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Civility reigns in Reimnitz-Walser race for Minneapolis school board seat

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Bob Walser: “When the community comes together, it’s really, really heartwarming. That’s been the joy of it.”

Bob Walser’s induction into Minneapolis school board politics has been pleasant, so far. A newbie to the campaign trail, he secured the endorsement of the DFL Party and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers last spring and has been encouraged by the well-wishes he’s received from constituents in District 4.  

“When the community comes together, it’s really, really heartwarming. That’s been the joy of it,” he said, noting people were very positive and supportive of his candidacy at a recent fall festival event. “People are grateful. That’s really affirming.”

When it comes to good-old-fashioned door knocking, phone banking and campaigning at community events, the race in District 4 — which includes downtown, the Isles neighborhoods and Bryn Mawr — has remained fairly positive. That hasn’t always been the case. In recent years, Minneapolis Public School board races have been marred by controversial campaign finances and attack ads.

Minneapolis’ 4th School Board District

Walser says the campaign literature he received in his mail slot two years ago criticizing board member Rebecca Gagnon, along with all of the reports of campaign financing that had flooded the race, really grabbed his attention and inspired him to consider running.

“I felt, ‘Wow, they’re spending a lot of money and stretching the truth,’ to put it kindly. Alarm bells went off for me,” he said.

Josh Reimnitz, Walser’s opponent, agrees that things have remained civil, at least in terms of candidate relations and community interactions. The DFL Party’s convention, however, was anything but. Reimnitz, the reform-minded incumbent, literally got booed and hissed at while he was on stage addressing the crowd.

He suspects his ties to Teach for America and the charter school sector ignited the negative reaction. But he isn't putting much stock in the endorsement process.

“I believe that my base of support is wider — it includes more people and is a lot more inclusive,” he said. “At the DFL convention, I was troubled that the 30, 35 people standing up with Bob were all white. It’s indicative of who’s going to be represented. I believe our system is already set up to represent those people.”

The Minneapolis Public School district serves more than 35,000 students. According to the state Department of Education’s 2016 enrollment data, 66 percent are students of color, 63 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch, 17 percent are enrolled in special-education services, and 25 percent are English Language Learners. Outcomes for these student subgroups, in comparison the white student population as a whole, are poorer when it comes to graduation rates, proficiency in math and reading, and more.   

Endorsements aside, the contest has boiled down to one basic question: Who is better equipped to make tough decisions for all students? For Walser, 62, and Reimnitz, 30, this entails confronting their own white, male privilege — a challenge both welcome, if in very different ways.

Bob Walser

Walser was born in Minneapolis, but grew up in Edina and moved out east for about 12 years to attend Hampshire College and work for a bit. He moved back to Minneapolis in 1985 and has been living in the East Isles neighborhood ever since. His wife, Julie Young, teaches first grade at Kenwood Elementary. Their twin boys both attended Kenwood, then Anthony Middle School and are now seniors at Southwest High School and the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

He’s long been a familiar face at community events, though he credits another group he identifies with for stretching him beyond his comfort zone. “I’m also part of a community — and have been for many many, many years — which we call the music and dance community,” he said. “That community is diverse in its own way. Within that community there are a lot of people who are really concerned about [equity] issues.”

In his experience, music is a medium that can be used to see things from a different perspective. In fact, he studied cross-cultural music education for his doctoral research, which he completed in 2001. He lived in London with his family and conducted fieldwork in Uganda.

“I’m keenly aware of the limits of my own vision,” he said. “As a student of music, I've had to really stretch my brain. How do I move out of my comfortable, cultural language and begin to perceive something from somebody else’s perspective?”

He’s made a multipronged career out of his passion for music education. Currently, he’s teaching in schools as an artist in residence (he did a barn dancing residency at Kenwood Elementary) and is completing a music research project. 

While he’s served on boards for two nonprofits — the Cedar Cultural Center and the Tapestry Folkdance Center — he said running for the school board still feels a bit surreal. But he’s drawn to the challenge becuase he's a big-picture thinker with a natural curiosity for education policy and research.

“I like really big problems. They intrigue me. The problems we’re facing in Minneapolis are being faced by districts across the country,” he said. “How can we re-imagine what we’re doing in a way that will work better?”

Eager to address issues of equity and help improve outcomes for all students, he started paying close attention to board meetings in February. And he’s begun doing his own homework, reaching out to experts in the education sector like the Council of the Great City Schools and Jeff Duncan-Andrade for insight.

When it comes to tackling issues of inequity, he’s a big proponent of looking for holistic solutions that extend beyond the school walls. This work involves communicating with groups like Black Lives Matter and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, he said, and collaborating with community partners better positioned to support families in need of housing, food and employment opportunities.

He considers the DFL Party’s endorsement a huge asset in terms of being able to facilitate and strengthen these partnerships. The party has been a good resource as he learns the ins and outs of running a campaign. “The coordinated campaign is how I cooperate with the party,” he said. “That’s great. It’s great to be part of a team.”

If elected, however, he said he feels no obligation to champion the agenda of any group that endorsed him. Rather, he’s inclined to do his homework on the issues at hand and listen to what others have to say before making any assertions. “I’m a listener. I’m way more comfortable listening than talking,” he said. “I like to understand where people are coming from and work from that to build consensus. That’s the nature of board work. You can’t make any assumptions.”

Even though he’s been living in District 4 for over 30 years, and has long studied music as a rich source of cross-cultural expression, he recognizes that he still has much to learn when it comes to addressing racism and other barriers that hamper student growth.

Putting on his scholar hat, he’s been reading a book titled “A Good Time for the Truth,” that’s already radically changed his understanding of racism in Minnesota by highlighting personal stories, rather than just stats. A friend gave it to him as a campaign gift.

“On an intellectual level, I sort of knew that stuff was out there. But it grabbed me and shook me personally. It moved it from an intellectual understanding to a much more gut level understanding. I think that’s what stories can do. Stories are powerful that way.”

Josh Reimnitz

Reimnitz grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota and studied communications at North Dakota State University in Fargo, where he founded his campus’ chapter of a youth nonprofit called Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF). In 2003, the nonprofit took root in Minnesota and Reimnitz eventually came on board as co-executive director. His six-year term recently came to an end, so he’s currently searching for a new position in the nonprofit education sector.

In the midst of wrapping up work with STLF and serving on the school board, he got married to Daniela Vasan about a year ago. He met his wife when they were both participating in the Teach for America program. From 2008 to 2010, Reimnitz taught fourth-grade science and reading in the Atlanta Public Schools district, where over 95 percent of his students were impoverished and performing below grade level. He students made significant gains both years, he said.

Many of the insights he gained as a teacher have shaped his understanding of poverty, prejudice, and how education systems are, in many ways, set up to favor those who look like him. But his effort to become more attuned to the barriers that exist for students of color is ongoing.

He says he has his wife to thank for keeping him on his toes. “My partner, who happens to be a person of color, educates me fairly regularly about my privilege,” he said, noting they’ll often debrief on his body language and comments after board meetings.

"For instance, she reminds me that something as minor as sitting in a way that takes up a lot of space is totally a male thing," he said, laughing.

Tall and lanky, it’d be hard for Reimnitz not to take up much space. But the reminder to make room for others may manifest itself in other ways. “I believe I have good relationships with every board member,” he said. “Any disagreements we have remain professional.” 

Josh Reimnitz
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Josh Reimnitz: “At the DFL convention, I was troubled that the 30, 35 people standing up with Bob [Walser] were all white. It’s indicative of who’s going to be represented.”

In an effort to enhance board accountability, he’s taken the lead on rewriting the board’s policy manual, along with the help of those serving on the policy committee. A draft will be presented to the board for review this November. If approved, it will be the most comprehensive change in policy since the board bought a policy manual in 1967, he said. 

“What I think good governance can accomplish is proactive actions,” he said. “And I think we’ve been pretty reactive, thus far. When it’s set up in the way that I’m proposing, it allows the board members to do their job of setting a vision, making sure we’re aligned with community values. ... It allows the superintendent to be our expert and execute without as much board interference, but with more regular and predictable board oversight. And it focuses on student outcomes.”

If elected to serve for another four-year term, he’ll throw his support behind the district’s new superintendent, Ed Graff, he said, noting some bold changes are still needed to address the achievement gap. Reimnitz’s other priorities include: a continued focus on equity, raising academic rigor, supporting a comprehensive curriculum, and targeting school resources in a more equitable way.

He ran to address many of these issues four years ago and is hoping another tour will grant him time to put more of what he’s learned into action. This year he sought, but did not get, the DFL Party endorsement. The same thing happened when he first ran in 2012, when he weathered a fairly heated campaign in which his opponents raised issues with his prior ties to Teach for America and the some $45,000 spent in support of his candidacy.

In response to both, he says his Teach for America background does not mean he’s anti-union; and he attributes out-of-state funding he’s received to friends he made while living in South Dakota and Georgia, along with others who believe in his leadership abilities.

“Because I was a newcomer on the school board scene, there were a lot of questions about who I actually was,” Reimnitz said, adding this things have been much quieter on the campaign trail this year. “Because my leadership style has been more independent and pragmatic, it doesn’t lead to as much firing up. It feels just very work oriented. I think it’s a bit calmer.”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/17/2016 - 09:32 am.

    Terrible journalism

    I can’t believe that you let Reimnitz claim that he improved test scores in Atlanta when his school had a widespread test cheating scandal. Reimnitz was not implicated in being involved in the cheating, but the test scores in his class were altered. Reimnitz knows this and addressed it in his first race.

    I also can’t believe that you did not challenge his claim that his record-breaking out-of-state campaign contributions were from his friends.

    This is grotesquely bad journalism.

  2. Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/17/2016 - 09:59 am.

    They should spend less time thinking about

    whatever “privilege” they have or do not have and think about getting MPSD students ready for the real world of jobs, trade schools or college when they graduate. By 9th grade over 60% of students in Mpls are below either reading or math for their grade level. Makes you wonder what they have been learning for 10 years of public education (K-9). It is called public education, so try putting 90% of your efforts into math, reading and problem solving. Leave dance interpretation for college where at least they are spending their own money. As long as you are spending the public’s money, please prepare these young children to be able to function in the real world of jobs, work competition and contributing to the community. You have 13 years of public education and over $200,000 per kid in MPSD to do a job, please less excuses and more results. That is what the parents want and so should the administrators.

    • Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 10/17/2016 - 11:07 am.

      Agree to a Point

      I agree that there should be a focus on job readiness and increased efforts put into critical skills in reading, STEM and problem solving. However I think that the district should also be striving to incorporate known best practices.

      I am not an expert in this field, but it seems there are many other places that achieve excellent results from their public schools. I remember Minnpost reporting on schools in Finland at one point as an example.

      My point being that, dance and other activities may seem insignificant or diversionary, but let’s consider them in the context of the scientific research that exists on the topic, which may indeed show that having a curriculum of diverse topics actually helps students learn.

      Young brains are constantly learning from everything around them, and I believe an imbalance of social, emotional, and academic learning leads to many of the issues seen in MPS today. Cutting recess out of the day for more “learning time” is an example of how a misguided approach that doesn’t cater to the whole child can fail.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/17/2016 - 01:35 pm.

        Sean, if you can’t read, write, do math and problem solve

        all the dance classes in the world will only help the 1/10 of one percent that go on to a career in dance. It is like saying put all your eggs in being a pro athlete, 99.99 will not make it. At least in sports you have eligibility rules you have to meet before you can compete… Before you can take dance (or any other specialty class) you have to be grade level in math, reading writing works for me. If not you get special classes to help you read, write, do math and problem solve…. I will repeat it again and again, what we are doing is not working, after 10 years of public education 60% of 9th graders are not at grade level in math of reading in MPSD….. That is not good enough when you are spending tax dollars…….

        • Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 10/17/2016 - 03:06 pm.

          Joe, you misunderstand my argument.

          I’m not proposing that learning dance, in and of itself, is more important than getting the core outcomes (literacy, mathematics, critical thinking) right in public education. My point is that there is research that shows a diverse curriculum that goes beyond this core actually, in fact, increases student performance in those core subject areas.

          For example:
          – A study of 13,200 third and fifth graders in Louisiana public schools revealed that, regardless
          of race, gender, or academic level, children taking foreign language classes did better on the
          English section of the Louisiana Basic Skills Test than those who did not. (Dumas 1999)
          – Schoolchildren exposed to drama, music and dance are often more proficient at reading, writing, and math. Researchers determined that students who received more arts education did better on standardized tests, improved their social skills and were more motivated than those who had reduced or no access.(AEP 2002)
          – Safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment. (AAP 2013)

          We both agree that a focus on graduating student that can read, write, do math and problem solve is important, and that our schools need to do better. However the scientific evidence in this area does not support your idea that spending more time practicing these subjects in the classroom at the expense of other topics will actually result in a better outcome for students.

          You’re right, these are our tax dollars. Let’s put them to use in the way has been demonstrated to BEST benefit our children.

  3. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 10/17/2016 - 10:23 am.

    Information aides

    Articles like this would benefit from a map showing the boundaries of the district.

  4. Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/17/2016 - 06:30 pm.

    Everyone can throw out their best theory but

    with more diversity in public school curriculum than ever, we have dropped to 35th in the world in education. Theory sounds good, results are what folks want…. The theory and results don’t match up, why? With billions apon billions being spend annually education in America continues to drop, why? Parents want results not theory… We pay for public education and as a country are we getting our money’s worth?

  5. Submitted by Bobbt Davis on 10/17/2016 - 09:28 pm.


    Is this a misquote?

    “At the DFL convention, I was troubled that the 30, 35 people standing up with Bob were all white. It’s indicative of who’s going to be represented. I believe our system is already set up to represent those people.”

    Did I read that quote right? Does Obama only represent blacks? Do gay politicians only represent gay constituents? If I support a white candidate, do I hate people of color?

    Does Josh really need a wife of color to understand and represent kids of color? Is Josh, otherwise incapable? How will he ever represent transgendered kids?

    His quote is divisive and does nothing to further improve my kids education.

    I hadn’t planned on voting on this seat but I will be voting after all. One guess who I’m not voting for.

    A dad with a mixed race kid in Minneapolis public school, district 4 and who has wife of color.

  6. Submitted by Adam Platt on 10/18/2016 - 10:51 am.

    Not convinced by either

    I actively supported Josh four years ago, but have been disappointed with both his visibility in the district and communication with residents, particularly those with kids at MPS.

    The regional districts exist so that members represent the specific needs of the schools and families of their district. Josh’s stated agenda seems to be entirely that of an at-large board member, with nothing specific to D4. Walser’s comments also are broad and generic in emphasis.

    In addition to the obvious and intractable challenges MPS faces, plus the current preoccupation with equity and white privilege–D4 families suffer from school overcrowding, a lack of available programs with rigor for advanced learners, and really iffy management at the district level.

    District 4 already is represented by several at-large board members. The candidate that seems to actually understand the unique concerns of the district they represent and have a plan to advocate for them will have my vote.

    This article manifests very little of that.

  7. Submitted by Mike martin on 10/18/2016 - 12:46 am.

    Who will Bob Walser Represent ?

    Both Bob Walser and his wife are teachers in Mpls. School district. Will he represent the interests of taxpayers in controlling expense (controlling property tax increases) or will he represent the interests of the teachers union in getting the biggest raise possible? Will he be a spy for the teacher’s union, so the union will know what the school board’s negotiating position is.

    Voters will have to decide for themselves.

    • Submitted by Adam Platt on 10/18/2016 - 10:56 am.

      MFT influence

      Mike makes an excellent point, namely given the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers union’s substantial influence base within the district, is it in the interest of families to elect defacto members of that group to the school board as representatives of the families of a specific region of the city. Given that the MFT already bargains with MPS over school policy, work rules, resources, etc, does the MFT already have enough representation at the table?

      I’m sure Mr. Walser would insist he will not serve on the board to do the MFT’s bidding, but the question is salient nonetheless.

  8. Submitted by Mike martin on 10/23/2016 - 12:26 am.

    What does the Demoncric party endorsement mean?

    The Democrat party has controlled the Mpls. school board for decades. Its candidates & members produced the biggest racial disparity in the country

    Have you noticed that no democrat every runs on the record of the democratic party in producing the biggest racial disparity in the country. They never talk about this past record of the democrat party

    Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again & expecting different results.

    Are Voters ever going to hold democrats accountable for the biggest racial disparity in the country and vote for someone other than the endorsed democrat party candidate?

  9. Submitted by jburnett324 Burnett on 10/30/2016 - 10:18 am.

    Cheating scandal scores

    From 2008 to 2010, Reimnitz was a TFAer in fourth-grade science and reading at Cook Elementary in the Atlanta Public Schools district. He says his students made significant gains both years on state standardized tests. UNTRUE!!!

    He fails to mention that the gains were thanks to a huge scandal of staff at his school erasing wrong answers and changing them to right answers in 2009. (Google “Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal.”) “The Special Investigation Into Test Tampering in Atlanta’s School System,” published in 2011, did not implicate Josh in the actual act of cheating, but he still claims credit for the false scores. His Reading scores deviated by 6.630912183 from the state norm, and and the standard deviation for his math scores was 3.88169777, which are unimaginable.

    Do your homework, MNpost!

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