One of the hardest-fought, most intrigue-laden local political races of the year took a hairpin turn over the weekend. Minneapolis School Board candidate Josh Reimnitz was contacted by several voters asking about calls they had received from phone bankers asserting that he supported spending public money on private schools.
A Teach for America (TFA) alum, Reimnitz is running against Patty Wycoff in the board’s newly created District 4, which encompasses Bryn Mawr, Uptown, downtown, East Isles and Whittier, among other neighborhoods. The only school-board race with a serious contest this year, the campaigns have thrown divisions in Minneapolis’ education community into unusually stark relief.
On Monday, Reimnitz posted a note about the phone bank on his campaign’s Facebook page. “I do not support the use of public funds to support private schools,” he wrote. “I am an ardent supporter of adequate funding for public schools, and I am running for school board precisely to strengthen Minneapolis Public Schools.
“I appreciate the voters who took the time let me know about the calls and to ask clarifying questions,” Reimnitz added. “This kind of campaigning is inexcusable, but it does serve to show the success of our work thus far.”
The following morning, Wycoff posted a message in the ensuing thread. “Josh, call people on their lies,” she wrote. “This is what I did when Lynnell Mickelsen sent an e-mail saying I was recruited by MFT and she apologized. She also agreed to send a new e-mail stating that she had been wrong. Good luck to you and let’s have a beer when the madness is over.”
“Hey folks, Reimnietz replied, “to clarify, I do not believe Patty is responsible for this. I think others are acting on her behalf.”
Mickelsen is a Reimnitz supporter and co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a grassroots group pushing for reform to Minneapolis Public Schools’ contract with its teachers. The MFT is the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which has historically wielded great influence in school-board elections and which commissioned the phone banking in question.
A few “shares,” “likes” and comments later, Facebook was ablaze, with innuendo from an earlier phase of the campaign seeping into the threads.
MFT says calls were based on answer in candidate questionnaire
If the interpretation of the dust-up depends on one’s vantage, the facts seem undisputed. The union local made the independent expenditure, according to MFT President Lynn Nordgren, who said Wycoff’s campaign was neither alerted nor asked about it. The callers’ statement referred to a candidate questionnaire completed by Reimnitz and dated April 26.
“We thought it was an important issue for voters to know about,” said Nordgren. “Josh made the statement in writing in a document he signed and turned in.” In addition to the phone banking, the MFT mentioned the issue on one of three mailers it sent out to voters in the district.
“To be clear,” Reimnitz posted yesterday in a second Facebook note. “I do not and have not ever supported vouchers or public money going to private schools.”
Wycoff shot back quickly: “Why should voters believe you Josh? You learned at 10 a.m. this morning that there was a document you signed and completed stating you support public funds for private education. Whose fault is it that you do not know the difference between private and charter? Nobody on my side has done anything wrong yet you were comfortable letting so many believe you were a victim to smear campaigning. Here’s one difference between you and I, I know how to say I was wrong and I am sorry. This comes with age and experience. I hope you get there one day. Good Luck because you will need it.”
How did a hyper-local race get so tense? Each of the candidates has been portrayed by the other’s supporters as a horseman of the educational apocalypse.
Reimnitz has been painted as a carpetbagger enlisted in a campaign to give TFA power over MPS, which, the thinking goes, it would then privatize. Wycoff has been depicted as an anti-equity candidate hand-picked by the MFT in an effort to maintain control over the board that votes on its contracts.
Last spring Reimnitz, whose chief opponent at that time was a man named Darrell Washington, filled out a Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation AFL-CIO candidate questionnaire. The Q & A, which no one has yet posted to the viral debate, asked to what extent public funds should be used for private schools.
Reimnitz said in an interview yesterday he thought the question referred to charter schools. His reply: “If the private school is open to all children regardless of background, and the staff is well-treated, I believe public money can fund such an endeavor.”
The labor group shared the questionnaire with the MFT, which endorsed Washington. Historically, that stamp of approval virtually guarantees MPS board candidates an easy ride through the city DFL endorsing convention, but during the last two election cycles a number of community groups interested in education reform and its attendant hot potato, teacher contract reform, have become active.
Washington dropped out; Wycoff filed on last day
Washington received the DFL endorsement in a squeaker. Shortly after the May convention, Washington dropped out, saying he had been warned that his candidacy could violate election laws because he is a city of Minneapolis employee.
Wycoff filed for the seat on the last day to register and quickly won the MFT endorsement. Within weeks, some of her supporters were circulating a document they claimed asserted that Reimnitz had been caught up in a test-cheating scandal in Atlanta, where he taught fourth grade with TFA.
Asked about it in September by MinnPost, Wycoff was quick to say that the auditor’s report in question “exonerated” Reimnitz and that some of her backers, while well-intended, weren’t helpful. She repeated that note Tuesday on Facebook, asking her supporters to refrain from name-calling.
Tuesday afternoon, angry that Reimnitz had not taken down his post complaining that the phone banking was “inexcusable,” Wycoff put up her own post, complaining that Reimnitz was allowing a false impression of her to stand un-rebutted: “You are not a victim Josh and nobody did anything negative towards you. It’s unfortunate you are not able to recognize this and learn from it.”
‘I am so very disappointed’
“He’s perfectly comfortable leaving it up there that I am running some kind of dirty campaign,” Wycoff said in an interview yesterday. “I am so very disappointed in how people have taken it and run with it.”
It’s uncertain whether the fracas will have an impact at the ballot box Tuesday. Each side has endorsements from a string of prominent backers. Wycoff won the DFL primary in August in a landslide, but the Star Tribune recently endorsed Reimnitz.
Incumbent Kim Ellison is running unopposed in the new District 2, as is Tracine Asberry in District 6. Incumbent Carla Bates is expected to easily best perennial dark horse Doug Mann in a citywide contest.