October 26, 2012 by Sarah M
Thursday’s discussion clarified the choices in the two contested races
//By Dylan Thomas//
THE WEDGE — The candidates for School Board met in their final pre-Election Day forum Thursday night at Jefferson Community School, and while they offered little new information for voters — including the three dozen or so in the audience — they clarified the choices to be made on Nov. 6.
Those choices are between the incumbent Carla Bates and her challenger Doug Mann for a citywide seat on the board and between Patty Wycoff and Josh Reimnitz in District 4, which includes the Southwest neighborhoods north of Lake Street, East Calhoun, parts of downtown and the southern tip of the North Side. The candidates in two uncontested races, Tracine Asberry in Southwest’s District 6 and incumbent Kim Ellison in the North Side’s District 2, made brief opening statements and then left the stage to watch the rest of the forum from the audience.
As the night progressed the distinctions between the candidates became clearer: between the experienced incumbent (Bates) and a largely single-issue candidate (Mann) in the citywide race; and between someone who takes a parent’s perspective on school issues (Wycoff) and a candidate who’s own school experiences are not long past (Reimnitz) in District 4.
In the opening statements, Wycoff reintroduced herself as a longtime resident of District 4’s Bryn Mawr neighborhood (where she is a community organizer), a district parent, former substitute teacher and active school volunteer who was galvanized by the district’s handling of Changing School Options, the restructuring plan of several years ago that prompted parent backlash over changes to school and busing options. Reimnitz also has classroom experience, having spent two years in Atlanta schools through Teach for America, and now leads a non-profit organization. Reimnitz also recently won an endorsement from the Star Tribune.
The newspaper’s editorial board picked Bates in the citywide race, citing her position and perspective as the board’s most-veteran member, and she spoke of pushing forward with district initiatives that aim to prepare all students for college or work. Mann, who refused to meet with the Star Tribune’s editorial writers, retained his singular focus on the district inequities he says are largely due to high teacher turnover in schools in schools with large populations of poor and minority students.
Asked at one point to identify something about Minneapolis Public Schools that they are “proud of,” Mann paused, searching for an answer, and finally responded: “I’m so focused on what doesn’t work in the school district this kind of question throws me for a loop, unfortunately.”
Bates took an opportunity in her closing statement to, as she said, “set the record straight” on some of Mann’s oft-repeated claims. She agreed inexperienced teachers were a significant issue for the district’s struggling schools, but said the “staffing crisis” Mann describes again and again was a problem of the last decade, exacerbated by declining enrollment and instability in the superintendent position — two trends that have begun a slow U-turn in recent years.
The starkest line was drawn between Wycoff and Reimnitz when a question from the audience noted Minneapolis Public Schools operates on an annual budget of roughly $750 million, and asked the candidates to describe their experience dealing with multi-million dollar budgets.
Reimnitz could cite his time as student body president at North Dakota State University, where he managed more than $2 million in student fees, and his current role as co-executive director of Students Today Leaders Forever, which he said operates with a “multi-million” budget. Wycoff acknowledged frankly that she has no such experience, but reminded the audience of her investment in the district as a parent and said she was “ready to learn.”
Wycoff also highlighted her resourcefulness as a fundraiser. Noting the significant fundraising advantages schools in richer communities have over those in poorer communities, she described rallying the entire Bryn Mawr neighborhood — including area businesses — in support of a community school where about 85 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Parenthood became another dividing line between the two.
On the campaign trail, Wycoff often returns to her experiences as a district parent, one who has sometimes felt like her opinion was not valued by the School Board or district administrators — a message that could resonate with other parents. But Reimnitz, picking up on a theme of the Star Tribune’s endorsement editorial, noted the current School Board includes a majority of members with children enrolled now or previously in district schools and said he would bring a new perspective, and some youthful energy, to the boardroom.
There were a few other points during the discussion when the candidates’ viewpoints clearly diverged. Asked about alternative licensure for teachers, Wycoff, Reimnitz and Bates all supported to some extent programs that get teachers who haven’t followed the typical educational pathway into classrooms, while Mann focused on the downside of such programs: in his view, replacing “fully qualified” teachers with those less experienced.
Asked about tenure laws that protect the jobs of experienced teachers, Wycoff was clear in her support for the “due process” protections afforded by tenure. Reimnitz agreed such protections were important, but said the process for earning tenure needed reform so that it was “more fair and rigorous.”
“I don’t believe in tenure,” was Bates’ clear response, adding that state employment laws already give teachers the due process protections being discussed. Mann spent more time describing how tenure laws work than outlining his own position, but seemed to contradict Bates when he said tenure kept experienced teachers from being “bumped around at the whim of a principal.”
The forum is scheduled for rebroadcast on the Minneapolis Television Network before Nov. 6. For more details, check mtn.org.