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An unprecedented amount of money is upending the citywide Minneapolis school board race with hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring in from well-funded outside groups.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $100,000 to the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, a political-action group that supports former City Council Member Don Samuels and newcomer Iris Altamirano. In less than two months, the group raised $228,300 and already put the money to use sharply criticizing a current board member seeking another term.

The vast amounts of money from out-of-state donors signals a dramatic shift in the race and adds Minneapolis to a growing list of local school board races across the country receiving money from outside groups. These groups generally oppose teacher tenure rules, are strong backers of charter schools and test-based accountability for teacher evaluations and pay. Bloomberg has also given to similar races in Denver and Los Angeles.

“We felt like this was a crowded and competitive election season,” said Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund chair Daniel Sellers, who is also the executive director of the education advocacy group MinnCAN. “We wanted to make sure people in Minneapolis didn’t forget about the school board. We brought that message to both local donors, across the state, and national donors that shared our vision for education excellence.”

Incumbent Rebecca Gagnon, who has been a target of some of the most critical literature mailed to voters, said the outside spending is dispiriting for candidates and activists who work hard but lack the financial muscle of outside groups.

“It takes time and effort by the candidate and the volunteers who support them,” she said. “We will see if that effort is what local elections are all about. It may not be after this, and it’ll be devastating for Minneapolis.”

The deluge from outside groups also prompted strong criticism from some parents.

“We call upon Minneapolis voters to look beyond inflammatory rhetoric and ask themselves whether they support candidates who are promoted by wealthy individuals who would benefit by an expansion of charter schools at the expense of our open-to-all public school communities,” said an open letter signed by 20 parents.

Along with Samuels, Altamirano and Gagnon, Ira Jourdain, a Minneapolis public schools parent, are running for the two at-large seats.

Bloomberg gave the group the largest donation, followed by San Francisco venture capitalist Arthur Rock, who is also on the board of Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to become teachers. He gave the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund $90,000. Jon Sackler, of Massachusetts and board member of education reform group, 50CAN, gave $25,000. Local donors to the political group include John Graves and Michael Ciresi, a former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate with an interest in education.

So far, the candidates and outside political groups have raised more than $460,000. Other interest groups include 50CAN Action fund, which raised $15,000 and Students for Education Reform Action Network, which raised $36,000.

The surge in fundraising smashed records in previous races. Before now, Minneapolis’ costliest school board race was in 2012, when the two candidates for District 4 raised a combined $67,000.

Sellers said none of the donors mandated that the candidates support a specific cause, such as advocating for more charter schools. He said donors such as Bloomberg, a Republican, were approached because they had given to local races in the past and have a strong interest in changing the education system.

“Every decision about who the fund supported and how we supported those candidates were made at the local level,” Sellers said.

Highlighting transparency

Altamirano and Samuels were the candidates most committed to equity, transparency and partnerships with community members, Sellers said.

The need for more transparency came after a no-bid contract was awarded to Community Standards Initiative, a community group that received a $375,000 contract to address the district’s achievement gap. The group eventually lost its contract for failing to meet its goals.

Sellers’ group recently sent out a mailer to Minneapolis residents strongly denouncing Gagnon for supporting the contract.

The outside money brings a level of sophistication and influence more common in legislative and statewide races. The outside groups are not allowed to coordinate with the campaigns, creating some separation between the candidates and groups that often use more aggressive tactics.

Samuels and Altamirano expressed concern about the political group’s campaign work.

“People tend to associate the candidates with anything put out in support of them. I just want to distance myself from that,” Samuels said in an interview. “We are running a very positive campaign and want to focus on what’s in the best interest of kids.”

He said most of the money that he has raised comes from small donations from Minneapolis residents.

“I’m not tied to or connected with any secondary support or campaign,” Samuels said. “They are doing their thing, and we are doing our thing.”

Samuels has raised the most with $65,000, followed by DFL-endorsed Altamirano, with $41,000. Meanwhile, Gagnon, also DFL-endorsed, raised $17,200, which includes a $5,000 loan from her husband. Jourdain has raised $3,100.

Gagnon said she was “dumbfounded” by the money raised by the Minneapolis Progressive Fund.

“This isn’t about the issues. It’s about the candidates,” Gagnon said of the race. “This is about going against me and for [Samuels and Altamirano].”

She said she is confident she will win Tuesday but added she would “never bet on this race in a million years.”

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028