ADVERTISEMENT

District school seat could sway board on contracts

  • Blog Post by: Steve Brandt
  • November 2, 2012 - 4:52 PM

Josh Reimnitz and Patty Wycoff are competing for a school board seat in Minneapolis and both feel misunderstood.

He doesn’t feel as if the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers took enough time to know him before deciding to endorse her.

She’s still steamed that Mayor R.T. Rybak endorsed Reimnitz before talking to her, given her community background and previous political support for Rybak.  Rybak said he made his commitment before she entered the race.

Their contest in a district that stretches from downtown to the Isles area is splitting the city’s DFL power structure, and has the potential to shift the board’s stance on teacher contract issues.  So it’s attracting more than the usual attention for one of the three new districts sending representatives to the board. Reimnitz has raised an astounding $37,196 to date. He used part of the money to produce an offbeat video, in which sings his own lyrics.

The union,U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, three current or former legislators, two board members and three council members back Wycoff, 43. So does womenwinning, a campaign fund that tries to elect female officeholders.   Rybak, two council members, a county commissioner and three former school board chairs back Reimnitz, 26, as do veteran and GLBT caucuses of the DFL and an immigrant campaign group.

Josh Reimnitz

Josh Reimnitz

Wycoff won the first round in the primary, with the union’s backing, amassing 60 percent of voters and winning every precinct despite Reimnitz outspending her. She attributes that “the advantage of having lived here and built relationships on soccer fields and T-ball fields and the Y.”

However, the general election is likely to attract a broader pool of voters.

With school board elections often effectively decided before they’re held by a combination of DFL and union endorsements in a one-party city, this election is different. There’s no party endorsement. A May endorsing convention backed Darrell Washington over Reimnitz in three ballots.  But Washington was unable to file due to a federal law governing his city job. Wycoff later fell one vote short of winning party endorsement through the party’s governing committee.

The election could serve as a referendum on how Minneapolis voters feel about the board’s relationship with the teacher union. The most recent round of negotiations, directed by a board that took a more conciliatory approach than its predecessor, were a disappointment to advocates for contract changes they maintain would help students.

Patty Wycoff

Patty Wycoff

Wycoff, an education major whose substitute teaching career was mostly before 1996, said she backs the union’s push for smaller class sizes,  although she’s not ready to say how she’d pay for it. The Bloomington native favors continuing seniority as the  criterion for layoffs, and argues that there’s no evidence that modifying it, as Reimnitz proposes, will improve how students perform.

Wycoff touts as her chief qualification for the district seat her long experience with its schools as a parent volunteer and a staffer for the Bryn Mawr neighborhood. That put her in a central role in preserving her area’s student path to Southwest High School instead of North Side schools and keeping Anwatin Middle School open. Reimnitz, who moved to the Twin Cities in 2010, can’t match her knowledge of the district’s schools, she asserted.

But Reimnitz responds that he trumps that with both recent inner-city teaching experience and experience in dealing with boards. The North Dakota native was president of that state university’s student body. He then taught for two years in an Atlanta public school through Teach For America, which provides five weeks of pre-classrom training and some ongoing support for recent college graduates to enter classrooms.

Reimnitz said his elementary experience under the program taught him the difference between how a school works under poor and good principals, and also exposed him to a small number of teachers who were merely going through the motions. That experience persuaded him to support loosening the state’s seniority law so schools could base layoff decisions on factors beyond merely seniority. He favors evaluating teachers using observations of how teachers perform in classrooms, multi-year testing data that measures growth, and student and parent feedback. He also argues that achieving tenure should require more from teachers so it has more meaning.

That said, he said he’d like to talk through those issues with the union. He said its stances often are interpreted by the public as protecting bad teachers, which he said he doesn’t think is intentional. He thinks the federation wrote him off because of his Teach for America background. It has made independent expenditures on Wycoff's behalf 

Wycoff noted a concentration of Teach For America teachers at Bethune Community School (she said eight teachers; the organization said it has six there). “That’s a lot of inexperienced, untrained teachers,” she said. “You would never put those teachers at Burroughs.”

“If either of my children were put in a classroom with Teach For America teachers, I would not rest until they moved,” she said.  Both of her children have spent time in suburban schools, with one currently at FAIR,  an inter-district arts school in Crystal, and another attending Southwest High School.

Reimnitz said it’s Wycoff’s privilege where to place her children, but that he’s seen good teachers come out of traditional teacher schools and Teach For America, and some that should be counseled out of teaching from both sources.

He said he supports Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s willingness to weed out outmoded educational initiates at the union’s prodding, and thinks she’s on the right course in how she’s pushing for improved instruction. “Once we pick something, we need to see it through instead of switching things every three to five years.”

A big issue for Wycoff is class sizes. She said she’s frustrated that classes are more than 30 students despite a referendum to keep sizes smaller. “I’m watching people leave the district because of class size,” she said. When her son’s transition from Bryn Mawr school to FAIR was initially rocky, she considered switching him back but was dissuaded by big classes there, she said.

She also wants to work on improving the district’s interactions with parents. She said she’s tired of getting the runaround from the district as a parent, with e-mails and phone calls ignored.

A Bloomington native, Wycoff said she’s the only one of seven siblings to go to college, earning an elementary education degree.

Bismarck native Reimnitz said he wavered between journalism and teaching at North Dakota State, where he was student body president. That experience taught him to work with a student board, and he now shares the leadership of a nonprofit that develops leadership skills among college students. It’s based in Elliot Park, where he moved last May.

Reimnitz said his experience in Atlanta taught him that simplistic measures of student proficiency can skew people’s motivations.  The principal and several teachers at his school were implicated in a cheating scandal, although Reimnitz was not accused of wrongdoing.  He said he favors evaluations of teachers that factor in how much their students grew in a year, contending that’s fairer in measure than absolute proficiency in measuring how a teacher performs with students who are lagging.

He said that as a board member he’d work for the district to challenge all students, not just those lagging behind.  He cites himself as student who would have benefitted from a stronger push from teachers. That said, he still visits his teachers when he’s home.

One campaign flap arose from Reimnitz's response last spring to a union questionnaire in which he was asked to what extent public money should fund private K-12 education.  He responded that he would be open to that if the private school was open to all children and and teachers were treated well.  After the federation recently raised a fuss over that answer, he said that he misunderstood the question -- despite referring explicitly to public money and private schooling in his written answer -- and does not support public money for private education.   

© 2014 Star Tribune