Mission: Impossible

A radically retooled Minneapolis School Board tries to stop the bleeding and start over

The discussion is full of seeming minutiae, but if the board is going to get things done, it must fly into the teeth of a system where paranoia and secrecy are ingrained. There's a story that Bill Green has told several times: When he arrived at MPS, the Curriculum and Instruction department had been exiled to a corner of the basement at district headquarters, its staff literally under orders from Peebles not to talk to the principals or teachers they were responsible for helping.

The district's relatively new academic czar, Bernardia Johnson, recently presented the germ of a plan for getting academic progress on track. T. Williams reminds his colleagues that Johnson talked about placing students on pathways from a given elementary school to a particular middle school, and so on. Surely this should inform the decision on closings, he says. Discussion ensues about whether the board is talking about closing schools that are currently open or buildings that were "mothballed" in the last two rounds of closings.

Finally, Sharon Henry-Blythe, one of three incumbents re-elected, blows up. In the past, she often cast dissenting votes but still suffered the wrath of a public that perceived the board as disengaged and inept. Hearing this group of upstarts talk about their ambitious agenda can only be galling.

Kris Drake

"I'm confused," she proclaims. "What postponed decisions and loose ends are we talking about? I'm uncomfortable with all this rhetoric about decisions not made." After an uncomfortable pause, the new members rush to reassure her that they intended no disrespect.

AT PRATT, STEWART GOES FROM kindergarten to first grade, after which the fathers continue the tour and their pitch. The second- floor classrooms are dedicated to Community Education programs; the parents of some of the pupils downstairs are here learning English and other skills. The two programs share a small library and a state-of-the-art computer lab. The community feel is nice, but more significantly, Community Ed pays most of the costs of operating the facility.

As the dads lead Stewart into a quaint, miniature gym complete with a teeny stage framed by brass-colored velvet curtains, they return gingerly to the subject of school closings. The mere possibility of closings is a problem, they tell Stewart. The last time the topic of surplus classrooms came up, during the winter of 2003-04, Pratt was on the list of facilities recommended for closing.

That year a number of families looking to beat the rush transferred out, and as a result, second grade currently has just seven students who share a room and a teacher with 10 third-graders. Others made plans to stick it out, securing permission from the state to continue operating as a charter school in partnership with Augsburg College.

Stewart stops cold. "So Minneapolis could lose this school?"

The dads grimace. Technically, Pratt is a satellite campus of Tuttle Elementary, located a mile or two to the north as the crow flies, but because of two sets of railroad tracks, a half-hour bus ride away. The two schools share a principal, and some specialist teachers, but not much else. Tuttle has more than 300 students, more than 85 percent of them low-income, and test scores significantly lower than state averages. Tuttle would be the natural place to absorb many of Pratt's students, but many would leave, the men tell Stewart.

Stewart looks anxious. Pratt is a credit to the district, and if his tour guides are right, it's not a financial liability. Still, the district is facing some harsh realities that not even a determined new board can change. State funding is likely to go up a tick in the next biennium, but Capitol insiders expect an increase of 2 percent at most. At the same time, the increasingly expensive and cumbersome demands of the federal government's No Child Left Behind testing aren't going away. And as Pratt's dedicated dads have just reminded Stewart, motivated parents have choices.

Although 10,000 kids have abandoned Minneapolis schools, right now the district still "captures" 70 percent of the city's children, according to Carla Bates. But because half of kindergarteners currently opt out of MPS altogether, that number will fall quickly unless the trend is reversed. While many families move out of the city when their children reach school age, others have opted for the proliferating charter schools. Still more are newly enrolled in suburban districts.

As for the matter of those 10,000 vacant classroom chairs, the district needs to stop living in denial, she adds. MPS still owns six shuttered schools, one of which is currently being leased. Under the leadership of the last board, the district elected not to sell the buildings (although it did sell a seventh, the former Phillips school), hoping instead to lease them via a complicated program in which applicants must prove that the new use will benefit Minneapolis families and children. Charter schools need not apply.

Bates wants the board to hand the properties over to the city of Minneapolis and ask former board member and past City Coordinator Colleen Moriarty to sell them off. In addition to the fact that Moriarty has experience "repurposing" buildings, the city used to dispose of surplus MPS property, she notes. Plus, if a charter school were the best bidder for a school that's sat empty for several years, draining district coffers, an arm's-length negotiator would have no philosophical conflict striking a deal. (Mayor R.T. Rybak has made no secret of the fact that the city would like to have Lehman Center, the large district facility on Lake Street that currently houses a variety of administrative offices and small programs, she adds.)

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