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Minneapolis school election has national implications

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • November 18, 2012 - 9:39 PM

The campaign that put Josh Reimnitz on the Minneapolis school board this fall may go down as the one that brought money from national school-reform advocates to bear on a contest traditionally dominated by DFL endorsements and union money.

With reported spending of more than $37,000, Reimnitz set a campaign spending record and exceeded the combined spending of all candidates who filed for four board seats this year.

"My fear is that what has now happened is that we have seen the nationalizing of Minneapolis school board elections," said state Rep. Jim Davnie, a former teacher who supported Reimnitz's union-backed opponent, Patty Wycoff.

The Reimnitz victory also focused attention on the role of Teach For America (TFA), the volunteer program that has placed 30,000 college graduates into urban and rural classrooms dominated by low-income students.

The program challenges traditional teacher training and evaluation methods, frequently earning it the enmity of teacher unions and other educators.

TFA placed 20 teachers this year in Minneapolis classrooms and has about 350 alums like Reimnitz living in the greater Twin Cities area. The program encourages those alumni to seek leadership posts in education. Reimnitz is the first former TFA member elected to a Twin Cities school board, but across the nation 12 of the 15 TFA alumni who ran for such seats this year won, according to the group. Another TFA alum, Seema Pothini, finished last among seven candidates for a board seat in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district.

An example of how the TFA network helped Reimnitz was an October fundraiser that raised about 15 percent of his campaign treasury. It was held at the Edina home of Matthew Kramer, TFA's national president, who is married to a TFA alum who works for a group that promotes high-quality charter schools.

An independent expenditure of about $6,000 for a mailing sent by the political arm of New York-based school reform group 50CAN, for which Kramer is board chair, also drew complaints. It was the first school board donation by the young group, which has focused on legislative contests in the East.

Both Kramer and 50CAN's treasurer said Kramer wasn't involved in the contribution. Treasurer Julie Marlette said the money came from Minnesotans whose names will be disclosed later in campaign finance filings.

Reimnitz also raised $3,850 individually from board members of 50CAN's Minnesota affiliate, MinnCAN, which lobbies the Legislature for such changes as weakening teacher seniority in layoffs and requiring teacher and principal evaluations.

Kramer said he and his wife, Katie Barrett Kramer, got involved in the Reimnitz effort "pretty late" in the campaign after reading a news account of the differences between Reimnitz and Wycoff over educating low-income students.

School board Chairman Alberto Monserrate said that such reform groups have been increasingly active in spending on legislative and ballot issues. "That national trend has found Minneapolis," he said.

Some educators decry such efforts as part of a corporate push to undermine teachers and their unions; others welcome the spending for a candidate willing to take on seniority and other contract issues.

"I think that the debate is a really good thing," said Daniel Sellers, MinnCAN's top staffer, and TFA's former area leader.

Reimnitz's campaign budget still pales in comparison to places like Denver, where school board candidates typically spend more than $100,000. In Minnesota, however, spending in school campaigns typically is funded through donations from people with a deep interest in school issues, and money accumulated through voluntary contributions from members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and allied unions.

One reason that Reimnitz needed more money, backers said, is that he was a newcomer without DFL endorsement.

"We knew it was going to be a tightly contested race," said Reimnitz supporter Lynnell Mickelsen. It cost $22,000 just to do three mailings to the district's households, she said.

Wycoff did have union backing, including a still-undisclosed amount spent independently by the federation's fund, but only one federation-endorsed candidate won in four races this year.

And in 2010, Rebecca Gagnon won a citywide school board seat without DFL backing despite spending less than $7,300 and being similarly new to the city.

That prospect of needing to raise sums such as Reimnitz spent has board members facing re-election in 2014 edgy. "I hope this is an anomaly," said Gagnon, who said that she was so shocked by Reimnitz's total spending that she thought it was a misprint.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib

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