Minneapolis School Board Campaign Finance Reports Reveal…?

November 5, 2016

In 2012, Minneapolis residents got an education reform wake-up call in the candidacy of Josh Reimnitz. Reimnitz, then a Teach for America alum new to Minneapolis, won a spot on the Minneapolis school board after attracting thousands of dollars in campaign funds–the most, at close to $40,000, ever seen in what was once a low-profile race.

As Reimnitz’s campaign war chest grew, observers worried that the Minneapolis school board race was becoming “nationalized.” And, of course, it was. Just after Reimnitz’s 2012 victory, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt made this observation:

“Reimnitz won with a tidal wave of spending that set a record for a Minneapolis board race. Some came from friends but, even more important, from people he’d never met who are pushing a school-reform agenda.”

2012 was just the beginning.

In 2014, hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money flooded into the Minneapolis school board race, mostly through the cleverly named Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund. This Fund, which operates as a political action committee, was set up by then-MinnCAN director, Daniel Sellers. Riding a wave of plutocrat interest in local school board elections, Sellers was able to attract large donations from some decidedly non-progressive sources. 

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Billionaire education reform advocates such as Michael Bloomberg and Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and Teach for America funder, plumped up the Fund’s coffers, as did local Republican party affiliates such as Ben Whitney and Edina resident Bonnie McGrath, who reportedly became deeply alarmed about the state of public education after viewing 2012’s reform blockbuster, Waiting for Superman.

In 2014, the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund tried a strong-arm tactic by spending money on negative campaign literature, in favor of school board candidates Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano, and against incumbent Rebecca Gagnon. The strategy turned the race into an ugly, last-minute smear campaign against Gagnon, who nonetheless retained her seat on the board. Samuels also won. (The Fund has around $12, 000 in the bank. Final 2016 campaign finance reports, which would show whether or not that money gets spent, will not be available until January, 2017.)

The combination of Samuels and Reimnitz on the Minneapolis school board has not led to a puppet-like adherence to a reform agenda. Samuels seems like more of an outlier, voting against Michael Goar–the presumed favorite of the local reform community–during his bid to become the district’s superintendent. He also voted in favor of the board’s 2015 move to cancel its contract with the controversial Reading Horizons company.

Conversely, Reimnitz did vote for Goar. He was also one of two board members (along with Carla Bates) to vote against the decision to cancel the contract with Reading Horizons, whose curriculum was deemed racist and offensive by many in the community. If reform-supported candidates are supposed to bring group think to the board, it hasn’t happened yet.

2016 Campaign Finance Reports

Still, the education reform crowd appears to be betting on two candidates in this year’s school board race: Reimnitz and his counterpart on the board, Tracine Asberry, who is running for re-election in District 6. Neither one received the endorsement of either the DFL or the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, perhaps endearing them to reform interests. Reimnitz is running against Bob Walser in District 4, while Asberry is facing a challenge from Ira Jourdain, who first ran for a seat on the board in 2014, and spoke out then against the “dark money” impacting the school board race.

Reimnitz’s most recent campaign finance report shows that he has raised close to $15,000 as of November 1. That is significantly less than he had in 2012, but currently more than any other candidate. The traces of reform money can still be seen on Reimnitz’s 2016 report, with donations from many Teach for America and charter school affiliates. Also telling: Reimnitz has attracted the support of wealthy Republican donor Ben Whitney and former Minneapolis mayoral candidate and charter school supporter, Cam Winton.

Reimnitz has also received money from Tad Piper. Piper, along with Ben Whitney, is a preeminent funder and supporter of local education reform initiatives, such as MinnCAN and now, Minnesota Comeback. Minnesota Comeback, which I have written about extensively on this blog, is a project of the national Education Cities movement, with a school choice-centered education reform agenda funded by billionaire philanthropists. The goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s website, is to bring “30, 000 rigorous and relevant seats” to the Minneapolis area by 2025.

Reimnitz’s challenger, Bob Walser, has taken in about $8,000 in donations since August. It appears he is getting support mostly from District 4 residents, with a few out-of-state donations listed (in the past, Walser has said he has a wide network from his years as a traveling musician and teacher.)

Asberry’s campaign finance reports from 2016 are less detailed, with her most recent report listing only five individual contributors. The biggest reported donation she received was $300 from Matt Kramer, former Co-CEO of Teach for America. Asberry’s previous campaign report offers more information about her finances, including support from neighbors and local businesses, as well as from names familiar to those who follow education politics. This includes Lynnell Mickelsen, who often writes about education reform, and Kate Sattler, a supporter of the now-defunct MinnCAN organization.

In an email exchange from September, Asberry noted that she has a long-standing working relationship with Sattler, who had children in the Minneapolis schools and lives in Asberry’s district. Asberry also maintains that she has “deep, diverse, and committed support…from so many District 6 and MPS families,” whose names can be found on her campaign website. In a charged atmosphere fueled by reformer vs. union narratives, it is worth remembering that support for Asberry may be as much about efforts to defeat the union’s endorsed candidate, Ira Jourdain, as about any hope that Asberry will toe a reformer-drawn line. (Asberry did not vote in favor of maintaining the district’s contract with Reading Horizons, nor did she support Goar’s candidacy for superintendent.)

Jourdain, like Walser and the other two DFL and union-endorsed candidates, Kerry Jo Felder (running in District 2) and Kim Ellison (citywide), has received support in the form of mailings, phone banking and coordinated campaign events. Felder’s opponent, Kimberly Caprini, has less than $1800 in funds, and lists no donations over the mandated reporting amount of $100. Ellison has also taken in minimal funds, perhaps because her challenger, Doug Mann, does not appear to have launched a vigorous campaign. All campaign finance reports are available on the Hennepin County elections website.

Reform Tactics Shift

The influence of Minneapolis’s well-heeled education reform community is less visible this time around, but no less present. Minnesota Comeback, which grew out of previous philanthropic efforts to guide the Minneapolis Public Schools, has helped fund an election year side project called Animate the Race. With a promise of neutrality, Animate the Race has put money into hosting school board forums and providing social media coverage of this year’s race. It is being run by Daniel Sellers, who ran MinnCAN and 2014’s Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

On November 3, Animate the Race held a school board candidate event at the Children’s Theater. It was a lush affair, and a reminder of the good things philanthropy has provided for Minneapolis–such as the Children’s Theater and its incredible Neighborhood Bridges program. Tad Piper was there, circling the crowd, as was Al Fan, current director of Minnesota Comeback. (All current candidates, except Jourdain and Doug Mann were in attendance. Jourdain said he was busy door knocking in his district that night.)

There were not a lot of other people there. just pockets of reform supporters and little clusters of teachers, neighbors and organizers who don’t neatly fit into that category. All were treated to a sumptious-looking buffet of shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, fruit kabobs and giant brownie wedges. There must have been tons of food left over. I hope the Children’s Theater staff who worked the event got to take some of it home.

Animate the Race’s forum started off hot, with District 6 candidate Bob Walser saying he felt “manipulated” by being invited to an event billed as “non-partisan” but organized by the very person (Sellers, I am assuming, although Walser didn’t name him) that brought in hundreds of thousands of outside, “dark money” in 2014. Walser’s attempt to lead with this drew a harsh rebuke from some Animate the Race supporters, and threatened to throw the whole forum down an ugly, irreversible path. (Animate the Race is also funded by Minnesota Comeback, whose donors have given money to Walser’s rival, Reimnitz.)

But Walser recovered. So did the moderator, Reynolds-Anthony Harris, whose company, Lyceum Partners + design, is listed as an Animate the Race supporter. The atmosphere was barbed, but worth sitting through. At one point, candidates expounded on teachers they considered inspirational. Interestingly, most of them mentioned Minneapolis teachers like Crystal Spring and Flory Sommers, who both recently faced disciplinary action from the district’s HR department after advocating on behalf of racial justice concerns. 

If those are the kind of teachers our current and future board members admire, then perhaps there is hope. But the specter of the billionaire-crafted education reform agenda still lurks around the edges of Minneapolis, waiting, perhaps, for the right combination of funders or school board members to shake up the “status quo.”

Minneapolis: A “Recovery” District?

In a series of complex questions, which the candidates were supposed to answer with a quick yes or no, the moderator asked whether or not the hopeful board members would, once seated, vote to turn Minneapolis into a “recovery” school district–should district test scores and other, undefined measures fail to rise significantly.

This was the moment, and everyone in the room knew it. People rushed to turn their cell phone videos on, to capture the candidates’ responses to this loaded question. A recovery school district, like the ones operating in New Orleans and Memphis, are built around the “transformational” principles of neoliberal education policy. A 2013 article in the Atlantic about the takeover of the Memphis schools describes recovery districts this way: 

The city’s schools are on the vanguard of controversial changes reshaping urban education nationally, including decentralized control, more charter schools, increased use of data to determine which schools stay open, and a greater reliance on new teachers who come through alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America or the Memphis Teacher Residency

FEMA photo

FEMA photo

In New Orleans, there are no public schools left, only a landscape of charters. Hurricane Katrina created the ideal circumstances for a complete takeover of the city’s schools, according to a 2014 In These Times magazine investigation

With the public-school bureaucracy out of the way, powerhouses in the reform movement, such as the Walton and Gates foundations, came calling. In a 2006 interview with Education Next magazine, Mayor Ray Nagin put it this way: “They said, ‘Look, you set up the right environment, we will fund, totally fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans.’ ”

And they did. 

“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision,” writes Naomi Klein in her landmark 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. She holds up the takeover as a prime example of “disaster capitalism”: “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

This is the reform framework hanging in the background of the Minneapolis school board race. When the question about recovery school districts was posed at the Animate the Race forum, the candidates seemed frozen in surprise and uncertainty. No one seemed to know exactly what the moderator was actually asking them to do or say, or perhaps, they did not want to answer the question in a public setting. All either said no or abstained from answering, but in the hubbub, it wasn’t clear who said what.

A further, unspoken question hung over the room: Whose agenda is this?

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