how inadequately funded they are. A recent report by the Minnesota Taxpayers Association stated its opinion that the Minneapolis schools are underfunded by $183 million.

"[Governor] Pawlenty is especially cynical in the way he deals with the schools," Schapiro said. "He'll pull money away from technology and mentoring projects and then a few weeks later make a big announcement about a grant one-tenth of what he took away and have a big check and smiling faces and handshakes for the cameras.

"But you are not on solid ground if you think that Democrats are any less cynical about how they deal with education," he said. "They may send more money, but they are essentially paying into the strength of the teacher unions."

A Minneapolis native, Schapiro graduated from the University of Minnesota and earned a master's degree in education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He is a thesis short of an education doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

He has owned Jola Publications, which publishes medical directories and an international newspaper on Montessori education, for the past 18 years. He has been married for 27 years with two sons, who are 34 and 25. A former school columnist for the Southwest Journal, he earned second place for his commentaries by the National Education Writers Association.

Asked what he now knows that he didn't know three years ago, Schapiro said: "Figuring out the subtle stuff to make things happen on the School Board," he said. "There is no instruction booklet. Healthy kids, good teachers and a decent environment is everything. The rest is commentary."