Tag Archives: Minneapolis school board

Minneapolis Protester to School Board Members: “You are Trash”

August 9, 2017

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Ed Graff, reportedly had to be escorted to his car by in-house security officers late on August 8, at the tail end of a long and loudly contentious school board meeting.

The regularly scheduled meeting included the board’s vote on a new contract between the district and the Minneapolis police, worth over $1 million. The three-year contract, which the board approved 8-1, will pay for fourteen school resource officers, or SROs, to work in Minneapolis, mainly at the high school level. North Minneapolis board member, Kerry Jo Felder, voted against the contract, citing concerns over how district resources are being distributed to support the most marginalized students. 

Image result for ed graff

Ed Graff

Felder also pushed to have the board vote on the contract right after the public comment period ended. This prompted lengthy discussion among board members, who seemed taxed not only by the anti-SRO crowd evident in the room, but also by attempts to hammer out what, exactly, they would be agreeing to by entering into a new contract with the Minneapolis police. Board members Nelson Inz and Ira Jourdain, for example, sought clarity around the depth of training the officers (and any potential substitutes) would receive, as well as who would be in charge of the SROs (the schools or the police department?). 

Eventually, after two recesses, the board voted for a modified contract, calling for fourteen SROs, rather than the current sixteen. Other reforms, such as “soft” uniforms and a commitment to monthly progress reports were discussed and agreed to. Most significantly, the board–mostly at the insistence of Felder, Inz and student board member, Gabriel Spinks–pushed Superintendent Graff to further explore alternatives to SROs.

“Can we have a team that researches alternatives?” Spinks asked, before offering up what seemed like conflicted feelings on SROs. On the one hand, Spinks acknowledged, many students report feeling intimidated by the presence of SROs, who have historically worn a full police officer’s uniform, gun included. On the other hand, he said, eliminating these officers from the Minneapolis schools might increase tension “between minorities and the police.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, board member Don Samuels elicited groans from the audience when he spoke of police officers as knowing “testosterone” and “teenage boys.” He also spoke emotionally about his time as a city council member, when he says members of the local Hmong community approached him about the bullying they were experiencing in Minneapolis parks and schools. This experience, combined with knowledge that Minneapolis principals apparently overwhelmingly support SROs, were factors in Samuels’ stated support for the continued use of such “resource” officers. 

In this way, the meeting’s conversation among board members, the public and district administrators seemed fruitful. What are our values, many seemed to ask, and how can we best use our limited resources? What does it mean to have SROs in our schools, in light of the long-acknowledged school to prison pipeline? What would happen if the board voted the contract down, essentially ending the district’s use of SROs? Is there a replacement plan in place, primarily for the district’s high schools? Police would still be in our schools, someone pointed out, because school leaders would be pressed to call 911 in a crisis. 

This back and forth was repeatedly drowned out, however, by a group of people in the audience who are vehemently opposed to SROs. The protesters described themselves as being affiliated with both the Black Liberation Project and a new group called “Stand Up.” Some faces were familiar–such as Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a frequent advocate for education reform who is currently running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council. The protests were matched with a petition, signed by 74 northside residents, who represent five Minneapolis schools and are in favor of SROs. 

As the meeting progressed, some members of the protest group grew increasingly confrontational, lobbing threats at board members that they would soon be “voted out,” and accusing them of not caring about Black students. Finally, after the SRO vote was taken, one woman strode to the front of the dias where board members sit. Most of the board had left already, as the meeting was being moved due to continued interruptions, so only citywide representatives Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon remained.

“You are trash. I hope you know that,” the woman told Ellison and Gagnon. 

With that, the meeting’s live video stream was cut off, and the meeting reconvened on the fifth floor of the Davis center. Few, if any, media representatives followed the meeting upstairs, as I understand it (I was watching the video stream at home), and so no one realized that the disruptions continued–to the point where Superintendent Graff had to be escorted to his car. 

Can Graff be held accountable for the sins of the past, when restorative justice initiatives were promised by district leadership but never really “implemented with fidelity”? (Look to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s legacy for evidence of this.) Last night, Graff seemed eager to move headlong into embracing SROs (after a lengthy community engagement process, which reportedly resulted in broad support for their continued presence) while also promising to bring “integrity” and “intentionality” to their presence in the schools. Graff is a known proponent of “social-emotional learning,” and spoke about wanting to assess the “climate and culture” of each district school.

This ties into another key issue that members of the public raised at the meeting: the fate of Southwest High School administrator, Brian Nutter. Nutter has been reassigned to Davis Center headquarters as part of an administrative shake up at Southwest, reportedly due to an Office of Civil Rights complaint that was filed by a previous administrator. That complaint is said to focus on allegations of racial bias in the school’s “climate and culture,” as Graff might say.

At last night’s meeting, Nutter’s wife, Jada, spoke up on his behalf, explaining that he was away fulfilling his duties as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Nutter said that she and her husband met while both were students at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School, and that they were “humbled and grateful” for the support they’ve received from the public, since Brian’s removal from Southwest was announced. This turn of events was “surprising” for Brian, his wife told the board, and came with “no community engagement,” leaving the school with “three unfulfilled administrative posts.”

If this is true–that no one from the Southwest community was involved in the decision to remove Nutter–than it would seem to fly in the face of an assertion Graff made at the August 8 board meeting. When the board’s discussion of SROs included talks of whether or not they should be in the schools at all, Graff had this to say (bold type added for emphasis):

I’m not focused on removals. I’m focused on listening to concerns. My goal is not to reduce SROs. My goal is to listen to concerns, around students not feeling safe, connected. I’d like to spend our energy in those areas. That’s the issue for me. Removing someone from the environment doesn’t address the climate. 

Perhaps the situation at Southwest necessitated Nutter’s removal without any community engagement or a “listening of concerns.” If so, no one affiliated with Southwest High School seems to know what this is (including Nutter and his wife, apparently). If there is no clear explanation for why Nutter needed to go, leaving Southwest in a precarious position just weeks before the school year starts, then this is the kind of red flag Graff will most likely need to avoid on his way to building trust and confidence with district staff and families.

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Minneapolis Teachers and Staff of Color Get Jobs Reinstated

April 19, 2017

On April 18, the Minneapolis Public Schools was forced–under public and school board pressure–to rehire or reinstate seven recently fired teachers and staff of color. With the familiar chants of “Si Se Puede!” and “What do we want? Justice!” ringing through the oak-paneled board room, the board’s business as usual was disrupted until the protesters’ demands were met.

Protesters were initially denied entrance to the board room

It was a striking sign of (forced) progress for a board and district that often manages to hide behind protocol, privacy laws and confounding, community-killing procedural niceties. But the night did not belong to propriety and platitudes. Instead, teachers and staff who’ve felt bullied by the Minneapolis Public Schools and pressured into either resigning or being fired spoke publicly about their experiences, and were backed by the room-filling chants and signs of a supportive audience. (Organizing credit goes to the Twin Cities Social Justice Education Movement.)

In a write-up of last night’s meeting, the Minneapolis Star Tribune mistakenly characterized the staff members’ situation as that of budget-driven layoffs. But those who spoke out at the meeting, or beforehand, described falling victim to a systemic, deeply rooted practice of pushing out and punishing teachers and staff of color, as well as employees who advocate for students’ rights. (The Southwest Journal’s Nate Gotlieb wrote a very succinct, articulate review of last night’s meeting.) 

After a lengthy public comment period, when staff and supporters shared stories of being ushered out of their jobs, thanks to allegedly trumped-up charges of insubordination and so on, the board attempted to adhere to its previously outlined agenda. New board member Kerry Jo Felder, representing District 2 in north Minneapolis, insisted that the board address the employees’ concerns, although she recused herself, as a union employee, from officially weighing in on the matter. 

Several board members expressed discomfort over reinstating the dismissed employees, especially since there may be others in the same position who were not able to be at last night’s meeting. Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon warned that a rush to judgment may lead to unintended consequences, while citywide representative Don Samuels cautioned against making key decisions based on limited input.

Still, the protesters kept pushing, and they won. 

El pueblo unidos jamas sera vencido

–A chant heard at the Davis Center last night

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Minneapolis’s Previous School Board Can’t Vote on Proposed Policy Manual

January 10, 2017

Tonight, the new Minneapolis school board members will be seated. Just before that meeting, last year’s board will hold a ceremonial event to welcome the new members and conduct the oath of office.

What will not happen is a previously expected vote by the departing board on two key issues: 1) the revised policy manual largely orchestrated by outgoing member Josh Reimnitz, and 2) the make-up of the district’s Workforce 2020 advisory committee. In a December post, I spelled out the concerns with the revised policy manual, which is based on a somewhat obscure model called Carver Policy Governance

After months of work in 2016, it seemed as though the board’s policy committee, led by Reimnitz, would be able to get the policy manual passed at the December board meeting, despite concerns that the proposed revisions (intended to guide the school board’s work) had yet to be thoroughly vetted by the public. Adding to this concern was the seemingly sudden realization that no Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment had been completed for the new policy manual, although such an assessment is a district requirement for any new, notable “future policies, practices, programs and procedures.”

This realization–that no such assessment had been done–killed chances for a December vote. Rumors then circulated that the 2016 school board would get one more chance to push a vote through on the revised manual. That’s because the first meeting of the new year includes a nod to the outgoing members, as noted above, and a suspected (planned upon, really) opportunity for the exiting board members to squeak in a couple of votes before the new board is officially seated.

Not true. Statute dictates that the departing board members’ voting rights were valid until December 31, 2016, and not a day after. Reimnitz (along with the other two outgoing members, Tracine Asberry and Carla Bates) will therefore not be able to weigh in on whether or not the board should adopt the trimmed down policy manual he helped craft. (Many close observers say the manual is simply not ready for prime time, either. and in need of further hashing out.)

The policy manual vote is nowhere to be found on tonight’s agenda. Neither is any further discussion of who should be on the district’s Workforce 2020 committee. This committee is a state-mandated advisory group, and it must include community members who will attend monthly meetings and advise the school board on “rigorous academic standards and student achievement goals and measures.” All board members were allowed to suggest two names for this committee; those names were then slated for approval at December’s board meeting.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the board came to an awkward pause that night, when it appeared not all board members were prepared to sign off on the Workforce committee–as the suggested names had not been previously given to the board for review. Should the board vote in one fell swoop on something they hadn’t seen until just then? Questions like this caused citywide representative, Rebecca Gagnon, to stop the process. Three hours and ten minutes into the four-hour long meeting, Gagnon told board chair Jenny Arneson that she “didn’t know we were voting on this tonight.” 

“We’re not, unless we approve it,” Arneson quickly replied. But, unless Gagnon had spoken up, it seems clear that the vote on the committee’s make-up would have sailed forward, with no public discussion on the proposed names on the list. Does it matter? Maybe not. But at least two names on the list–Al Fan and Kyrra Rankine–stand out as worthy of further scrutiny.

To be eligible to serve on the district’s Workforce committee, participants are supposed to be “teachers, parents, staff, students, and other community residents invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” But Kyrra Rankine has been a longstanding Teach for America–Twin Cities employee, and Al Fan is the executive director of Minnesota Comeback, a moneyed education reform group with a declared goal of creating “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” (?) in Minneapolis, by 2025–in “sector neutral” settings. 

Sector neutral means any school setting–charter, private, public–is fine, so long as it “beats the odds” for kids in poverty. This may be one (arguably unsuccessful) way to fund education, but it is certainly not the same thing as being “invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” The public doesn’t “own” Minnesota Comeback the way it owns a public school district. There are no meetings posted on the Minnesota Comeback website, and no elected officials sit on its policy and “talent” committees. Minnesota Comeback is wielding influence with minimal public oversight. There are no four-hour long videos of any Minnesota Comeback gatherings to pour over and report on. 

Democracy!

The Minneapolis Public Schools might be a bureaucratic mess in the eyes of many, but it also must answer to the public through open meetings, a democratically elected school board and public data requests. Minnesota Comeback must, presumably, only answer to its funders, such as the Minneapolis Foundation, which described the group this way in a December, 2015 newsletter:

  • Minnesota Comeback (formerly the Education Transformation Initiative) will develop a portfolio of strategic initiatives and school investments to ensure that all Minneapolis students attend high-quality schools by 2025.

Minnesota Comeback and Teach for America are frequent darlings of the local philanthropic community, as evidenced by the Minneapolis Foundation’s 2017 grant cycle. Should their representatives have a seat on a Minneapolis Public Schools Workforce 2020 committee?

Perhaps, but it seems that is a conversation the school board should have in public. And, with the rush to vote stopped, it looks like that’s what citizens just might get in 2017–for the proposed policy revision and for the Workforce 2020 committee.

Also up tonight: a shuffling of school board officers. Jenny Arneson will no longer be board chair. Instead, Don Samuels, Nelson Inz and Rebecca Gagnon are vying to fill her spot. Vice Chair is expected to go to Kim Ellison, while Arneson has put her name in for Treasurer. New board members Bob Walser and Ira Jourdain are said to be interested in taking over Reimnitz’s seat as Clerk, who oversees the board’s policy committee. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. at Davis Center headquarters and is broadcast live online here.

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No Equity Assessment, No Problem? Minneapolis Schools Ponders a Major Policy Shift

Monday, December 12, 2016

On Tuesday, December 13, at a regularly scheduled meeting, the Minneapolis school board is set to vote on whether or not to approve a radical overhaul of the policy manual that guides its work. This vote will be the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of revision efforts, started by policy committee chair, Josh Reimnitz. 

In November, Reimnitz lost his bid for a second term on the school board. Instead, his District 4 seat will be taken over by newcomer Bob Walser. But, before he departs, the board will have a chance to either approve, scrap or delay a vote on the complex policy manual rewrite that Reimnitz initiated. 

First, a little background info: Reimnitz’s still-viable 2016 campaign website says he undertook the policy manual makeover because the current one is so outdated and cumbersome that the board “can’t tell if we are in compliance of our own policies!” The current manual originated in the 1960’s (Dark Ages!) and is almost as long as War and Peace, apparently. Reimnitz’s work, with input from his fellow policy committee members, has whittled that tome down to around twenty pages. That is an accomplishment worth paying attention to, even as it raises questions about what, exactly, is being put through the shredder.

Reimnitz’s redo is based on the Carver Policy Governance Model, a seldom used approach (as far as school boards go) that significantly streamlines and limits what a board can or should do. The goal with the Carver model is to have boards focus more exclusively on what gets accomplished, rather than how it gets accomplished. Basically, any Carver-guided board is supposed to focus on the ENDS and not the MEANS. (The all-caps come from the Carver website.)

It seems logical to assume that Reimnitz’s attempt to move the Minneapolis school board in a Carver-shaped direction fits well with the district’s current strategic plan, Acceleration 2020. This plan includes the corporate catchphrase that “schools are the unit of change,” which implies they should be largely left alone to govern themselves–as long as student achievement and graduation rates are increasing. (This concept is not well-defined, however, in the plan.)

Acceleration 2020, is supposed to help free the district from burdensome, bureaucratic over-management. Switching the school board to a Carver, Policy Governance model is supposed to do the same thing. Here is a quick overview of how, in my understanding of the Carver approach to board governance:

  • The Carver model is designed to be “absolutely” hierarchical, by offering greater deference–and greater responsibility–to the superintendent.
  • Board members hire the superintendent and hold him or her accountable to agreed upon ENDS and ethical guidelines, but that’s pretty much it. 
  • The board should act as a whole, and not try to win influence for pet projects or separate, constituent-driven concerns. Board members should also not, in the Carver view, provide “advice and instruction” to district staff. This would be interpreted as board interference with the superintendent’s authority.
  • The board should be seen as operating with “one voice.” Any board vote–even a 5-4 decision–is to be taken as a mandate by the superintendent. Board members who disagree with an outcome should not try to “influence organizational direction.”
  • The board should simplify by focusing only on the “whole of the system,” and not the “parts” that make it work. The day-to-day management or MEANS by which the district operates are not to be (within reason) in the purview of board members.

The Carver method carries with it a strong distaste for “micromanagement” by board members, and is designed to create a cleaner system, with the superintendent being given greater power to make decisions:

Board members should not have their hands in micromanaging, instructing, and otherwise interfering with the proper role of administration. There is also no place for what Carver terms “sabotage,” (Carver) the purposeful undermining of a board’s decision by an individual board member who has a personal agenda that he will not relinquish and which the board deems has negative effects on the organization (Carver, “Remaking Governance,” 27-28).

This seems to fly in the face of the reason Minneapolis has a nine-member board. In 2008, at the urging of Minneapolis state legislator, Jim Davnie, Minneapolis voters passed the “ABC” referendum, expanding the school board from seven to nine members, with the majority representing various city districts. Previously, board members were all citywide candidates, elected to “govern the system as a whole,” as Pam Costain, then a Minneapolis board member, put it in 2008.

So, under a Carver-guided Minneapolis school board policy manual, board members will be strongly discouraged, one assumes, from advocating for issues and concerns in their specific corners of the city. This switch in focus would put the board in a strange position, since the November election swept in three new board members–Kerry Jo Felder, Ira Jourdain, and Bob Walser–who were elected to represent three distinct areas of the city. These new board members won’t be seated until January, 2017. Therefore, if the board votes on December 13 to approve the new policy manual, without input from these incoming board members, will these board members now be expected to act as citywide representatives?

Maybe this would be the best way to run the board, but who has determined this? The adoption of this new policy manual has not been put to the public (widely), and most of the work on it has been done by a small group of board members who serve on the policy committee. There have been, to my knowledge, no district-wide, well attended community meetings about the new thinking behind the policy manual overhaul. 

The Carver Policy Governance model is intriguing, but not intuitive. It is complicated and centered around a distinct theoretical approach to board leadership, intended to give as wide a berth as possible to the superintendent or CEO of an organization. In so doing, the Carver approach has board members create ethics-minded, big picture limitations for the superintendent that are spelled out in the negative.

  • Here’s one example, from the most currently available draft of the new policy manual: “…the Superintendent shall not cause or allow MPS to…Permit MPS families to be unaware of: What shall be expected and what shall not be allowed in and from classes, courses, activities or other services.”

I can imagine that families without a great deal of grounding in the legalese of board policy would have a hard time grasping what the shift to the Carver model is all about, especially if English is not their first language. It also appears that no Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment has been done regarding the proposed policy manual, even though, in 2013, the district agreed to do so for “all future policies”:

Minneapolis Public Schools is committed to identifying and correcting policies, practices, programs and procedures that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all its forms. In order to apply corrective measures, MPS leaders are required to apply the Equity & Diversity Impact Assessment to all future policies, practices, programs and procedures that have a significant impact on student learning and resource allocation.

Why, then, would board members vote on a major policy shift (adopting a Carver governance model) without first seeing an Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment?

Another concern raised by those who have more closely tracked the policy committee’s work on this is that the Carver model concentrates an awful lot of power in the superintendent’s hands. There may be advantages to this, and the concept is worthy of public discussion, but it also represents a significant philosophical shift for the Minneapolis schools. The new policy manual has the potential, for example, to put labor negotiations solely in the hands of the district, while, previously, the board has shared responsibility for that. Similarly, as I understand it, the proposed policy manual has dropped the board’s requirement that the district pay “fair wages” to its employees. Instead, the superintendent would be trusted with these actions, and then held to how well they support district “results,” or ENDS.

Further, in an era of privatization, diminishing public resources and the pressures of the market-based education reform movement, the proposed policy manual includes this eye-catching directive:

MPS is dedicated to involving and engaging partners who are committed to helping MPS accomplish the Board-approved Results objectives. As such, the Superintendent shall neither cause nor allow MPS to withhold pertinent information, excluding individual student and staff data, from external partners or individuals.

Without limiting the above, the Superintendent shall not cause or allow MPS to avoid partnering and information-sharing on topics such as resource allocation, student achievement outcome summaries, or major shifts in practice.

“The Superintendent shall not withhold pertinent information from external partners or individuals?” Hmm. With the privately funded, privately run Minnesota Comeback lurking around the edges of the district, hoping to create 30,000 “sector-neutral,” “rigorous and relevant seats by 2025,” this policy provision should be subjected to further public debate. Minnesota Comeback, which is part of a national, billionaire-fueled education reform network called Education Cities, has the potential–and the unfettered bank account–to seriously disrupt the collective agency of the district. (The group’s ability to pick winners and losers is beginning to show up.)

Should the school board’s new policy manual simply give privately run entities like Minnesota Comeback the keys to the store, through a further concentration of power in the hands of a superintendent? 

This largely corporate model of governance is being marketed by Carver and many who have trained under him to the non-corporate world of public education. Is Policy Governance viable for district boards of education and the administration of public schools? An examination of the history, philosophy, tenets, marketing, and practice of Policy Governance in public education reveal that Carver’s model is not consistent with the principles of democratic-republicanism, does not fit the political realities of the American experience, and is operating without the understanding or consent of the public at large. However, if one wishes to see the end of local control, the erosion of democratic practices, and more power shifting to authorities in far away places, then Policy Governance has much to offer.

–Bobby Chandler, teacher and researcher. 2007

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Minneapolis Finds Itself Between a Referendum and a Hard Place

August 16, 2016

Tonight’s Minneapolis school board meeting promises to be a lively one. Friends and supporters of Washburn High School staff member, Elisabeth Geschiere, have promised to show up in force, to protest what they say is unfair disciplinary action against Geschiere.

Other school communities are planning to show up, too. Geschiere’s story–documented here–offers a rare, public window into what many Minneapolis teachers and support staff say is a district-wide climate of hostile management practices. At the most empowered schools–like Washburn or Barton–teachers and support staff who feel targeted can often spill their stories to parents and community supporters, who can help advocate for them.

In the least empowered schools, bullying administrators seem to run roughshod over a revolving door of teachers and staff–without consequence from the district. One northside elementary school, serving a very marginalized population of kids and families, has reportedly lost 40 percent of its teachers this year, due to what sources say are dysfunctional and harmful administrator-staff relationships. 

Staff and teachers of color often don’t feel safe speaking publicly about this, or asking supporters to rally with them at school board meetings. A comment on the Facebook event page for tonight’s school board rally makes this clear:

This story is not unique and we need to have a presence at tomorrow’s meeting to show support for all the teachers of color and advocates for teachers/students of color who have been targeted and silenced. We need to stand up for racial justice and fight against the status quo of power and intimidation that is present within the district.

This is the hard place Minneapolis finds itself in, with many behind-the-scenes hopes being pinned on new superintendent Ed Graff–who charmed the board and community members with his reputation for prioritizing “social-emotional” learning, and for being a breath of fresh air, imported from the Anchorage schools. 

Meanwhile, the district needs more operating money from Minneapolis voters. At tonight’s board meeting, which promises to start with another airing of the district’s dirty laundry, board members will vote on a resolution to put a referendum on the November ballot.

Documents available online indicate that the board is planning to ask voters for nothing more than a maintenance of the current referendum amount, which first passed in 2008 (some board members wanted to ask for an increase, but that hope has apparently died). The request for money often comes with promises of lower class sizes or new technology, but for Minneapolis and most districts around the state, referendum funds are actually needed for general operating costs, to make up for a long decline in state financial support (this trend has deeply impacted funding for public higher ed in Minnesota, too).

A 2008 report from the Minnesota Budget Project, called the “Lost Decade,” put it this way:

From FY 2003 to FY 2009: • Per pupil state aid to school districts fell by 14 percent. • School property taxes per pupil rose by 48 percent.

So, which comes first? The defunding or the dysfunction? As state revenue for public education has dropped, the number of children living in poverty has increased. The needs are greater, the resources are fewer, and the district seems to be going through an existential crisis. Since at least 2007–right around the time public aid for education, housing and child care was dropping–the Minneapolis Public Schools has embraced (or been pressured to embrace) a thriving international trend: the privatization of public education.

This trend, driven locally by a handful of wealthy power brokers, has fixed the blame for much of what isn’t working in the Minneapolis schools at the feet of teachers and school staff. To oversimplify, the narrative goes something like this: Test scores aren’t rising fast enough, so obviously teachers aren’t doing all they could to close the ever-present “achievement gap.” (Yet staff like Elisabeth Geschiere say they face retaliation for working closely with marginalized students who try to advocate for themselves.)

The district seems to have ground itself into a culture of fear and intimidation, coupled with the ongoing destruction of many departments–such as IT–that once drew praise for their resourcefulness and innovation. The only hope may be public demonstrations, like the one scheduled for tonight’s board meeting, where people from schools across the district come together to protest hostile employee relations.

Or, in the words of Brazilian teacher Eduardo Moraes, who participated in a five month strike that ended just before the Rio Olympics started, and recently spoke to a reporter about what teachers in the U.S. could do to improve their own working conditions,

 “I would say that only struggle changes lives,” said Eduardo. “The only way for them to overcome the issues that they face over there, which are similar in some ways to ours, is to organize and to get involved and participate in the struggles of education for the whole society.”

And then, maybe, the referendum campaign will also look more promising.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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No Art, No Counselor: Budget Concerns Follow Goar’s Exit From Minneapolis

May 13, 2016

At the Tuesday, May 10, Minneapolis school board meeting, interim superintendent, Michael Goar, received something of a hero’s farewell from several board members, along with a handful of parents and community members. Board member Don Samuels, for example, praised Goar for many things, including his negotiating skills with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), which resulted in “unprecedented concessions” from the union.

It is not clear which concessions Samuels was referring to, but they probably have something to do with the still-nebulous “Community Partnership Schools” plan that Goar and MFT president, Lynn Nordgren, agreed to during 2014 negotiations. More principal power over “hiring and firing” of staff is a key aspect of this “autonomous/accountable” school model. (The academic freedoms supposedly associated with these schools don’t make sense in a district flush with a diversity of school models, from magnets to IB and beyond.)

Coincidentally, or not, the day after the May 10 board meeting, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an article about the slippery budget practices that have gone on during Goar’s time as district CEO and interim superintendent. The gist of the article is that MPS has a “$15 to $17 million budget deficit” this year, in part due to the practice of purposefully cooking the books ahead of time–by willfully underestimating costs for known expenses–to make the budget look better. (Goar has faced budget-related issues in previous school district jobs.)

This issue was actually presented at the June, 2015 school board meeting, when board members first approved the 2015-2016 budget, while also agreeing to an emergency addition to plug the gaping $17 million hole within it.

Red flags also flew up in February, 2016, when an audit of MPS’s finances revealed the shifty budgeting practices that local media outlets are only now covering, months later. (This audit was discussed at the February 9 school board meeting, just after Goar withdrew his name from consideration for the superintendent position.)

The multimillion dollar budget discrepancy for this year could be attributed to any number of things, such as:

  • The sudden addition of an extended school day this year, at district middle and high schools, with no apparent planning for what this would cost.
  • Community Partnership Schools (CPS). How are these schools being funded? What additional monies are being given to the four CPS sites? It is not clear, partially because the funding formula (called “student-based allocations”) used for these sites is different than the one applied to every other district school. A Minneapolis parent requested the formula months ago and has yet to see it.
  • Ongoing patterns of mysterious budgeting, as when, in 2015, Goar publicly announced he was “right-sizing” the Davis Center, by cutting staff, only to hire many of them back, under different job descriptions. Positions were also pushed off onto schools, which were required to absorb the cost of jobs previously included in the Davis Center budget. 
  • The auditor presenting information at the February 9 board  meeting raised–ever so politely–questions about the board and district’s budget processes, noting that there did not seem to be an accurate “paper trail” attached to district requests for additional spending.

The good news is current district CFO, Ibrahima Diop, seems unwilling to continue on with shady budget practices, telling the Star Tribune that he “did not know why the previous financial staff crafted the budget in such a manner, but he and his staff members, who are almost all new to the district, have committed to budget expenses accurately.”

In the meantime, some Minneapolis schools are finding it difficult to navigate the capricious spending priorities of the Davis Center. At the May 10 board meeting, Field Middle School parent Darren Selberg described the painful choices confronting Field this year, as it struggles to absorb what parents say is a new, district-imposed program for special education students, without additional district resources.

“As I understand it,” Selberg later said, “the budget was essentially flat but Field is now required to add a program that eats up $100,000. so other cuts were needed. The choices were to fully cut a language arts class, which is part of the core curriculum. The most viable option–if it can be considered that–was to cut art completely, a Media Tech position, and the school counselor.”

Selberg has daughters in fifth and seventh grade at Field and is especially concerned about losing the school’s counselor. “My fifth grader’s classmate has been subjected to bullying most of the year from a group of boys. She’s a little quirky and has some behavior issues herself, so the bullying has been difficult,” Selberg noted. He says the child had further trouble coping at school, and even attempted suicide while at Field. Thankfully, Selberg reports, the counselor was able to help the girl access potentially life-saving outside resources.

“My concern without a counselor is how much time staff may have to spend dealing with these issues that they’re not trained for, nor have time for, when they should be teaching their subject.  Additionally, with the behavior issues around the district, who will implement whatever plans they put forth?”

In June, Goar will leave the Minneapolis schools for a new job, and the school board will be tasked with final approval of the 2016-2017 budget. Whether or not that budget will include a counselor for Field Middle School remains to be seen.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Minneapolis Superintendent Search Rushes to a Potential Close

May 11, 2016

If there is any hope for the Minneapolis Public Schools–and of course there is hope–it was represented in the bodies jammed together last night in the wood-paneled confines of the district’s Davis Center headquarters.

Multitudes of people were there for the school board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting, which included not only a farewell (complete with personalized chair as parting gift) for interim superintendent, Michael Goar, but also a cavalcade of students, parents, staff and community members–each with something to offer, ask for, or demand from the district.

I hope Minneapolis’s next superintendent, whoever he or she may be, was watching. 

On Monday, May 16, the public will get to interact with the finalist(s) for the top job at a series of specialized, daytime meet-up events, and an evening session for a broader audience. The stamina that the superintendent candidates (there will be anywhere from one to three of them; names are expected to be announced at the end of this week) will need for this day-long action will be nothing, of course, in comparison to what the job will require. Heather Pic 2

Last night, a contingent of parents and kids came to deliver the latest recess petition. It has over 2,500 names on it and makes a plaintive demand: give all MPS kids, K-8, a 30 minute, guaranteed, daily recess period, followed by a 30 minute lunch. (A main reason recess has shrunk, at many schools, to an ungodly 15 minutes or less, according to district officials, is the 90-150 minutes of reading and math instruction that some schools adhere to more literally than others.) 

Before these parents and kids could step to the mic during the public comment period, school board member Josh Reimnitz, chair of the policy committee, announced that he would be bringing this new policy up for discussion at the next committee meeting–doing what he can, it seems, to help the request become a reality. This was joyously received, but it did not deter a handful of people–including 11-year old Molly Reehl, from Barton K-8 School–from speaking up in favor of 30 minutes of recess for all kids. 

A cohort of Southwest High School students, some wearing t-shirts that read, “Scholars of Color Union,” also addressed board members on a range of topics, from their experiences as students of color in a majority white school to the need–now–for more mental health support at Southwest for staff and students. We need a room, one girl said, or a place to go, for students who are struggling with anxiety or depression. The only space available now, apparently, is a “Check and Connect” office that houses a drop-out prevention program.

This office–and the program–will be closing next year, due to budget cuts, the students said. So, if we are going to get a saner recess policy for all K-8 kids, perhaps we should start advocating for safe space in each of our high schools, where kids and staff can go to regroup, play pool, or otherwise combat the anxiety that has somehow become the price of admittance to a “better future.” Heather pic 1

There were kids being honored at the board meeting, too, for their winning History Day projects, which they will be taking all the way to a national event this summer. A couple of teachers were also recognized for their work, and some people got up to speak positively about Goar’s legacy in Minneapolis. Still more parents raised pain-stricken questions about their schools’ budgets.

One woman said her kids’ school is slated to lose its school counselor, art program, and media tech position next year. Another parent then took his turn before the board, saying that, if three six-figure jobs were cut from the Davis Center, there would be enough to pay for all of this and more.

Students and community members also pressed the board to pass a resolution in favor of the Restore the Vote legislation currently moving through the Minnesota legislature. Later, the board did just that. (Next up: board members who don’t regularly visit MPS sites might want to get out and do so, to better understand the behavior issues bubbling–hotly–just under the surface of the suspension data that was presented last night. From what I hear, student and staff safety issues have the potential to knock this district on its feet.)

This district still seems capable of so much. Maybe it just needs a good superintendent to push it forward in a recess-heavy, art-filled, student-led direction. Come check out the candidates on Monday, May 16, and see what you think.

We must understand that every child has a right to the experience of culture. We must fully understand that without stories and poems and pictures and music, children will starve.

–Author Phillip Pullman, 2012

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Michael Goar Says Goodbye to the Minneapolis Schools

May 4, 2016

Michael Goar, interim superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, will leave the district in June. In an email sent to district staff this morning, Goar announced that he will become the next president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities, and expects to begin his new position early next month. 

Michael Goar

Goar has worked for school districts in Minneapolis, Memphis and Boston for the majority of his career. Now, according to his email, working for Big Brothers Big Sisters will represent a slight shift in focus:

Big Brothers Big Sisters helps children realize their potential. I am going from an organization that builds brighter futures through education to one that does the same through mentorship. I have a deep appreciation for the role of mentoring in putting children on the right path. We all realize schools can’t do it alone.

Goar’s recent history in Minneapolis has been tumultuous, in the eyes of many observers. It was once expected that he would land in the superintendent seat, permanently, in the wake of Bernadeia Johnson’s 2014 resignation, but missteps along the way prevented this from happening. Most notably, Goar’s handling of the 2015 uproar over the Reading Horizons curriculum seemed to curtail his rise to the top.

But it appears he has landed on his feet, in a job that sounds like it will provide a comfortable distance from the often bureaucracy-plagued world of the Minneapolis Public Schools. As he prepares to exit the district, the school board will continue on with its drawn out search for a new superintendent. Lessons learned from Goar’s time in MPS will undoubtedly shape who the board choses to carry the district forward.

I want to thank each and every one of you who makes MPS what it is—a school district that puts students first, that will never stop trying to be better and do more for kids.  

–Michael Goar, May 4, 2016

With R.T. Rybak situated as the new president of the Minneapolis Foundation, and Goar’s next position now known, two key education hot spots remain open: CEO of Achieve Mpls, the “nonprofit partner” of the Minneapolis schools, and Generation Next, the data-centric organization that both Goar and Rybak have led.

Stay tuned!

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Careers before community? Paez comes to Minneapolis

January 5, 2016

Just when you thought the Minneapolis superintendent search could not get any weirder….

Superintendent candidate Dr. Sergio Paez is in town today and tomorrow, presumably to try to generate good will and reestablish himself as the one for the job, Currently, he has no contract with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and is not a district employee. (Now, if he was superintendent, and he was hosting open coffee hours all over town, that would be something else, all together….)

He is still perched at “potential superintendent” status, after being named, by a 6-3 margin, as the candidate of choice by the school board in December–in the wake of an $85,000 national search. He was then immediately subject to further, contract-stopping scrutiny and thus does not officially have the job yet.

Whether or not Paez is the best choice to lead Minneapolis forward is still up for debate, and will be taken into full consideration by the school board at a January 12 public meeting, as it should be.

Until then, it seems odd that, while in town, Paez is being treated to all kinds of meet and greets with Minneapolis constituents, board members and high rollers. I can’t blame him for coming here, a week ahead of the board’s reexamination of his candidacy, to try to drum up support. It would be a blow to go through this turmoil and not come out with a job on the other end of it.

And, of course, our public conversations about what he would or would not bring as superintendent of the Minneapolis schools should not become personal. Smearing Paez isn’t the goal here, finding the best leader for Minneapolis is.

This morning, sources say, Paez was seated at the Avenue Eatery in north Minneapolis, meeting with some NAACP and Black Lives Matter folks, to be followed up by a meeting with former Minneapolis mayor and education reform advocate RT Rybak.

Later today and tomorrow, he is hosting two “coffee hours” that are open to the public. He is reportedly meeting one-on-one with board members, too, (if they so choose), and southwest Minneapolis school board rep Tracine Asberry has scheduled two other meet and greets for him, at neighborhood establishments. (I have not yet heard of any other board members doing this.)

My head is spinning; how about you?

It seems as though the board should be meeting, together, to discuss whether or not to go ahead and offer Paez a contract–without the added influence and distraction of Paez’s PR spin thought the city. After all, Asberry and fellow board member Josh Reimnitz were tasked with a December 18 “fact-confirming” trip to Paez’s former district in Massachusetts, but have yet to turn their findings over to the board.

Are we in danger of putting the candidate before the community?

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Reading Horizons may go down on policy violations

October 13, 2015

Push has finally come to shove, and tonight, at the regularly scheduled Minneapolis school board meeting, a resolution regarding Reading Horizons will be presented to the public.

This is monumental. I don’t know exactly what the resolutions will say, but my guess is Reading Horizons will be shown the door, even though the Minneapolis Public Schools has already spent over $1 million on the Utah company. 

I have heard that Reading Horizons’ CEO was scheduled to appear at tonight’s board meeting, with the intention that he would apologize to Minneapolis employees and families, over the offensive and utterly confounding “Little Books” his company packaged up and sold to MPS.

Now, ominously, sources say the CEO will be at the meeting, but will not be publicly addressing anyone. 

If Reading Horizons gets sent back to Salt Lake City, it won’t be because of “Lazy Lucy” or the company’s apparent belief that Christopher Columbus discovered America, although that is reason enough in the eyes of many who’ve been tracking this story.

Instead, it will most likely be because MPS employees appear to have violated numerous policies regarding the Reading Horizons deal.

Here are two of the most obvious potential violations, committed in what MPS officials have described as a rush to provide explicit phonics instruction to every K-2 student in the district:

1304 Equity and Diversity

I. Purpose: “Every student deserves a respectful learning environment in which their

racial and ethnic diversity is valued and contributes to successful academic outcomes.

Minneapolis Public Schools is committed to identifying and correcting practices and

policies that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all forms…”

“Adult behaviors must not contribute to achievement gaps or create barriers to success.”

II. Definitions: “”Institutional racism” means the collective failure of a public or private

organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of

their race, color, culture or ethnic origin which can be seen or detected in practices,

processes, systems, attitudes and behavior. It looks beyond individual acts of prejudice

to the systemic biases that may be built into institutions. These systemic biases

discriminate against and disadvantage people of color through unwitting prejudice,

ignorance, thoughtlessness or racial stereotyping.”

III. G. “The District shall promote the diversification of its vendor and supplier corps in

accordance with law and district policy.”

IV. I. “MPS Board of Directors, Superintendent and employees will work with students

and families to identify barriers to achievement and opportunities for academic success”

And this one:

3300 A Purchasing Principles and Responsibilities 
II. A. 6. All purchases of good [sic] and services shall consider the advantage of 
improving the district’s ability to do business with diverse vendors or providers, and the 
ability to engage the Minneapolis community in doing business with the district. Diversity 
of subcontractors and suppliers shall be considered under this value as well. 
IV. A. All employees of the District charged with making purchases of goods and services 
on behalf of the District shall follow the district procedures, and all applicable law and 
district policies for such purchases. Willful failure to do so may result in disciplinary action up
to and including termination of employment.

Here is, perhaps, further evidence of a purchasing policy violation. A Minneapolis parent requested a copy of the “Exhibit A” addendum to the purchase agreement between MPS and Reading Horizons. Emails between the parent and the district’s data request office indicate that district employees initially could not locate Exhibit A in their system, but eventually found it.

The document raised new alarm bells with the parent who requested it, for two reasons:  1) it was not signed by a Minneapolis employee, and 2) it looks like MPS has committed to a five-year deal with Reading Horizons, worth what appears to be $2.3 million, overall.

These two policies, alone, would seem to provide enough ammunition for school board members looking for a  clean way out of the Reading Horizons disaster.

Meanwhile, district officials keep insisting that, despite the horrible upset Reading Horizons has caused for many community members, the company’s phonics curriculum is as good as gold, and too important to scrap. 

Who will win out, the community or district officials? Tonight’s board meeting should provide an answer to this.