Minneapolis Public Schools Stands By Administrator with Side School Choice Consulting Business

January 17, 2018

In 2017, according to Minneapolis Public Schools staff, the district’s General Counsel, Amy Moore, investigated whether or not district administrator Bryan Fleming’s consulting business constituted a conflict of interest, per MPS policy 3000.

The conclusion reached was that Fleming was not in violation of the district policy. He was therefore allowed to keep his job as Director of Enrollment Management within MPS and retain an interest in his business, Fleming Education Group. This business, as noted in a January 16 blog post, is dedicated to steering families (with means, it would appear) into the “right” school for their child, whether that is a Minneapolis public school or not. 

Fleming was hired by the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2016, reportedly during Michael Goar’s brief tenure as Interim superintendent. At that time, his private consulting practice had been in operation since 2015. A look at the Fleming Education Group’s website reveals a list of documents and services prospective clients can access, including a “School Choice Checklist.”

This checklist is frequently put to use during divorce proceedings, according to sources familiar with Fleming’s work. One client, whose spouse retained Fleming in 2016, shared documents with me yesterday regarding the work Fleming completed for them. (Because this case involves a minor, I will not include names.) The couple was going through a divorce then, which resulted in a dispute about where the couple’s child should attend school.

Fleming, per the documents shared with me, walked the parents through an extensive process of evaluating whether or not the child should remain in the Minneapolis Public Schools or be moved, as one parent wanted, to a well-known private school. The family resided in Minneapolis and, as mentioned, the minor in question was already attending a Minneapolis school. Fleming offered the parents a side-by-side comparison of the two schools (one private, one a Minneapolis public school) in question.

Although Fleming’s recommendation in this particular case was to keep the child in their Minneapolis school, his research revealed no particular preference for the Minneapolis Public Schools. When it came to class size and curriculum, for example, the private school being considered (The Blake School) came out ahead of Minneapolis for the following reasons:

Fleming is being paid, one assumes, by the Minneapolis Public Schools to promote the district and help sell its schools to the public. Can the Fleming Education Group also promote a highly selective school choice process, without conflict? Perhaps Fleming is no longer actively involved with this outfit; the website, however, still lists Bryan Fleming as the founder and principal. No other employee or partner name is provided. 

According to documents available on the Fleming Education Group website, this consulting gig is no small time affair when it comes to either cost or the evaluation process. Clients wishing to retain the Fleming Education Group must pay $1500 up front for services that will be billed at $185 per hour.  This is clearly a niche market, geared towards wealthy families who are seeking school placement advice, either because of a divorce or a recent move to the Twin Cities.

Whether or not this service should exist is not the question. The question is why someone who founded and maintains a service like this should also be employed, at taxpayer expense, as the enrollment manager for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Especially, of course, when the district is facing an ongoing loss of students and a resulting drop in per pupil funding (leaving the more vulnerable students behind to be educated and cared for with fewer resources).

And per pupil dollars matter. On the above-mentioned 2016 Fleming Education Group report, The Blake School’s far higher per pupil funding was highlighted as a reason to consider it over the Minneapolis Public Schools:

This strikes me as a transparent conflict of interest. 

As a note of contrast, a handful of teachers and parents spoke out at the last Minneapolis school board meeting, on January 9. They were there to talk about “what is missing” in their schools and classrooms, as part of a union-led organizing campaign. Bethune Elementary School kindergarten teacher, Greta Callahan, told board members that “what’s missing is a basic understanding of what poverty and trauma look like, and what children right here in our city are going through.” 

99 percent of Bethune’s students live in poverty and 93 percent are students of color, according to Minnesota Department of Education statistics. Callahan spoke at the board meeting about the kinds of trauma her students deal with every day, from “siblings dying to living in foster homes, shuffling between shelters…and so much more.” 

I wonder. Does the Fleming Education Group steer any prospective parents to Bethune?

Callahan told board members that her classroom is a “sacred space filled with freedom and joy for five-year olds.” Trust has been established, she indicated, thanks to the “trauma-informed” practices that Bethune staff have adopted. Callahan then said this trust had been recently violated when a district administrator visited Callahan’s classrooms and spoke with her students without first introducing herself or asking Callahan which students could be approached and which should not be (this is what trauma-informed best practices look like).

One girl broke down in sobs when the administrator finally left, having been alarmed and confused by a stranger approaching her. “It is not okay,” Callahan insisted, her voice thick with emotion, that “a basic understanding of trauma is absent and missing from our district counterparts.”

South High School English teacher, Corinth Matera, also spoke at the board meeting about “what’s missing” at her school. “Despite the list I’m going to give you,” Matera told board members, “there are beautiful, incredible and powerful things happening in our building every day, because of our amazing students and brilliant staff.”

But this powerful work takes a toll on students and staff, Matera insisted, before listing what the school “carries on without,” such as “a full-time chemical health counselor,” which South had until a couple of years ago, as well as “windows and light, the number of engineers we need to keep our building clean and safe, training in restorative justice for our whole staff, and sufficient language interpreters for parent conferences” so that all families can fully participate in their children’s education.

Another missing piece? “Class sizes that allow us to effectively teach students to write,” Matera noted, before finally asking school board members to support the union’s current contract proposal. 

On the Fleming Education Group (FEG) website, a look at the kind of thorough, thoughtful, “child-centered” evaluation clients receive is provided. Here’s a sample of the process:

FEG’s process is rooted in the philosophy of meeting children’s diverse learning needs and promoting their healthy cognitive and social development.  Underlying this philosophy is the guiding principle that children have a better chance to thrive in safe, stable, robust learning environments that are equipped to meet a child’s specific learning profile. Adhering to this ‘child-as-learner-first’ process ensures that school placements are successful….

Is this same care and concern also applied to the children who go to Bethune, South and every other Minneapolis public school site? 

“The freedom to teach what the teachers decide is important (not tied to state curricular, textbooks and testing mandates).”

–One of the benefits of choosing a private school, according to Fleming Education Group

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