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Patty Wycoff: From parent and activist to MFT endorsee for school board

Candidate’s trial by fire was in opposing MPS proposals for boundary changes, Anwatin school closure.

patty wycoff at capital
Courtesy of Patty Wycoff
Patty Wycoff

The story of candidate Patty Wycoff can be told in three acts. There’s Wycoff the mother of two, whose efforts to be an engaged public school parent have delivered lessons about inequity, community and possibility, and who wants to use that knowledge in a grueling, unpaid job.

Then there’s Wycoff the neighborhood activist who was recruited at the 11th hour to run for Minneapolis School Board against a candidate the powerful teacher’s union badly wants to defeat. And who has supporters who have made missteps that made it appear her campaign was prepared to deliver low blows.

And finally there’s the Wycoff who shares a frustration with her opponent, Josh Reimnitz. Namely tensions in Minneapolis over education reform and the teachers’ contract have built to the point where partisans, and not the candidates, are controlling the narrative about them.

A recent morning found Wycoff sitting in the backroom of Sebastian Joe’s, a coffeeshop in the center of the newly created school board District 4, where she and Reimnitz are competing in the only race where there’s a real contest this year. She was determined to wrest her story back.

Education degree from Winona

In 1995, with her first child on the horizon, Wycoff and her musician husband bought “a shoebox of a house” in Bryn Mawr, a tiny oasis of middle-class stability located in a pocket between Interstate 394 and Minneapolis’ near north side. She had a degree in elementary education from Winona State University and experience subbing in Minneapolis Public Schools and Richfield, but she wanted to stay at home full time.

By the time her daughter, who is now a sophomore at Southwest, was ready for kindergarten Wycoff had concluded that her best option was to open-enroll the girl in Hopkins, a great, not-too-far district that was enjoying a boost in attendance from Bryn Mawr parents and other north Minneapolis families who were fleeing the area’s mostly failing schools.

Wycoff joined the PTA and set about organizing fundraisers and book fairs and wrangling volunteers. She didn’t know it then, but it was relatively easy going. At the last meeting she attended, right before her fifth-grade daughter transferred to FAIR, a fine-arts magnet in Crystal run by an integration district that included Minneapolis, the Hopkins PTA treasurer reported there was $52,000 in the account. They voted to approve a teacher’s request for a new laptop.

A very different picture

The next week she went to her first PTA meeting at Bryn Mawr Community School, the neighborhood school where her son was starting kindergarten. There was $520 in the PTA’s account. More than 80 percent of the students came from impoverished families.

A school not far to the north, Bethune, had no PTA at all — and very little parent involvement. The next one to the south of the freeway, Kenwood, had a huge, active group.

“It was eye-opening in the beginning, the gross inequities in our schools,” she said. “They would work so hard to raise so little money. I had to start thinking out of the box.”

Engaging the community

By then she was working for the Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association, and it occurred to her that the two roles might generate some synergy. She started talking to people — business owners, childless couples, families — about what she’d seen and about the value of a good school to a community.

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The business community in particular stepped up and in two years the PTA had $14,000. Wycoff was both proud and discouraged.

“Even though we took all of these avenues it was still an enormous amount of work,” she said. “It just felt grossly unfair how hard it is to bring things to a school where kids really need things.”

Bryn Mawr’s band program had been eliminated in 2009, which was upsetting for many reasons, created a real problem when its graduates started the sixth grade in Anwatin, the middle school where they were tracked. Students who arrived there without knowing how to play an instrument had to take basic music instead. So Bryn Mawr’s PTA took $10,000 of its hard-earned money and used it to pay for an afterschool music program.

Proposals for changes

The following summer, 2010, MPS began the painful process of changing school attendance boundaries. The district had lost a fourth of its pupils in the preceding decade and was spending a fortune busing kids to a menu of schools desperately in need of pruning.

The district proposed to turn Bryn Mawr from a K-5 program to a K-8, close Anwatin, and eliminate the “pathways” to Southside high schools, leaving parents a choice of North, a dropout factory the administration was considering shuttering, and Patrick Henry, a good option but located on the city’s northern boundary.

Wycoff was one of a group of parents who lobbied hard to get MPS to reconsider. The chapter received zero outside scrutiny, and district insiders tell two stories about it. In the first, a group of white middle-class parents threatened to leave the district en masse if their guarantee of seats in perennially oversubscribed Southwest High School, the state’s best but miles to the south, was not preserved.

In the second version, Wycoff and her neighbors told board members they feared not just the loss of good options for their kids, but of further segregation. Anwatin should stay open, they said; it was integrated and centrally located. And the two desperately poor, mostly minority neighborhoods to Bryn Mawr’s immediate north should share its menu of Southside choices.

In the alternate, if the district was serious about propelling middle-class families back to North High, it should make Lake Street the dividing line so kids from the Kenwood and Isles neighborhoods would automatically go there.

Wrenching discussions

It was, according to some who participated and who are not Wycoff supporters, a wrenching series of discussions in which a group of sincere, well-intended parents said they valued diverse schools and wanted equity, but believed the district’s plan would further neither end. In the end, they got their way.

And their critique that the new map had been poorly drawn has been borne throughout the district, particularly in southwest Minneapolis where schools are overstuffed and MPS is struggling to market new — or newly spiffed up — programs as palatable alternatives.

“Because of that experience, I bring something to District 4 that’s important,” Wycoff said. “Why is it so difficult to get equal programming in all the schools?”

In part because of this trial by fire, Wycoff said she has considered running for a board seat for the last four years. And when Reimnitz’s Minneapolis Federation of Teachers-endorsed opponent dropped out of the race her “phone started to ring.” She filed for office moments before the deadline.

Immediately seen as MFT backer

The second she did, the MPS grapevine lit up. The MFT had not so much as granted Reimnitz, who taught as a Teach for America corps member, an interview. As much as he was presumed — incorrectly, he maintained — to be anti-union because of his experience as a non-union teacher, Wycoff was presumed to be carrying the MFT’s water in part because her biggest backer has deep DFL roots and a strong relationship with the MFT’s state-level parent group.

Wycoff would like to recast this portion of the story. “The Margaret Anderson Kelliher thing?” she said, in reference to reports that she was recruited by the former speaker of the state House of Representatives. They met when both of had toddlers and they lived five doors apart, before Anderson Kelliher was speaker. They are friends and Wycoff is grateful for the support.

She’s also pleased that the MFT endorsed her. “I’m proud to have earned the endorsement,” she said. “I never imagined I would catch so much flak for it. I never imagined people would make assumptions about me and my opinions as the result of it.”

For the record, she does not think changing the way seniority factors into teacher layoffs will fix the achievement gap, and she is in favor of a longer school day — just not more “seat time.”

And she’s more than a little insulted by the buzz: “I think I am a good enough candidate that we don’t need to be doing this.”

Supporters’ talk against opponent

Yet some of the buzz can be traced to her supporters. In late July, MinnPost and at least one other local education reporter received e-mails from a neighbor of Wycoff’s who asserted that Reimnitz had been caught up in an Atlanta scandal centered on cheating on standardized tests during his time with TFA.

The woman attached a report by the Georgia state auditor that is not the kind of document that turns up easily on Google and did not, in fact, show any irregularities with Reimnitz’s classes. Other Wycoff supporters were said to be talking about it, suggesting that if his own scores were valid he had no right to be asserting that his first teaching job was a meaningful one.

The auditor concluded that the principal at the school where Reimnitz taught fourth grade pressured some teachers to coach struggling test-takers and other irregularities. Reimnitz’s scores were within normal range, however, and his name did not come up during the investigation.

Confronted, Wycoff replies quickly. “That report exonerates Josh,” she said. It was the effort of a second “crazy neighbor” to help. It may look like opposition research, but “Margaret had nothing to do with it.”

This “help” hasn’t been very helpful at all, Wycoff added. It has cemented the notion that she is not her own woman. It took several calls to secure a meeting with Mayor R.T. Rybak, a critic of the union-endorsing process who she said was preparing to endorse Reimnitz without talking to her.

“I will never look at an endorsement the same way,” she said. “Did you talk to all of the candidates?”

(Reimnitz, who did get the mayor’s backing among other endorsements, would probably agree. He was unable to get a meeting with the MFT, which he has asserted would be surprised at his views on teachers unions.)

‘Shocked and saddened’ by criticisms

 “I have been shocked and saddened by some of the things that have been written and said about me,” Wycoff said. “I can take the criticisms, but if I am elected I hope it is the decisions I make that will be criticized and not me personally.”

At this Wycoff laughed. If her education as a candidate has proven anything, it’s that whoever is elected, she or Reimnitz, will be sorely tested on this point. Wycoff is running anyway.

“I’m here. I’m invested. I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I have kids in the system. Both are going to graduate from Minneapolis Public Schools.”