Some parents push to remake school board elections in Osseo

How can a school district improve racial diversity among teachers, address academic achievement gaps and promote equity across the board?

Some advocates in the Osseo Area Schools district say the answer is changing how school board members are elected.

Currently, all but one of the Osseo board members live in Maple Grove, a city that's 85 percent white. Brooklyn Park, the district's other major city, has about half people of color and no representatives on the board.

Maple Grove had about 48 percent of the district's registered voters in 2017, while Brooklyn Park had 35 percent.

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In a district where the kids come from a wide swath of incomes and diverse backgrounds, the dominance of board members from mostly white, mostly well-off Maple Grove is an ongoing source of frustration for some families of color.

Some advocates are pushing now for Osseo to end district-wide school board elections and instead divide up the board by geography. They plan to bring it up at the Oct. 24 Osseo school board meeting. If the board decides to act or enough residents sign a petition, the idea would be put to a district-wide vote.

Backers say for the good of all district students, the board needs to be broken up by geography.

"Last year my second grader at the time asked me, 'Mom, are there not any black teachers in the world?' And that's when it all connected for me — wow this is serious," said Osseo parent Denise Butler.

Butler, who works for the advocacy group African Career, Education and Resource, Inc., decided to push to change Osseo's school board elections from all at-large contests to representation by individual areas within the district, with one member at-large.

Supporters of that idea believe it's a crucial next step in a district focused on trying to close the achievement gap between white kids and kids of color.

"The progress we've made can be reversed because these people that are making decisions at the highest level do not reflect the different experiences, different culture, different priorities that these communities have," said Abdullah Kiatamba, director of African Immigrant Services, a nonprofit that has pressed the district to hire more teachers of color and to create a plan to boost the academic performance of students of color.

Statewide, an MPR News analysis recently found that only about 3 percent of Minnesota's school board members are people of color.

The Minnesota School Boards Association said it knows of just 16 out of 332 Minnesota districts where boards are chosen by wards or precincts. Some others have a combination of ward and at-large members.

The downside of choosing members by area is that "you tend to think you have to represent only those people in your district or ward," said Greg Abbott, the school boards association communications director.

The system can cause division, he added. "You get little factions erupting because this side of town wants one thing and the other side of town wants a different thing, and it ends up becoming very dysfunctional."

Osseo school board chair Robert Gerhart declined an interview request for this story.

Advocates in Osseo say their campaign is about improving schools, not politics. Still, there is a political dynamic.

Butler's organization is part of a group called the Northwest Suburbs Labor and Community Coalition, which also lists union groups like the AFL-CIO as members. The three current board members who won in the last election were all recommended by a local Republican party branch.

Brooklyn Park's Republican mayor said the Osseo school board should at least consider the change.

"Worse than having fights is not having fights because people are unaware," said Mayor Jeffrey Lunde. "I'd rather have people's viewpoints at the table and we have a good fight,"