In the first mayoral debate focused on schools in modern Minneapolis mayoral politicking, candidates Cam Winton and Don Samuels hewed closest to the reform agenda advocated by debate organizers.

The debate was all the more remarkable because the mayor has no formal responsibility over Minneapolis Public Schools, but with a Star Tribune poll earlier this month finding that public education tops the list of Minneapolis residents polled, the six participating candidates were quick to fill that void with advocacy. The debate at Mill City Museum was sponsored by 10 groups that style themselves reformers of public schools.

There was general agreement on many issues, such as a preference for testing that assesses what students are getting as they're taught it, which many teachers already do, over high-stakes testing. All questions came from event organizers, without audience participation.

Quizzed about the "last-in, first-out" state teacher layoff law, all candidates but Mark Andrew said unequivocally that they believe it ought to be changed. Andrew said that he believes the issue is being addressed satisfactorily at the bargaining table in teacher union negotiations and that the need for a change is lessening as the district adds students rather than contracting.

"LIFO is the most ridiculous piece of policy in the teacher contract," Samuels said in contrast, noting that he and his wife testified for legislation to repeal it that was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Winton made the sharpest attacks, contending, "Mr. Andrew has cast his lot with the forces of the status quo," after arguing that teacher unions have put their priorities over those of students.

Andrew, who is endorsed by seven union groups, denied that.

"I have never been in anybody's pocket," he said, his voice rising. "I have a titanium spine, and I'm not bashful about standing up to any group of people."

He added, "We can't have a mayor who is a bomb thrower."

Although candidates pledged to use the mayor's pulpit to bring contending groups together in search of workable solutions to the achievement gap, only Winton said he'd like to see the mayor appoint some of the nine-member school board. That would require a change in state law.

Stephanie Woodruff said her top priority as mayor would be to rally the community behind Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson's "SHIFT" agenda, which offers more flexibility to a limited number of schools to see if they can improve results, including more hiring freedom and longer school days and years.

Woodruff said that if she were elected and minority student outcomes didn't improve, she'd escrow half of the mayor's $106,000 salary into a fund for supporting changes that reduce the achievement gap. "It's not impossible; other cities are doing it," she said.

Jackie Cherryhomes said parents are seeking other options to district schools such as charter schools because they want smaller classes, stability, longer days and respectful engagement with parents.

"People are trying other options because they think they'll get a better result," Betsy Hodges said, agreeing with Cherryhomes.

Missing from the debate was Dan Cohen, who was not invited when organizers made their decisions two weeks ago. Asked if organizers considered inviting him after a Star Tribune poll found Cohen and Samuels topping resident preferences, organizers said they didn't have time.

Residents are giving priority to the city's schools as a problem after the federal No Child Left Behind law and a barrage of publicity by self-styled reformers has spotlighted the district's achievement gap.

Fewer than half of the district's students graduate from high school within four years, and academic skills lag for many of the district's minority students.