Talking Out of School: An Interview with Al Oertwig

By Lavender January 25, 2008
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In April, DFLer Al Oertwig left the St. Paul Board of Education after nearly 20 years of service. First elected to the Board in 1983, he advocated adequate school funding, along with regional and national coalition-building. Oertwig came out as gay publicly in 1990. He lost his 1991 re-election bid, but made a triumphant return in 1995. To date, he is the only openly GLBT elected official ever in St. Paul’s history.

Al Oertwig holding awards for his service on the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (left) and the Council of Urban Boards of Education (right). Photo by Sophia HantzesI sat down with Oertwig for a retrospective question-and-answer session.

You served for a total of almost 20 years. That’s a long time for you and for the district.

It has been a long time, yes. I won a number of elections, and in terms of the history of what was going on in the city, the district was going through major changes in terms of what it looked like.

One of the first big changes was that we desegregated the schools. I don’t know that many folks really recognize right now the massive change desegregation had on our system. In many ways, it’s very positive. We made schools in struggling, low-income neighborhoods very attractive, so that people would want to go there. We created different kinds of foci–Montessori, language-immersion programs. Those programs were a result of the desegregation mandate. There were lots of new choices that people had. You no longer had to go just to your neighborhood schools.

What stands out to you about your tenure on the board? What did you personally focus on?

The three things that I’m most proud of are the victory of levy referendum campaign of 2002, serving on the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (AMSD), and my work on the Council of Urban Boards of Education.

The 2002 excess levy referendum? I thought Minnesota had a reputation for adequately funding public education.

When the formula for funding schools was first set up back in the 1970s, the intent was that excess levies were going to be rare occurrences. Now, we’re in a situation in which almost all districts in the state are surviving with those excess levies, to get more than was in the state formula.

The reason that it was especially a challenge in 2002 was because there was some opposition within the city. The Chamber of Commerce in particular was opposed to doing a levy referendum. They didn’t want the taxes, and Mayor Randy Kelly was aligned with the Chamber. Taking on that challenge meant it was taking on both the Mayor and the Chamber.

At that time, there were three new board members that had been seated. Three of the seven board members were brand-new, and one veteran was pretty conservative. So, for me to jump in was a pretty big challenge. I needed new board members to carry through in spite of the opposition. The Superintendent at the time was Pat Harvey, and she did not want to be too closely associated with the levy referendum.

I personally was not willing to make the cuts we would have needed to make, because it would have been at least a staff person, and in many cases, more in every school in St. Paul. Even if there were some people who were opposed to it, I was going to fight it anyway.

With key actors opposed to it, we got about the same percentage [for the excess levy] in 2002 as we’d gotten in 2000. There was an alliance between much of the Board, teacher unions, and other labor organizations. The victory wouldn’t have been possible without that organizing base. It was also a major organizing project for Progressive Minnesota.

Because Harvey didn’t want to be too closely associated with the campaign, when there were interviews, when there was TV stuff, I was the person.

As you became more visible as a public figure, how did your sexuality factor in?

Much of the controversy in the public’s mind had been resolved. The election of 1995 was a major turning point in terms of public acceptance. People understood that it was a reality, and that it was going be there.

During the time period prior to that, the Out for Equity program had been set up. Out for Equity is a support program for GLBT youth in each of the schools in the system. During the 1995 election, there was a major campaign to eliminate that program, and I was a candidate. So, every time we had a questionnaire, there were candidates who opposed the Out for Equity program, and I supported it.

It was clear that it was a key issue in that election, and it probably would have been a key issue whether I’d been on the ballot or not. Enough of the people won who had supported the program, and I won, and it stopped. Some people still fussed about it for a while, but it stopped being a campaign issue.

What about the period before 1995?

When I first ran for school board in 1983, I was in a traditional marriage. I have kids, so that’s how I got involved in schools. I was divorced in 1986, and in the election of 1987, there was gossip about the fact that I was gay, but it never got to the point that it was in the papers.

In 1990, I had moved to a duplex, and I was renting half of the duplex. So, I was doing ads in [the GLBT press]. Someone gave that to the Education Reporter, who from the phone number recognized that it was me.

It got to be kind of a big controversy in 1990. The media consistently used the term “roommate,” even though the house was a legal duplex. They said I circulated the ad in gay bars. Well, where is [the GLBT press] distributed? I also looked for a renter at All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church.

Then, in 1991, I lost the election. It’s hard to sort out the factors of that election. We were at the end of David Bennett’s time as Superintendent. He was not especially popular at the end of his time. The Chair of the Board chose not to run again. The Vice Chair ended up beneath me in the vote totals, so the Board ended up having three new members. Was it because of the publicity? My guess was that it clearly was a factor. One of the incumbents did survive.

What did you do after you lost in 1991?

I continued working for the state and the School Board. I continued on with Human Services. I also became more politically active in that time period, particularly in the DFL.

One of the things that I decided to do was some newspaper articles on school issues in community newspapers. Before I was on the Board, in the 1970s and 1980s, I was the education columnist for the Highland Villager.

When I interviewed people, they said, “Well, why don’t you run again?” I really decided in 1995 that of all the things I’d done, the Board was the most important to me. I was unwilling to give it up without trying again.

It also really had to do with Norm Coleman being Mayor. At that time in particular, I felt it was important to be a strong spokesperson for the school district. I did some pieces on taxation while he was Mayor. At that time, our taxes were high in St. Paul, but for city services, not schools. The funding of the schools in particular was difficult in a kind of no-tax atmosphere emanating from the Chamber and the Mayor’s office.

So, you did run again. Did you change your approach?

I don’t think that I did a whole lot differently. I built off of the positive record I established in the first eight years. In 1995, the campaign manager was somebody who was young and energetic, and he was someone who was strong in believing that this was something that was going to happen.

What about support from the GLBT community? Did that play any role in your 1995 race?

In my first election, while I was in a traditional marriage, I was still endorsed by gay and lesbians. I was supported by gays and lesbians from the beginning. I’m the only openly gay person who has ever been elected in the City of St. Paul. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund supported me in 1995.

It always is helpful when you build bases that are broader. I would say it’s probably less significant in St. Paul than it would be in Minneapolis, because there’s a large part of St. Paul, the East Side of St. Paul, that would have been very uncomfortable with the idea of somebody gay being in public office.

The reality is that I would not have been elected if people had known I was gay. For me to have survived, I needed to have the record of being the successful School Board member. If that hadn’t been there, if people didn’t know me, it wouldn’t have happened.

The world has changed since when I was first back on the Board. When I got a divorce, my lawyer said to me, “I can’t find you a judge in Ramsey County that would take seriously a request to give joint custody.” The world has changed a lot. Some of those campaigns have helped to make people more open to the idea.

So, you returned to the board in 1996.

After the election of 1995, in my new period on the Board, I became much more involved in representing our district in other places. In 1996, we joined the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. That’s an organization of all the school districts in the Twin Cities metro area.

The strongest piece for me that came out of that was getting some of that money for the schools. We also formed an alliance between city and suburban school districts. That was really significant, because a factor in that formula provides some extra money for districts that have poor kids, and that provision was at risk.

To the credit of the suburban superintendents, they said, “We won’t take that money if you’re going to take it away from poor kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul.” So, suburban districts could get much more money. I [in turn] agreed to support raising the cap on excess levies. I think that was a significant alliance. That was important, and it really took a lot of courage on the part of the superintendents in those suburban areas.

You also mentioned a national organization, the Council of Urban Boards of Education.

The Council of Urban Boards of Education is a group of the largest urban districts across the country. It’s part of the National Association of School Boards. In 2000, I was elected to be one of the twelve members of the national steering committee. Within that body, probably the most significant subcommittee was the legislative. We had our annual luncheon in the US Capitol. I summarized our legislative platform.

It was not a time when great progressive advances were made in education, given who was President, but I think we did try to make clear some of the implications of testing and so forth. We communicated the ramifications for students who don’t speak English and for special education students.

You leave behind two decades of school advocacy on every level. Do you have any regrets about ending your time on the Board?

I think what I felt most bad about was that we had an alliance for effective management. I tried to be a real support person for the current Chair of the Board. I feel bad I’m not able to be a strong support person for her, to be able to make things work well.

I don’t have a lot in terms of uncompleted agenda. My focus has changed over time in terms of what issues are important to me.

Now, you’re retired, both professionally and from public office. What are you up to?

I’m working on setting up a scholarship fund to support a student who’s GLBT-identified who’s graduating from the St. Paul public schools.

There are various groups who support various kinds of students. I think there should be something that’s deliberate for a St. Paul student that’s GLBT-identified. We do have high school support groups in each of the schools. This would be a way to work with them.

Philanthrofund would manage the donations, take the money. This would be an additional scholarship that would be on their list of scholarships. It would have limitations about being from St. Paul and things like that. Well, PFund has agreed to do it. We’ve just got to iron out the details.

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