MINNEAPOLIS – The Minneapolis school board race is typically quiet with modest spending by all campaigns. Not this year.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, affluent out-of-state donors have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations supporting candidates who favor charter schools and oppose teacher tenure rules, preferring to evaluate teachers based on tests. Among the high profile list of donors to the group, known as the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund? Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave $100,000; Arthur Rock – a board member of Teach for America, who gave $90,000; and Jon Sackler or Massachusetts, who gave $25,000. In all, the group has raised $228,300 in less than two months.
"I think it's really an attack on the very idea of public education," said Greg Abbott, a Minneapolis parent who was leading a group of protesters outside a candidates' forum on Wednesday night.
About 40 people gathered before the forum to share their concerns about the outside influence, saying it is impossible for billionaires from both coasts to understand the Minneapolis school district.
"This outside money isn't about kids and parents and schools in Minneapolis, it's about some political agenda," said State Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL, also a Minneapolis parent.
The two candidates supported by the outside effort – Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano – are quick to point out the groups are acting independently of their personal campaigns and have not consulted the candidates at any point.
"I just know what I believe in. I believe in equity. I believe in excellence, we have to have great schools. No excuses. And we have to close the achievement gap," said Samuels before the forum, adding that he has "no relationship" with the organization and quickly denounced a negative mailing attacking Incumbent Rebecca Gagnon.
For her part, Altamirano said she may be receiving the support of these outside groups, but she also has the support of the DFL party and teachers unions – groups traditionally opposed to the expansion of charter schools.
"I have support of both unions and more change-minded entities. And I'm proud to have garnered that support, both financially and otherwise," she said, adding, "We desperately do need a new conversation in Minneapolis around education that goes beyond this 'union versus reformer' debate."
Meantime, the other two candidates vying for the two at-large seats caution this kind of outside spending signals a dangerous new trend in local races.
"It is an uneven race, and I think that's something folks should really be aware of. And I should worry, Minneapolis, that this outside money from Michael Bloomberg or whoever it's coming from wants our school board race," Gagnon said during the forum.