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‘The next mayor has to be deeply engaged’ in schools, Rybak says in Q&A

The mayor is remorseful about not having done more and earlier, and he’s worried that his successor won’t be brave enough or act with enough urgency.

R.T. Rybak: "I am pushing the voters to demand a much higher bar of the next mayor than they demanded of me."
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

When R.T. Rybak, the three-term, lame-duck mayor of Minneapolis, rushes into a crowd of students, he invariably does so with the same joy and zeal that compels his oft-remarked passion for crowd surfing.

Whether he’s teaching a column of third-graders the power of eye contact and a firm handshake or explaining how hungry the city’s civic and business leaders are for the multilingual, multicultural talents in a high school auditorium, the mayor is constantly conveying the same message: Every one of the city’s children matters.

As Rybak ticks down the final weeks of his 12 years as mayor, he’s worrying about those kids. Despite having a high profile as an education advocate throughout his tenure, he is remorseful about not having done more and earlier. And he’s worried that his successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, won’t be brave enough or act with enough urgency.

In the remarks that follow — an edited version of an interview that took place last week — Rybak gets specific. He opines critically about the leading mayoral candidates’ education platforms, the bold changes the next mayor needs to demand and about the “reckless” and “deeply stupid” remarks one frontrunner has made on the stump.

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(Will the candidates react? You might want to click over to The Uptake to listen in on a sold-out mayoral candidate forum taking place from 6 to 8 tonight at the Mill City Museum.)  

Rybak did not tip his hand as to what’s next for him, personally, except to say that he’s prepared to spend the considerable political capital with which he’s leaving office making up for lost time.

MinnPost: Why is education a pivotal issue in the mayor’s race?

R.T. Rybak: On paper the mayor has absolutely no responsibility for schools. In reality, the next mayor has to be deeply engaged. I went from being a newly elected mayor resolved not to overstep into schools to being a mayor leaving, saying it is an absolutely essential role. This city does not have the luxury of giving the next mayor a 12-year course in why it is absolutely essential for the person in the top elected office in the city to advocate for the schools.  

I should have gotten engaged in schools earlier. I should have especially stepped in earlier when there were challenges around Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles. I could have played a larger role back then, and it is one of my largest regrets as mayor.

In recent years I have become much more engaged, sometimes in public and most often behind the scenes in supporting the superintendent or moving the superintendent or the school board. I have also stepped in to advocate for specific issues.

MP: When you say behind the scenes, can you elaborate?

RTR: People are used to seeing me out in public. And I am known for grabbing a microphone whenever one is within 1,000 feet. But mayoral leadership with schools is often different.

The role I have played with these last two superintendents has often been to be a safe zone, to forward different ideas, to have another figure with deep knowledge of the city to play off of what I think implications will be. To push where I am hearing discontent and see a solution.

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I won’t go into all the things, nor should I, that I have counseled the two superintendents — [Bill Green and Bernadeia Johnson] on, but it’s a lot. More than anything else, I said to both of them, “I will back you 100 percent of the way as long as you don’t wimp out.” Especially on the most critical issue, which is closing an achievement gap that is a real crisis.

And I don’t think either Superintendent Green or Superintendent Johnson wimped out. Both have delivered. There are many times that I pushed the superintendent to go harder, faster. And I don’t think it’s a violation for me to say in public that [Johnson] can do that sometimes because she knows I have her back. She also knows, and I have been really blunt with her, she won’t have my back if she wimps out.

And I have done that with varying degrees with various school board members, some very aggressively and some only a little bit.

MP: How effective has it been with board members?

RTR: It varies dramatically. The member I probably had the best personal rapport with was Hussein Samatar. But I talk with a number of board members and in recent months have had, I think, individual meetings with all of them. With all of them it was really about me trying to get more involved with them as they faced some tough issues.

Mostly what I’ve wanted to say to them is the same thing I’ve said to the superintendents. And what probably as mayor I should have been saying more often to school board members, which is I will back you so long as you don’t wimp out. But you have to take tough, aggressive action right now.

MP: When you say 12-year crash course, do you think that’s fair to you?

RTR: I think I had the right impulses all the way through. But I evolved rapidly when I got a clearer sense of what the crisis was and more important thought through the ways that I could do that given that on paper I had no responsibility.

The mayor happens to be a resident of the city who is the person who is entrusted most by the voters to act citywide. I’m not in charge of the 35W bridge, in any way. But I stepped in when there was a crisis. That helped me to think about the fact that I shouldn’t just look to a charter to decide what I should be doing.

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So as this next mayoral race comes up I am pushing the voters to demand a much higher bar of the next mayor than they demanded of me.

MP: Regarding the field of candidates, they are starting to firm up their platforms. Are they specific enough for you yet?

RTR: None of them are anywhere as specific as they need to be. All of the candidates have answered more detailed questions about education than I ever answered when I was running. So I think we’re starting to see some things happening.

I’ve known Don Samuels for many years and know that he has an extraordinary passion for this work and has the guts to be able to stand up and say very uncomfortable things if it’s going to help kids in need. I believe he has extended that into this election and has created what is the boldest plan for addressing the achievement gap, and I know he has the guts to follow through.

The question remains whether he also can couple that with the discipline and focus and sustain it in a comprehensive, strategic way.

Cam Winton has proven to be very aggressive on this issue. And I think has some good tendencies on it, but he tends to put it all in the idea that somehow it’s about mayoral control. I understand the impulse, but I’ve learned it’s really not about mayoral control. It’s about political leadership in a city that collectively has the chance to do big things.

We’re seeing other candidates such as Jackie Cherryhomes, who I think has the potential to do more, simply say that this isn’t her job. And I disagree.

I think Betsy Hodges is working very hard to lay out what at this point is probably the most comprehensive approach for youth in our city. She rightfully says the early childhood work is a place where a mayor can really have an impact. That’s true.

I just think she’s got to prove she’s gutsy enough to go out and say — right now she’s talking about making sure everybody comes to the table and [taking] a neutral position and that’s a good impulse. But sometimes you need somebody who is going to pound their fist and be irrational in the name of kids who aren’t succeeding. I think she’s got to demonstrate that.

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Mark Andrew for many years was known as someone who did great things for kids while on the [Hennepin] County Board and I know his impulses are right. But he’s said two things that are the most troubling to me in the election, one being he said he’s never been a fan of charter schools. And then he also had a forum with unions at which he was throwing around the notion of Koch Brother-funded corporate reformers. Let me address those two issues.

Number one, I know when I was running for mayor 12 years ago many people were very skeptical of charter schools. In the past, it was very legitimate to say they were sucking the wind out of public education. We now have a couple of decades of experience here in this city where there is a huge difference. A mayor needs to be more sophisticated about charter schools than simply waving them off with a dismissive comment.

We now have charter schools like Hiawatha [Leadership Academies], which are outperforming schools anywhere, and Harvest Prep and some promising new ones, and they need strong support from the mayor. There are also way too many charter schools that are underperforming and they need to be put out of business faster. And they need tough scrutiny from the mayor.

You can’t have this office just say that all charters are good or bad. I find it troubling to think that we can somehow say to the kids at Hiawatha, who are succeeding beyond most schools in this state, that we don’t have confidence at what they are doing. They need wind in their sails from the mayor’s office.

The second issue was the comment about Koch Brothers-sponsored corporate reformers. That’s language that’s being used about me and about many other people. The Koch Brothers are involved in funding some things around the country. And as someone who has spent the last couple of years fighting desperately against the Koch Brothers around the country, I deeply resent the fact that people would put that label on me. It’s wrong, it’s deeply stupid and it’s reckless for a mayor or anyone else.

This city desperately needs a Minneapolis discussion of Minneapolis issues and Minneapolis problems. And throwing around language that gets applause at a union meeting and is going to get you no traction in the collaboration you need is wrong.

Corporate reformers, quote unquote, does that include Cargill, which is a big corporation? I don’t have to agree with everything they do to say, “Thank you very much for the millions you have pumped into our schools.” General Mills, which has been with us every step of the way on everything involving kids in this city. Target, which is funding third-grade reading.

They’re all corporations, but we need them. And throwing the label corporate reformer around here at random so you can get applause during an election year is reckless politics.

Mark is much better than that, and he has the record to prove it. But he’s got to show people he can get out of the box on this one. He deserves a chance to make that case, but he should be called on that kind of garbage.

MP: We heard a lot of this rhetoric during the last school-board race.

RTR: Oh yeah. I stood up to it. I was the one elected official who went out front against every other elected official endorsed in the city because I felt [freshman school-board member] Josh Reimnitz would be a great addition to the board. And he won, against all odds. And I fully intend to play that kind of role in the next school board race if I have to.

I hope instead that this becomes a city that puts a wall around this polluted national debate about quote-unquote school reform and focuses instead on Minneapolis solutions, Minneapolis innovations for a Minneapolis crisis that is shockingly bad.

I want to also be clear that I’ve been in every school for many years. I have met thousands of kids educated in the Minneapolis Public School system and I deeply reject the cartoon that, quote-unquote, the schools are broken. It’s a far more complicated picture than that.

There is literally great teaching going on in every single school in every part of the city. That’s not rhetoric. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. There’s great teaching. Period.

There are also schools that are incredible high performers, and they need to be cut loose to go do great things. But there are schools and especially populations that have shockingly poor performance.

We’re simply going to have to have every person in this city led by the mayor, and certainly including the ex-mayor, put a lot of pressure on a superintendent and school board who have the right impulses but need to know we’re willing to support nontraditional approaches.

First and foremost, our kids need dramatically more time in school. We have one of the shortest school days and year. We added five days in the last contract and that’s good. Remember those hot days where kids went home? That’s two. So now we’re down to three and that’s like three snow days. That’s not enough.

The second thing is we’ve got to diversify. Sixteen percent are teachers of color in a district that is 65 percent kids of color. Fixing that dramatically faster is going to have to take an alternative hiring strategy that targets teachers of color and multilingual teachers. That’s going to make people uncomfortable.

The third thing that has to happen that is really controversial is that in schools with populations that are underperforming we have to hire principals and teachers primarily for their ability to reach those populations. And that means that seniority and experience can’t be the chief determinant.

That’s going to be a complicated union issue. But we have to appeal to those who are teaching and those who are parents and those who are members of the community that we’re going to have to get out of the box on this one.

Maybe we pay those teachers more. Maybe we give them smaller classrooms. But we do something to make sure that every single teacher in front of every single kid that’s underperforming has the skill set to do that. Maybe there’s more training but it’s going to have to be something other than the traditional system.

MP: Has the state given districts the tools they need to direct money where it’s most effective?

RTR: I thought the last session of the Legislature was the education session and it put a lot of money into the schools and into early-childhood education, and they deserve tremendous credit. I especially credit the governor for creating all of that.

I also was critical of the governor’s veto of [$1.5 million in funding for] Teach for America and his passivity when the [Board of Teaching] that he appointed took reckless, random and I would say deeply destructive action about Teach for America. How in the world a person with teaching credentials could say it was somehow advantageous to create chaos right before the school year among schools with kids with an achievement gap is just way beyond me. 

The governor blew a dog whistle when he did that Teach for America [veto]. I frankly don’t believe he knew what he was doing. He sent a message I don’t believe he knew he was sending that it was open season on anyone who was doing some of these local innovations.

I fully believe he did not understand how seismic a message he sent. And I am very confident that over time he can do more. Eventually [state Education Commissioner] Brenda Cassellius played a very constructive role in steering that Teach for America issue to firmer ground. (Rybak’s daughter is a member of the current TFA corps and, like the rest of the cohort, a recipient of a waiver from the Board of Teaching.)

Teach for America wasn’t really frankly the issue there. In my mind it was really a referendum on whether new things are going to be tried to get teachers into classrooms who come from different backgrounds. Thirty percent of that Teach for America class was kids of color and I believe 100 percent of them spoke Spanish.

We need to take a comprehensive approach to how we fix the fact that our teaching corps is about 40 percent less diverse than our student population, which is getting more diverse. We will never get the diverse population of teachers we need if we stick to traditional methods.

I believe that in this contract [now being negotiated between MPS and its teachers’ union] — and nobody, not even the superintendent is talking about this — we should be going out to Teach for America and multiple groups with a request for proposals saying bring us your best plan for how you would recruit high achieving students of color to come in and co-teach in our schools next year in an apprenticeship that could move you into teaching faster. 

MP: If I were Bernadeia Johnson I would be so upset to be losing you now, with the controversial Shift proposal on the table. You are in all likelihood going to be gone at the moment when she needs her backer.

RTR: The single biggest regret I have about leaving my job is my fears about destabilizing the progress I see in the schools. I happen to be lucky enough to be leaving at a time when I have the support of the city. I will not be mayor when much of this comes to the fore.

I hope the superintendent, the school board and those who don’t want me involved realize that I am going to double down and do even more. I’m going to put my political credibility on the line in the next election if I have to to either re-elect members who are supporting this work or to elect new people who can do more.

I am definitely not going away on this issue, but we also need a mayor who will be a really aggressive advocate.