This is a genuinely interesting race. Here’s who’s running:
Josh Reimnitz (Incumbent)
Bob Walser (DFL-endorsed)
If you peel back the boilerplate rhetoric, this is kind of a contest between the school reform movement and the teacher’s union, although when I say “school reform movement” I want to be very clear about the fact that I don’t think Josh is on the side of monied interests who want to turn schools into for-profit businesses. I just don’t think he’s necessarily on the side of the teacher’s union.
Before going any further I want to talk about how I view teacher’s unions. I am not anti-union. However, I think it’s useful to acknowledge something that should be obvious, which is that the role of a teacher’s union is to advocate for and represent the interests of the teachers. Those often coincide (or at least overlap heavily) with the interests of the students. But not always, and I think it is legitimate, when electing school board members, to prioritize the interests of the students.
(In St. Paul last year, on issues that the teachers were furious about, students and parents were overwhelmingly on the same page. This was an election over things like discipline policies and school safety; the iPad rollout; the changes made to how schools were structured — everyone was angry about those changes. I think students are well-served by contracts saying that teachers get a lunch break, a prep period, decent salaries, good health benefits, small class sizes. However, I think that the procedures for firing unionized teachers are not in the interests of the students, and anyone saying so should be laughed at. Do they benefit students some of the time? Sure. Do I need to roll out my horror stories of genuinely godawful teachers who were shielded by the fact that it’s very difficult to fire a teacher? No, I don’t, because you can ask literally anyone who has a student in the Minneapolis Public Schools for their version of those stories.)
I also want to note that in Minneapolis school board races I give preference to the incumbent, because serving on the school board is a completely shitty job: you work full time (or more) for $15,000/year and a large part of your role is to be yelled at for all the failings of a large, complicated system. Few people run twice, and as a result the board has suffered significantly from a lack of institutional memory.
Josh Reimnitz won his seat in 2012, kind of implausibly given that he didn’t have the DFL endorsement, was an extreme newcomer to the city, and has no kids in the schools. (He has no kids, period. When he won four years ago, he was 26 years old; now he’s 30.) He’s a Teach for America alum, which straight up made him deeply unpopular with the teacher’s union. His partner Daniela is a charter school principal — yet another potential strike against him, although there’s a school board member who got elected who works at a charter, I think, so maybe this is becoming less radioactive.
Josh’s big project in the last four years was rewriting the policy manual. Apparently the Minneapolis school board purchased a policy manual back in the 1960s and hasn’t done any comprehensive updating since then. Josh has some explanation on his website for why this was important; I haven’t seen the manual, but I expect he’s correct that it’s a mess.
His endorsements are heavily former school board members. He quotes from Carla Bates, who says, “Josh is an informed and independent voice for Minneapolis students. Over the past four years, I have admired Josh’s dogged focus on student achievement and fiscal accountability. Josh works hard to insure alignment between our goals as a school district and our resources. Josh knows how to prioritize and students are at the center of all that he does. As part of the mix on a 9 member school board, Josh is needed now more than ever.” I’ll note that I have a lot of respect for Carla Bates: my recollection is that when she was on the board, she was very willing to make unpopular decisions and she didn’t sugar-coat things, two traits that the board needs more of.
I kind of want to unpack Carla’s statement. “An informed and independent voice,” I think, means “he’s not in the pocket of the teacher’s union, but he’s also not a complete idiot.” (It might also mean “look, some outside groups donated a shit ton of money to get him elected last time, but he’s not in their pocket, either.”) When she says that she admires his dogged focus on student achievement and fiscal accountability, I’d read that as, “he’s willing to piss off his coworkers on the board by insisting they pay attention to this stuff.” When she says “as part of the mix on a 9 member school board, Josh is needed now more than ever,” I read that as, “would we want nine of this guy? hell no. But we definitely want one of him.”
The other thing that strikes me in comparing his endorsements to Bob Walser’s — I think (but I’m not 100% sure) that Josh’s come heavily from the members and former members who are not from the (wealthy) southwest neighborhoods — which is interesting, because District 4 is mostly made up of those areas (it includes Bryn Mawr, Lake of the Isles, and Lake Calhoun). His endorsements also come heavily from people who are retired, and no longer need the support of the DFL. (Bob Walser is endorsed by Kim Ellison, who’s from northeast and is an exception to this generalization, but she’s also currently running and currently endorsed, and there’s an explicit expectation of endorsed candidates that they back the other endorsed candidates, to the point that there was a kerfluffle two years ago when Iris Altamirano appeared somewhere with Don Samuels.) (Edited to add: someone left the correction that Kim Ellison is from North, not Northeast, Minneapolis. That doesn’t really affect the point here, though.)
The front page of Bob Walser’s website starts with the following statement: “As the only candidate in the District 4 race with a student in Minneapolis public schools, and as the husband of an MPS first-grade teacher, I know, first hand, how the decisions made by the Minneapolis School Board affect our students and teachers. I hear about it at my kitchen table.” There is a value in these personal connections, but I don’t think childless people should be automatically excluded from this particular type of public service.
He goes on to list three reasons that he’s running:
Equity must be our priority. Strong schools in every neighborhood today are the key to a strong Minneapolis tomorrow. I will fight for equity across all of our schools to provide the resources every student needs to thrive
Students are not data points. Data-driven education programs have their benefits, but effective education recognizes that every student is a unique individual. For every student to thrive, teachers and front-line staff must be empowered to address the needs of the whole child.
Our community should decide what best for our schools. Out-of-state billionaires are pouring money into Minneapolis school board elections and elections across the country. I support local, democratic elections for our school boar
My first thought on is “students are not data points” line was that he was making a pre-emptive strike against attempts to evaluate teachers based on student growth shown through test scores. Reading it again, though, he’s actually specifically objecting to data-driven instruction, where teachers are encouraged to use information from tests to see where their students are lagging, and shift their approach to bring those students up to speed. I’ve discussed this approach with a teacher; I was skeptical, but she says that while implementation can be annoying, it actually works really well. (I mean, obviously also students are unique individuals who deserve to have their unique needs addressed. The profound failures here were part of why I pulled my kids out of MPS; I blame, in part, the extremely large class sizes.)
Finally, he takes a swipe at “out of state billionaires” and links to an article from 2014. The race two years ago was startlingly contentious and expensive. It’s worth noting, though, that one of the major groups donating money said they were looking for candidates committed to “equity, transparency, and partnerships with community members,” and transparency is a 100% legit gripe to have with the board (the article goes on to talk about how the call for greater transparency came “after a no-bid contract was awarded to Community Standards Initiative, a community group that received a $375,000 contract to address the district’s achievement gap. The group eventually lost its contract for failing to meet its goals.” It’s legit to be suspicious of money coming in to fund school board races from outside the state but they are not always a bunch of conservatives trying to destroy urban education on behalf of The Man.)
In his “About Bob” section he emphasizes his local roots (Josh is from South Dakota) and his background as an ethnomusicologist. Both Bob and Josh are white men in a district where only about 1/3 of the students are white and that continues to have both segregation and enormous achievement gaps. There’s an excellent MNPost article I found about the race (seriously, go read that one) where both men apparently got asked about their knowlege and commitment regarding racial issues. Bob talked about his ethnomusicology background and added that a friend had given him the book A Good Time for the Truth, which is a series of essays about racism in Minnesota: “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.”
This frankly made me wince. I mean I am really glad he is reading this book but if you’re at the point where you “sort of knew this stuff was out there,” holy shit, that’s where you were when you filed to run for school board of Minneapolis?
In the same article, Josh pointed out that at the DFL City Convention, the 30-35 supporters who stood up with Bob were all white. At these conventions, when someone is nominated they get to make a short speech and it’s pretty routine to have literally anyone present who’s wearing their t-shirt and doesn’t suffer from extreme stage fright to come stand up front behind them while they make their speech. The thought of having a candidate for Minneapolis school board who is surrounded by 100% white people makes me wince.
Josh also talks about how his partner “happens to be a person of color,” which also makes me wince, for the record. He also notes that she calls him on his privilege and it sounds like he’s receptive, which is good. (From the article: “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.”)
I mean — Bob’s emphasis on his local roots and his school connections are all designed to send the message that when it comes to school-related, community-related stuff, Josh is clueless and Bob is clued in. Having a pack of all-white supporters at the DFL convention undercuts that. Although his endorsements include a bunch of people of color, and I will also say that I disagree with Josh’s suggestion that the white crowd at the convention shows “who’s going to be represented” — I think that Bob would absolutely try to represent the interests of all the kids, regardless of race, and I am sure that Josh’s group was not a perfectly representative sample of the student population. However, I think that on issues of race, Josh sounds like he has a larger portion of a clue than Bob does.
Circling back to my original take on this race: I think that Bob very much represents the establishment here. Not entirely in a bad way — when I look at his supporters, I see a lot of people I like and respect. (I campaigned for Julie Sabo when she ran for the Minnesota Senate years ago.) But I get a pretty strong vibe of, “how dare this thirty-year-old upstart who’s not even from here try to tell us what needs to happen with our schools.”
And yet, I don’t think Josh is pushing for anything particularly revolutionary. He’s updating a policy manual, which strikes me as the sort of thing that everyone knows ought to be done and no one’s had the energy to do. He’s independent, focused on accountability (including fiscal accountability), and willing to annoy the rest of the board. I see all those things as strengths. He’s also an incumbent, and see above for my pro-incumbency bias.
If I lived in this neighborhood, I think I would vote for Josh Reimnitz. But my priorities might not align with yours; I have a lot of friends who I think would vote for Bob.
I’ll also note that Bob served for a number of years as a board member at Tapestry Folkdance; I’ve danced there and have a number of friends who dance and teach there, so I e-mailed one of them to ask what she thought of the guy. She wrote back to say, “Really nice guy, awesome accordion player.” She added that they’d never served on the board together, but that his reputation around Tapestry was “someone who is incredibly dependable.” I’ll just note that this is much higher praise than it might sound. From my own volunteer experiences, the person who is incredibly dependable is the bedrock on which the endeavor rests and these people are gold and deserve everyone’s gratitude and regular deliveries of cookies. So … while philosophically, I would go for the guy who’s kind of a maverick, I don’t think Bob is a bad choice. He sounds like he’d also do a great job.
For those who are unpersuaded by my analysis and want more details, some other info I found but didn’t have reason to link above:
Profiles of the candidates from Southwest Journal, written in June
Josh’s campaign Facebook page
An article about Josh from 2012
Bob Walser’s Twitter
And I linked to this above but I’m going to link to it again:
A terrific MNPost article about this year’s race. The comments are also worth reading. (MNPost aggressively moderates their comments to keep them from turning into a cesspool.)