The 2019 school board campaign season got underway in earnest Sept. 10 as the League of Women Voters conducted a candidate forum at Edina City Hall, welcoming six hopefuls to the dais.
Using no more than their allotted one minute at a time, the candidates fielded audience-submitted questions to address issues such as the district’s standing among its peers, strategies for strong academic outcomes, the role of partisan politics in the election, the relationship between the school board and teachers, and school safety.
Six of the seven candidates were present for the forum. Edina voters will pick three school board members Tuesday, Nov. 5.
One question coming early in the dialog addressed anxiety about the district’s declining U.S. News & World Report rankings. In recent years, the district has fallen from its place at the top of those rankings to 10th in publication’s latest annual assessment of Minnesota public schools.
“In Edina, we love to be number 1, we absolutely do,” candidate Janie Shaw said.
But Shaw wonders what the current ranking actually means. “We might be falling because other districts are reaching towards us, and that’s fantastic,” she said.
Candidate Julie Greene worried about the consequences of paying too much attention to those rankings.
“When I hear like, ‘We’re not number 1, we’re not number 1,’ what I hear is a panic. We fear that every decision is based on getting to that number one instead of looking inside our district, instead of looking inside all the different data points and how they all relate,” said Greene, who pointed to vastly improved 2019 MCA science scores as a bright spot in recent standardized testing results.
The U.S. News & World Report rankings factor in state standardized assessments, but not the MCA science test. The other main factors are graduation rates and the percentage of students taking and passing AP tests.
Incumbent candidate Leny Wallen-Friedman noted that ACT and AP scores in Edina still rank at or near the top in the state. Wallen-Friedman called MCA scores “a single data point that we shouldn’t get too confused about, but we should look at as a red flag.”
Candidate Lou Nanne, a 2013 Edina High School graduate, took a more critical look at the district’s ranking. Nanne said he decided to run because “I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, ‘What’s going on? What happened to the Edina that I love?’”
Edina’s trend of declining MCA scores “should be like the canary in the coal mine,” incumbent candidate Sarah Patzloff said. “ … We need to better understand so we can address this as to why that has happened. It’s tough to tell.”
Patzloff moved to dispel a notion that she described as a myth. “And that is, if you disagree, challenge or question what’s going on in Edina Public Schools that you don’t care about our schools and that mostly, you don’t care about teachers. And that’s simply not true. I believe this community absolutely cares about education, and that’s why they ask questions,” Patzloff said.
Linda Friede, a retired elementary math intervention teacher, noted that her work has centered on personalized data. “The whole focus should be on growth per individual student,” Friede said.
She cited her experience in that realm, saying she’s helped students improve in math from the 20th percentile to the 80th “over and over again. It can be done.”
Shaw, too, noted her experience working with data, specifically in her past employment in the airline industry. She foresees the use of technology that would help district educators use data to target areas for improvement. “We’ve got tons of private sector companies already doing this,” Shaw said.
Nanne, meanwhile, wants to see a greater variety of academic paths made available to students. Mixing students of widely varying abilities serves as a detriment, he said.
“It would make no sense to take a child who just moved to Edina from a foreign country and bundle them in with someone who got a 36 on their ACT,” Nanne said. “This is exactly what’s happening in pre (English) AP 10, and it’s doing the kids a disservice.”
Strategic plan: Too much, too little, or just right?
School board candidates continued their discussion of teaching and learning approaches when they addressed the district’s new strategic plan, which is currently in draft form.
Wallen-Friedman summarized the community’s perception of the document so far. “People are interpreting the plan as not focusing enough on students, as not focusing enough on students who are in the middle or at the bottom. And I think that’s either a misconstruing of the document or poor drafting on our part,” he said. “ … I don’t want to focus only on high-achieving students.”
In Greene’s analysis, the draft plan leaves some students out. “It has a very heavy focus on academic excellence and rigor, and yes, that is something that is important to schools and for growth, but there are groups of kids that are missing from the plan the way I can interpret it,” she said.
Greene also criticized the draft for being overly complicated and weighed down by bullet points. Despite her 20 years of communications and marketing experience, “I can hardly follow it,” she said.
“It’s very cumbersome,” Nanne echoed.
Friede called the plan too vague, advocating for a greater emphasis on tracking outcomes with metrics.
Speaking on the district’s current approach, Shaw observed a need to align priorities.
“When we don’t have this clear set of things we stand for, and when we try to stand for and prioritize everything, we run the risk of not being able to deliver anything very well,” she said.
Relationships between school board and teachers
From the council chambers dais, the school board candidates again and again pledged their loyalty to the people charged with implementing their vision. However, one question from the audience, posed by a district teacher of 19 years, came with the preface, “That partnership has been strained as of late, as board members have openly criticized teachers who are teaching curriculum approved by the district.”
Greene supported that observation. “I visited schools last spring and met with our teachers, and there’s a problem,” she said. “They don’t feel trusted.”
She continued, “I think that teachers need to be part of the conversation from the very beginning. … Teachers need to be at the very top of planning.”
“We need to talk more,” Patzloff said, noting that the board hears from administration often, but “we don’t have the teachers at the table.”
She added, however, “There are going to be times when we disagree about curriculum.”
Wallen-Friedman noted his ongoing support for teachers despite their work being questioned at times. He also called for more teacher training.
Friede advocated for organizing teachers’ schedules to allow for more flexibility, collaboration and professional development. She also took the common position that more dialog is needed between teachers and the school board.
Nanne weighed in, “We have the best teachers in the state, bar none. We have to steward their skills well. We have to make sure they’re trusted and guided down the right direction.”
After the previous school board election came with sharp political divide in 2017 as a conservative think tank accused the school district of practicing “liberal indoctrination,” the candidates during this month’s forum spoke to the importance of keeping partisan politics out of the election.
The subject came up when the candidates were asked whether they accept money from PACs or political parties. Each candidate said they receive no money from PACs.
Patzloff, however, said she does receive support from the Republican Party, “but it’s not because I have an ‘R’ after my name.”
Patzloff said she would take support from the Democrats, too, though she noted most her supporters tend to lean Republican. She added, however, that partisan politics need to stay out of the board room.
“When we turn it into party politics and which way you lean and what party you vote for, that doesn’t help our kids,” Patzloff said.
Wallen-Friedman said he doesn’t even know where most of his supporters fall on the political spectrum. “I am receiving support from people that are Democrats. I am receiving support from people that are Republicans, and I am receiving far more support from people that I have no idea what their political party is,” he said.
Friede similarly proclaimed her campaign to be apolitical. “My candidacy is characterized by across-the-board support. I have no idea of the politics of most of the people on the campaign team,” she said.
Greene reminded the audience that state law describes the school board to be a non-partisan office. She added, “I have 100% not gone after any money. I will not take any money. Ninety-eight percent of my support has come from people in this community who care about our community.”
Nanne also disavowed partisan financial support. “Have not, will not, don’t want any PAC support nor party affiliation,” he said. “The last thing we need is politics in the school system.”
Shaw, for her part, declared, “I have not accepted any support in any form from either of the parties that have offered it. I have declined.”
The forum’s topics extended beyond questions of organizational, strategic and political issues, and into the realm of school safety. That happened when the candidates were asked whether they support active-shooter drills and arming teachers with guns.
Only one candidate, Nanne, explicitly endorsed the idea of putting guns in the hands of teachers. “I have a 15-month-old that I would go to the ends of the earth to protect in a situation like that, so the last thing I’m going to do is hide behind a door. Teachers should be armed. There should be a select few, and that comes with rigorous training and licensure,” said Nanne, who added he was “all for” active-shooter drills.
The concept of arming teachers with guns is “fraught with peril,” Wallen-Friedman said. “We have trained professionals that have issues when you are trying to protect the public. I just cannot imagine our teachers doing that.”
Patzloff noted that active-shooter – or lockdown – drills are required by state law anyway, and that the district already has a police presence in the form of school resource officers.
“I think there would have to be a great deal of research and understanding if we were ever to discuss arming other people in our schools. But at this point, without that research I would be hard-pressed to say that that’s what we should do.”
Friede said practice is paramount when it comes to lockdown drills. “Without the training it would be chaotic,” she said. Her one-minute allotment ran out without her answering the question of arming teachers.
Reflecting the majority opinion of the field, Greene opposes arming teachers, but she is alone in calling for an end to active-shooter drills.
“I feel active shooter drills are causing fear and panic for our kiddos, and I see that with my own kids,” she said.
Shaw lamented that the drills are part of students’ reality. “They have to take this seriously. This is their world. I can give you a million reasons why I wish it wasn’t,” she said.
The video recording of the Sept. 10 Edina School Board Candidate Forum can be found online at tinyurl.com/y4jy9l5a. Below is a list of each question that was raised and its corresponding timestamp:
• Introductory remarks – 6:30
• “What will you do to support all teachers within the Edina Schools?” – 23:05
• “How do you plan to address the decline in EPS’s rating from number one public school to number 10 in recent years, and what do you believe led to the decline?” – 29:14
• “There is no National Honor Society at Edina High School. … Do you think the current approach is the right approach?” – 36:16
• “Please state your opinion of active-shooter drills in elementary schools and whether teachers or other designated personnel should carry guns in our schools?” – 39:38
• “Have you received – or do you expect to receive – any form of support, momentary or otherwise, from a political party or a PAC in your campaign?” – 46:30
• “Do you have any issues with the current strategic plan and do you have specific ideas to include in the new strategic plan being put together?” – 50:20
• “What is your opinion of the recent bussing schedule changes? How do you balance respect for policy with the need for safety?” – 56:27
• “How do you think the excellence of a school district should be defined?” – 1:02:52
• “What ideas do you have to close the achievement or opportunity gap among students from different background? And how do you propose to improve all student outcomes?” – 1:04:49
• “What role does the school board have in choosing and/or implementing new curriculum and testing?” 1:10:53
• “Is there sufficient transparency in data from the school district?” – 1:16:53
• “What are your goals for communication with the superintendent, assistant superintendent and other administrators?” – 1:22:52
• “How would you go about helping the school board reach consensus on difficult or contentious issues?” – 1:28:44
• Closing remarks – 1:34:27
– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent