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Mayoral candidate Woodruff: School achievement gap is Minneapolis’ biggest issue

Like the accountant she is, she looks at “return on investment” as part of her decision-making process.

MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Stephanie Woodruff

Stephanie Woodruff grew up in Columbus City, a town of 300 in southeast Iowa, working long days on her grandparents’ nearby farm. The hard work paid off when she got hired by Cargill straight out of Duke University, where she earned a degree in accounting.

She knew farming. She could talk to people at grain elevators. Cargill ended up sending her to Singapore for three years to manage the company’s Asia Pacific auditing.

“I was there by myself. I was only 29 years old. You just go in and do it,” said Woodruff, the newest candidate for mayor of Minneapolis.

That brings to at least nine the number of those who have announced their interest in succeeding Mayor R.T. Rybak.

After 12 years with Cargill, she moved on to other positions in accounting and auditing and is currently part owner of a software company in California and is also a director for a company that recruits accounting and financial job candidates.

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Woodruff, 48, also serves as Mayor R.T. Rybak’s appointee to the city’s new Audit Committee and is vice chair.

“I am a Democrat, true DFL, so I am socially liberal and also very fiscally responsible, I like to look at every decision in terms of the benefit,” said Woodruff, who bypassed the city DFL endorsing convention, which ended without making an endorsement.

“The biggest issue right now is we’ve got the largest achievement gap in America — that stems from poverty. We’ve got one-in-four people living in poverty, which is 37 percent higher than the national average,” said Woodruff, who calls Minneapolis Public Schools “one of the worst public education systems in America.”

This does not mean she wants to run the schools from the mayor’s office, but she does want a stronger relationship than currently exists between the mayor and the superintendent.

“These kids are the most precious resource in terms of the future of Minneapolis, so we’ve got to address the problem,” said Woodruff. “If we don’t address that problem, then nothing is sustainable in the city.”

Like the accountant she is, she looks at “return on investment” as part of her decision-making process, even if the answer is not the best political decision.

“I’m a numbers person. It’s all about the data,” said Woodruff, who thinks streetcars, solar panels on downtown roofs and a re-designed Nicollet Mall are things the city can’t afford even if they contribute to the greening of Minneapolis.

“My ‘green policy’ is to make sure our kids can read and write so when they graduate they can get a job and have some green in their pocket,” said Woodruff. “That, to me, is more important than any issues we’re faced with today.”

She would like to see “Learning Labs” opened across Minneapolis to reach out to kids who have fallen through the cracks in the education system — places where people could come to learn to read and write and perhaps have a meal. She sees perhaps involving the private sector in funding the labs or finding grant money.

“The No. 1 reason why kids today don’t learn in school is they’re hungry,” said Woodruff. “We have to think outside the box.”

Life in corporate American taught her to be patient. Running her own company taught her that people are more important than any product.

“I want to hire people who are smarter than me, I want to empower them, and I want to let them fly,” said Woodruff.

Woodruff has lived in Minneapolis for 26 years. She was a longtime resident of southwest Minneapolis, just a few blocks from Lake Harriet, before moving to the Whittier neighborhood two years ago.

“I worked non-stop since I was 13,” said Woodruff of her background. “I worked on the neighbors’ hog farm for 50 cents an hour, I mowed the cemetery for $2.50 an hour and I cleaned and mowed at the church for $50 a month.”

She also worked on the 150-acre farm her grandparents owned. It was not the best piece of land in the county, but it supported her family.

“It was all about hard work and living on the land,” said Woodruff. “I grew up and didn’t know anything different.”