Magic Bus

The NAACP's education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?

For a while Mann and Eubanks--and, they say, lots of other parents--tried hard to influence the suit's outcome. In late 1998 and early 1999, Eubanks says, the attorneys, parents, and other stakeholders met once a week for two to three hours to discuss the suit's developments. Coupled with weekend retreats, workshops, and protests, the schedule quickly became too much for working parents.

"One thing [John Shulman] said right away was that you could not be a part of the mediation if you didn't come to meetings," Eubanks says, acknowledging that this position made sense to her. It would have been easier to justify making the time, however, if she'd felt that her participation was truly leading somewhere.

"We would brainstorm, and [Shulman] would say we didn't have time for discussion," she says. "We would put things up on the board and he would decide whether to vote them up or down. But you can't have talk of metrowide desegregation and not talk about objections."

True to form, Eubanks complained. And, she says, she was told that if she was unhappy with the process, she could quit. "I had been through this before with the school district," she recalls. "They ask you your opinion, guide you to some narrow options, and then say we supported their decision." In early 1999 she left the mediation team.

Mann was on his way out, too. In an April 1, 1999 letter, Daniel Shulman chastised him for "pursuing objectives that my office considers imprudent." Because of work commitments, the letter noted, Mann hadn't come to meetings of a "mediation team" charged with drawing up a settlement; when the document came out he had "publicly attacked the proposal by disseminating written criticisms." "The Shulmans were so pissed off at me for shooting down their plan," Mann says, they told him they could no longer represent him.

Mann, Eubanks, and other parents didn't abandon the cause entirely. In May 1998 they banded together to form the Minneapolis Parents' Union. Together they continued to attend school-board meetings and voice their frustrations. In 1999 Mann, Eubanks, and fellow union founder Barbara Koch-Smith ran for the school board. All three lost; Eubanks, however, outpolled Republican and Reform candidates in the city's working-class Fifth and Eighth wards.

 

Like most attorneys, Shulman declines to talk about his firm's dealings with its clients. Nor will anyone in an elected position with the NAACP describe the group's relations with its counsel. But numerous people involved with the suit say that by March of last year, the lawyers were acting in a vacuum, and that no one knew who actually spoke for the Minneapolis NAACP.

The confusion reached its apex one Friday in March 1999. While the NAACP's national board was cloistered in a hotel in Washington, D.C., Matt Little held a press conference on the steps of the state capitol. Introducing himself as the chair of the Minneapolis branch's education committee, Little said that the organization would drop the suit if a number of conditions were met. The plaintiffs would be happy, he said, if suburbs were required to let city students enroll in their schools, and if transportation were provided for urban kids to do so.

Little didn't mention Minneapolis's community-schools policy, or his expulsion from the NAACP. By the time he had finished speaking, the group's national board had voted to uphold his removal.

When the local NAACP met a few days later, it was still unclear who was in charge--Seals or Campbell, the president Little and his allies supported. Campbell gamely tried to initiate a conversation about healing, and said that any official business would have to wait until the election dispute had been settled.

Eubanks was sitting in the back of the room. At the time she served on the Minneapolis NAACP's education committee. She was worried, she said, that as the group tore itself apart lawmakers and state officials were making critical decisions about the mediation agenda. The last settlement offer she had seen, she said, was nowhere near adequate.

The proposal offered up a handful of initiatives that were already in the works, such as tinkering with state funding formulas, putting more money into special education and English-language courses for immigrants, and expanding free school breakfasts. The state also volunteered to create "high achievement" programs designed to entice suburban students to Minneapolis--programs it had already pitched to the Legislature. And finally state negotiators offered to consider changing the name of the Department of Children, Families and Learning to "Department of Education, Families and Learning."

"If that's what they're working on at the Legislature, then we're in trouble," Eubanks told her fellow NAACP members. "That document has no teeth. It is very dangerous. We might end up with something that is worse than what we've got now."

By April 1999 the infighting had grown so acrimonious that NAACP national general counsel Dennis Hayes made a trip to Minneapolis. On the day he arrived, he met with a group of individuals whom NAACP members describe as "key players" in a private dining room at the Snoodles restaurant on Nicollet. Some of those who attended the meeting say Hayes was trying to figure out what was going on with the education suit and other projects being undertaken by the splintered branch. After hearing from both warring factions, he assumed control.

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