This interview is part of our School Board Voter Guide. The interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length. Laurelle Myhra is running for the District 5 seat on the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.
Melissa Whitler: Maybe just to start, share a little bit about your background and how you think that's relevant to being a school board member?
Laurelle Myhra: I come from the Red Lake nation. I'm an enrolled member and work for my tribe as the director of the Mino Bimaadiziwin wellness clinic in Minneapolis. I grew up in Red Lake for the majority of my youth. I would say that had a lot to do with my desire to impact or make some changes with racial equity, especially in the way of the education gap, wanting to see Native children doing better. I also think that bringing the Native community voice and that of other diverse groups to the table is really important.
On my background, I'm also Christian and I've gotten a lot of questions from people about if I support communities that are gay and lesbian. And I would definitely say yes. I’m not somebody who is looking to discriminate or oppress any groups. I appreciate that question and a lot of people who've brought it up are also Christian, but they want to make sure that that's something that is not going to be detrimental to students and families in the district. I appreciate the opportunity to answer that. I think more importantly of why that's important to put out there is my desire to make a difference and be a servant of sorts to help improve the school district.
MW: My next question is if you think there's something specific about your background or qualifications that is relevant to District 5. Are there specific things that come up in your district that maybe aren't don't come up in another part of the city that you think you have a particularly relevant background to address?
LM: I would definitely say that in some of the schools in my area they do tend to have a higher socioeconomic status. Also I noticed – and not necessarily have heard complaints about this per se – but I notice there's a lot less diversity in the schools out in my area that are further south. I would definitely say that that's an area that really needs support in addressing. I think they struggle with some of the same things as far as lack of financial support to help with special education needs. That's still a problem. And, there's really not a lot of teachers of color in the schools as well, in that particular area. That's all that comes to mind for me right at the moment.
MW: At a recent board meeting, one of the things that came up was that board chair Ellison proposed a process around hiring the new Superintendent. I don't know if you watched the meeting, but there was a mixed reaction to what she proposed. As someone who is potentially going to be serving on the board, I wondered, if you've looked at what she proposed and if you had any sort of response to that process. Or alternatively, if you just have thoughts about how that process should go.
LM: I did start watching the board meeting. I didn't get that all the way through. So I didn't hear her suggestions, but I did agree with some of the concerns that were brought forth about the need for it to be somewhat community driven. That includes voices from teachers, voices of parents, voices from community leaders and organizations. Having a diverse panel of folks is going to be really important in that hiring process, not just for their interviewing process, but for developing a process that is equitable.
MW: I'm wondering if you have thoughts about how that engagement process should look. How do you get those voices that aren't already showing up involved in a process like this?
LM: Well, I would definitely say getting in touch with advocacy groups, parent groups and committees, where you can get a broader voice. But, I do feel like the people who come to the meetings do tend to represent those groups, but there is a large amount of people they're speaking for sometimes. I listened to a portion of it, and I saw several people who were from the racial [justice] network – I think two or three of them spoke up. So it seemed like there were quite a few people. I don't know that they were necessarily naming that, but I did see quite a few people who were representing different community groups. But that aside, I think it is important to try different methods to reach families and come and get that information. I know they had said that there was a big kind of effort to get information from different folks before the CDD, but then people felt like they didn't have an opportunity to come to say anything and get feedback.
So I think it would be important to put out there for comment. To have multiple eyes on it first and then get a draft together, then send it out for review, I think would probably be most pleasing. But I think that didn't happen.
MW: You brought up the CDD and one of the things that I hear people talk about is they felt like they were not provided an avenue for feedback. They went to a forum or they submitted a survey or sent emails. But they didn't feel like that feedback was considered. Or they felt like the plan didn't reflect their feedback. I'm wondering if you have some ideas related to what it looks like, not just send a comment, but to have it really responded to.
LM: I was on the American Indian Parent Advisory Council for a couple of years and felt like I got a good picture about some of the challenges for engaging families that are struggling more with making ends meet and being able to advocate and be a voice out there the way that they probably would like to be because of their financial situation. They're working multiple jobs, things like that. So I would definitely think, maybe incentivizing some feedback. Whether that's virtual or in person, and multiple attempts at that. As well, to have folks be able to join, uh, a number of different ways, I think would be really important.
MW: On the topic of the Superintendent, are there things that, if you're elected, you're looking for in the next Superintendent?
LM: I would definitely say some passion and deep concern for the children and their well-being.
I would say it was number one. And then I would say #2 is a strong understanding of racial equity and how to get there. And then #3 would probably be a strong business acumen, and understanding financials and fundraising.
MW: When you talk about racial equity, what types of things are you thinking about?
LM: Yeah, I would say some understanding about systems-level change, how to implement policies and procedures that help to break down some of the systemic racism that is in place, and helping students achieve great scores on tests and come and do well in school.
MW: One of the last things that the former Superintendent did with the current board members is they passed a new strategic plan for the district. If elected, do you support continuing with this current strategic plan or is there something about this plan that you would want to change?
LM: I think there were some good things in the strategic plan, but I would think that with having a new board, and potentially a new Superintendent, that we would want to take time to kind of look at what's there and bring our own perspectives in and improve it, I would hope.
MW: Is there anything in what you've seen so far that stands out to you– something missing or something that's in there that you think should be different?
LM: I would say, in general, a racial equity lens, looking at all of the different issues that are brought forward, all are important. But how you address it, I would think would be the area that really needs more of a racial equity lens.
MW: You brought up, in a new Superintendent, business acumen, and that's one of the responsibilities of the Superintendent and the board, the district finances. The current budget is balanced with the temporary COVID funds. That is proposed to be the case next year, although the board could change that, but then those funds disappear. When you think about 2024 and outwards, what do you think about in terms of how the district manages that financial challenge?
LM: The first thing that came to mind for me is increasing enrollment and getting students back into Minneapolis Public Schools or attracting new students from outside of the district. I I think that would be kind of a really creative process of being able to highlight the strengths of the different schools. But I also understand what the challenges are that are facing the schools so that we can address those. And my assumption is that the reason those haven't been addressed is financial. How do we go about fundraising for the different schools, to help meet their budgetary needs?
MW: When you say fundraising, are you talking about private or are you thinking more about lobbying at the state level?
LM: I would say both are very important. In a candidate forum that I was on, I did have some pushback about using private funds, but about, you know, that a lot of stipulations usually come with that. But I feel like it's really in the negotiation process that you are able to protect yourself and make sure that it's in the benefit of the school and children before you make a commitment.
So if there are areas that the schools tend to get squeezed in, I would definitely be looking to hear what those are so that to avoid that type of thing.
We have huge organizations within our state that are like 3M, for example, and Medtronic that would probably love to develop some sort of workforce development program with the high schools, for example, and contribute and have more of an active presence in Minneapolis public schools. So that's one thought that's a missed opportunity I think at this point. But also we know about the funding shortage and our state budget tends to have a lot of extra money. It doesn't seem like education is prioritized and I feel like that is a lobbying issue and something that we could have an impact on with good advocacy.
MW: Circling back to the community engagement question. You mentioned that you had served on the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee and so that's one avenue that parents can engage with the district. Many schools have site councils, although not all. Public comments at board meetings. The district also runs the parent participatory evaluation process. Plus people can obviously always call right or email board members. I think there's this messaging out there, that parents haven't been engaged. No one is listening. Or maybe they're listening, but not responding in the way that they want. Is there some other vehicle that you feel is necessary for the district to have to properly engage parents, or do you feel like the existing avenues are sufficient?
LM: I would think that we would benefit from new, innovative ways of connecting with families. Whether that be technology wise or just kind of boots on the ground getting into the schools and getting into calling families or, going out to family homes, and specifically in areas where we don't get a lot of response from. Rather than saying we tried this kind of thing, but we're missing this voice, actively looking for ways to come to fill that gap I think are going to be really important. Especially if we find that there are gaps around who's communicating. That we go right to those families and get that information.
I think just a stronger research and evaluation component to any surveys, to any of the work that is done in the schools, is necessary. It definitely seems like that piece is lacking when some of the strategic planning is happening.
MW: At the most recent board meeting, the other big topic was the MCA data results. I'm wondering, when you see those results, what's your gut reaction to them? And then to follow up, what do you think the district should be doing to address academic outcomes of all students?
LM: I think that's an excellent question. I would say that, at first glance, the numbers are shocking. But I think even with the state average decreasing, for me, the first thought was, oh, this is resources. And I think that that's probably really true because you look at some of the – I was looking at Mahtomedi scores, for example, and theirs weren't off.
Although some went up. I saw that Bancroft's went up, even though others, a large majority went down. I think that with some of the COVID dollars that we were able to see some schools that typically have been resource starved, got some extra resources and were able to improve, like the Bancroft example. I think it is probably what happened there because I was racking my brain about that. Why would this school show increases when the state decreased so much. They started from a very low point, but they passed up the state average, which was a big deal. Granted, the state average dropped. How can we invest in our schools better? I think some of these targeted, evidence-based practices might be the answer. If they want to see a change in that, they're going to have to invest in more bodies to help and to support teachers and support the students and be able to make the growth that we want them to.
MW: You mentioned evidence-based practices. Is there anything in particular that you think the district should be doing?
LM: I don't know if it's even worth sharing, but, just my personal observation is that programs that have more of the science based or based on phonics. I know that there's a lot of different approaches and I am not an expert in them. But I know that there's some that have been really successful, like in Saint Paul for example. So I would be curious to see what's worked with similar populations of kids, and how we might be able to implement them.
MW: You said, I'm not an expert on this, but as a board member you have influence over what the Superintendent is doing. How do you think that you would like to direct a Superintendent to engage in these practices? What would that look like to you?
LM: I would want to see the Superintendent have a relationship with Saint Paul, for example, to see you know what's working over there. But also talking to the specific schools, because some schools are implementing some programs and others are implementing others. Hopefully there's good data coming from what they're implementing, evaluation data, to see which are being successful within the school system now so that we can have some data to help our decision making.
I'm not typically a person who's one size fits all. It is always good to have other options if there's something that is, for whatever reason, a school has a unique population, that this has not been assessed with, but there's another program where it has been successful trying some different things. Looking for where we get our best results but not being a one size fits all. If it's working in a very similar school, chances are it could be successful.
MW: Can you talk about that a little bit, because I think there is a tension in a large, diverse district. In the last few years there's been this move towards doing something the same everywhere, like with the new elementary math curriculum. This is for every school. And there are pros and cons to that approach, but it's very different than saying, we're going to let the PTA buy a math curriculum
LM: Well, it's definitely something that has been a turnoff to me, the one-size-fits-all approach. I've seen some negative implications for that. I mean I would think that there's been plenty of examples of not going to the schools to identify what some of the challenges are or what some of the needs are and the strength so that we can get the best fit.
MW: The person that you're running against is a former teacher, she's a former member of MFT, she's a current MPS parent. She has endorsements like DFL and MFT and other groups. For voters in District 5, why should they vote for you instead?
LM: I think probably the main difference or advantage that I bring over Lori is just having a much stronger understanding of the financials, and what might need to be done regarding policies and procedures to break down systemic racism in the school system. I would say those are the two main areas that I'm stronger.
MW: Do you see that related to the work that you do?
LM: Oh yeah. I've been a director for seven years and have done a lot of fundraising and really understand how to negotiate, how to maximize the strengths of an organization and draw on those for fundraising. Then as far as racial equity, I've been implementing equity policy reviews for years now, overseeing and handing off eventually racial equity committees whose jobs it is to look at, not only the services we provide, but how we function as an organization. So those are kind of some of my experiences I think that I would be able to bring and really help to advance the district.
MW: Those are my questions. I don't know if you have anything else you want to share, that you want voters to know.
LM: Maybe I will mention that I'm an educator as well. I teach at Bethel in their marriage and family therapy masters program. I also teach in the psychology program. And then I also started a culturally specific daycare and preschool on site at my place of employment.
MW: That must have been quite an undertaking.
LM: It was fun. We had such a great time. We had a consultant who works for Indian education and does a lot of really neat work come in and help us develop the program.
MW: I'm just thinking, is there an existing American Indian curriculum for preschools? It's not something that I would imagine is just off the shelf, right?
LM: No, no, absolutely not. There are other programs in the area and we used some of the work that they're doing as far as ideas for language immersion. We're not a language immersion school, but we definitely have a lot of curriculum that is Native specific.