Are you tired of hearing from and about school boards?  



Most people who don’t work in education would answer “no,” simply because school board machinations aren’t exactly front page news. And people who do work in education might say “yes,” because for them the board drama is more likely to have reached a saturation point. But for me, I don’t get tired of reflecting on this important political position that impacts the lives of current and future generations, and will make a difference in how well our community and its people will thrive.



The election cycle has rolled around again, and along with it comes the many flyers, phone calls and lawns littered with signs proudly displaying a resident’s viewpoints to the public. As I reflect on this cycle of governmental seats and candidates, I can’t help thinking about my own bid to serve on my local school board in Osseo. When I filed my candidacy, I already had years of experience as an educational leader —leading and teaching in schools from St. Paul, to Minneapolis, and then Memphis and back to Minneapolis again. I was a nationally Board-Certified teacher and an Assistant Professor at Minnesota State University – Mankato, who also served on local and national boards to promote education as a public good. And last, but not least, I am an African-American woman, whose lived experience attending and working in public schools gives me a unique understanding of public policy and board governance.


Still,  the existing board ranked my application second to last among other applicants.


People who run for school board do so for a number of reasons. Most, like me, do it because they care deeply about kids and families in our city, and want to do more to make sure the system is working for everyone. Others only seek to advance their own interests or the interests of their specific community, and have a difficult time thinking about the entire district.


Some people run for school board because they have aspirations for higher office. Serving on school boards is where many people get practice and the experience they need to run for City Council, mayor, the legislature, county boards, etc.  And too often, they turn into reality stars when the “lights” come on. Too many reality stars on one board can lead to a board that forgets its primary role—providing quality governance and oversight.


Minnesota is a great place for civic engagement and our citizenry are fortunate to have individuals who are willing to serve. It’s an exciting environment for any superintendent that wants to serve with a group of intelligent, dedicated, caring and knowledgeable adults.  


All good right? well, not so fast.


In actuality, often people interested in serving on the school board come in with ideas about changes they’d like to make to improve things—and who better to start with than the superintendent. I served as superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools from 2010 to 2015.

As board member terms come to an  end, a new crop of interested candidates for board start visiting meetings, conducting interviews with staff and being interviewed by local papers.  


Imagine my surprise when I learned that several of the folks running for the 2015-19 term expressed that their first action as a board member would be to remove me as superintendent. And who could forget when a group of four candidates admonished me and the existing board to negotiate the teacher’s contract in good faith—in a message written on letterhead from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which represented one side of those negotiations?


Or the times when my team worked diligently on plans to address academic achievement, integration, school quality, equitable educational options, and were told by the board that our plan was “dead on arrival.”


The school board is an elected body, so we have to accept the politics that surround it, but at the same time, good people who want to do good work can be stymied by a board that is supposed to share their goals of helping kids. That shouldn’t happen.


The most important thing to understand is the transformative potential of a functional school board. When it’s working for all kids, we can see progress. When it’s not, well, we get stagnation at best, and backsliding, too. We owe it to each other to get involved, get engaged, VOTE, and give our kids the best school board we can.


And I’m saving the rest of the stories for my book.

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Dr. Bernadeia Johnson
Dr. Bernadeia Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Minnesota State University Mankato at Edina. She served as superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) from February 2010 to January 2015 and oversaw academic achievement for 36,000 Minneapolis district public school students and their 7,000 staff members. Dr. Johnson also served as Deputy Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer at MPS, and has been both a classroom teacher and elementary school principal. She currently teaches and conducts research dedicated to understanding the lived experiences of African American female school leaders. She serves on local and national boards to promote education as a public good.