Mission: Impossible

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

''What we've inherited is a big ball of ugly," says Chris Stewart. "No matter where you touch it, pull on it, it's ugly."

The topic is the Minneapolis Public Schools, and Stewart is so engrossed he's been trying to get the same tidy, precise rectangle of chicken enchilada to his mouth for 15 minutes, without success. He picks the fork up, gets it halfway to his lips, and gets derailed by another thought. The fork hovers for a moment, and then slowly sinks back to the plate.

Stewart has served on Minneapolis's Board of Education for a scant six weeks, during which time it's become clear that there will be no honeymoon. The backlog of business left undone by the last board is too big, the weeks ahead hold little but unpleasant decisions: Some 13 schools and programs will probably need to be closed, contract negotiations with the teachers' union haven't begun but are already threatening to turn nasty, and over the next three years a $50 million budget shortfall is forecast.

And those are just the fires that need to be put out immediately. In the medium term, someone has to figure out how to stanch the exodus of kids leaving the district—25 percent in the last six years, with projected continuing losses of 4 to 5 percent a year.

"No one respects the board," Stewart says. "No one expects it to make things happen."

Even though most people would agree, this isn't the kind of talk people are used to hearing from politicians. Stewart doesn't seem to care. For starters, in a city where DFL endorsees are school board shoo-ins, he's a conservative African American evangelical—not the kind of guy who typically makes it through the party caucus. Moreover, he has already weathered Minneapolis's biggest campaign-season scandal.

Within hours of his election, Stewart was discovered to have authored a racially charged satire of white congressional candidate Tammy Lee's website. It wasn't intended for public consumption, but Stewart himself conceded it showed "horrible judgment."

The teachers' union wanted him to resign, the Star Tribune implored him not to take office. "The City Council was ready to pass a resolution against me, Chris Stewart, citizen," he says.

Who better to make unpopular decisions than someone whose reputation can't get any worse? "I have the luxury at this point to speak exactly what I think," he says, one hand headed back to the table for his fork, the other holding his tie back from the sauce. "And I don't bank shots."

Of course, Minneapolis Public Schools has a reputation problem of its own. In four years the district has lost 10,000 students and had four superintendents, two of whom left following flare-ups involving race. The board gave the third, African American Thandiwe Peebles, a $180,000 settlement to leave despite evidence that, in addition to having a caustic style, she used highly paid district staff to do university coursework she needed to complete to get her superintendent's license, to walk her dog, and to run other personal errands.

By the time Peebles left town, parents, teachers, and administrators alike had become so enraged that the board was forced to conduct entire meetings during which phalanxes of parents and activists stood in the back of the room jeering. Four of the seven board members decided not to stand for re-election; at least two, former board chair Joe Erickson and veteran Judy Farmer, were likely to lose.

In the end, Sharon Henry-Blythe, Peggy Flanagan, and Lydia Lee were re-elected. Joining them are newcomers Stewart, DFL activist and former Wellstone intimate Pam Costain, African American community activist Theatrice "T." Williams, and businessman Tom Madden—hardly the usual MPS cast of characters.

Much of Minneapolis sees the situation as hopeless. But by Stewart's lights, a board dominated by newcomers, and a to-do list frontloaded with the painful decisions that wore the last board down, is a tremendous opportunity.

Call it the fastest political rehabilitation in Minnesota history, but Chris Stewart might turn out to be the reformer with the best chance of actually unsnarling that big ball of ugly.

 

STEWART IS FALLING, HARD. HE'S been at Pratt Community School for about 20 minutes, and each new detail the two dads leading his tour reveal just deepens the infatuation.

This is bad. With just four classrooms and a student body of 90, Pratt, at first blush, would seem the type of school on the table for cutting. The dads are armed, however, and as they lead Stewart down a wide, tranquil hallway they unspool a backstory peppered with charm. The building dates to 1898, when streetcars running a block to the north on University Avenue delivered downtown workers home to what was essentially one of Minneapolis's early bedroom communities.

In the last five years, the building has undergone painstaking restoration, much of it paid for by the Prospect Park neighborhood association. The woodwork is original, as are the elaborate pediments on the facade. Sunlight streams in through retrofitted windows, turning the walls a buttery shade popular in Pottery Barn catalogs.

Outside the classroom where Stewart is supposed to read to kindergarteners, an easel holds a rainbow-hued poster welcoming him. Inside, 28 children quickly array themselves, criss-cross-applesauce, on a rug. There's some wiggling, and quite a few fingers that can't stay out of their owners' nostrils, but mostly the kids are astonishingly well behaved.

The scene is multi-culti Lake Wobegon. There are several African girls wearing headscarves, a number of Asian students, and half a dozen blond heads. Forty percent of Pratt's students are Somali and half are low-income; most live nearby in a subsidized housing complex. The rest of the neighborhood is populated by middle- and upper-income university professors and visiting foreign scholars who are quick to donate time and money to the school. The kids routinely achieve some of the highest test scores in the city—second only to Lake Harriet last year.

As Stewart launches into a dramatic reading of The Hungry Caterpillar, it's clear most of the kids know the story by heart. He makes a second pass though the book, asking whether the various foods the caterpillar gorged on are healthy. The kids vote yes or no in sign language, stalling only when Stewart gets to the pickle.

Christine Solberg has been teaching for 32 years, which explains her perfect command of the classroom. And goes a long way toward explaining the school's stellar academic record. Pratt's least experienced teacher has 14 years seniority. "They'll never be pushed out of here," one of the dads sighs contentedly.

In the coming weeks, the MPS board will consider a number of tough topics. The debate over school closings is guaranteed to be emotional and divisive, especially if Stewart is right that budget realities mean the board needs to look at cutting even popular and successful programs. (At press time, a preliminary discussion about facilities was scheduled to take place at the board's regular meeting on February 20, a list of facilities and programs staff recommend closing was to be released March 6, and the board was tentatively committed to making a decision March 13.)

But the battle over closings is likely to pale in comparison to the issues expected to be on the table in the upcoming contract negotiations between the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

The thorniest is the way teachers are placed in schools. Currently, when there's an opening, teachers bid for it and the applicant with the most seniority wins. Consequently, the teachers with the most experience tend to be clustered in the most desirable schools, which also happen to be the programs with the most children from middle- and upper-income families and the fewest children with Individual Education Plans—code for special ed.

High teacher turnover and burnout rates have long frustrated African American families, but it's become particularly acute in the last five years, as cuts in state funding have meant massive layoffs. The cuts have reached so deep into the union's seniority list that most MPS teachers either have 10 or more years of experience, or virtually none.

New teachers on probationary status tend to land in a handful of schools, some of which have had more than 200 percent turnover in the last three years. "When each new round of layoffs comes, those probationary teachers who've made it through a year with those high-poverty kids are gone," laments Carla Bates, an education activist with three kids in MPS.

She points to district statistics that show that from 2000 to 2003, five of the district's elementary schools had turnover of more than 200 percent: Jordan Park's core staff turned over by 443 percent during that time; Lincoln Elementary's by 330 percent; Green Central Park, 333; Cityview, 258; and Anderson Open, 222. All are large schools with high numbers of English-language learners (accounting for half of enrollment at Green, Jordan Park, and Anderson), large contingents of special ed students, and, most telling, student bodies filled with kids living in poverty.

Stewart and the other board members interviewed for this article say the district can't make headway on the achievement gap between minorities and white students, the political third rail running under so many of the crises of the last few years, without a major change. Principals must be able to interview teacher candidates and select the best person for their particular team, they say.

New board Chair Pam Costain lists several reasons. A mix of experienced senior teachers and younger, more energetic ones best serves a school. And in Minneapolis, the layoffs of the last six years have had a disproportionate effect on teachers of color, many of whom lacked the seniority to survive. She estimates minorities make up just 10 percent of MPS's teaching staff. Plus, interview-and-select, as a principal's ability to hire for each job is dubbed in education jargon, is one reason St. Paul's schools are in much better shape than Minneapolis's despite their similar population, she says.

Last May, the teachers' union voted out 22-year president Louise Sundin, a so-called progressive unionist who had managed to sell members on a number of traditionally taboo changes, including test forays into merit pay. She was defeated by Robert Panning-Miller, a high school social studies teacher and union traditionalist. He calls interview-and-select a red herring.

"What people would like to have—and I understand, I'm a parent—it would be nice to look at all the kindergarten teachers in the city and say, 'I want that one for my kid.' And that's not realistic," he says. "We want to say all teachers in Minneapolis are qualified. Some have special skills, like Montessori or language skills. But if I have a kindergarten class at Barton and a kindergarten class at Harry Davis, anyone with a license in Minneapolis should be able to teach that class.

"Is there a disparity between schools in terms of experience? Yes," he concedes. "The question is, why is that happening? People think teachers don't want to teach in those tough schools. I think you have to prove that. I'd argue that a bigger factor are administrators who are either inept or unfair."

Before being elected MFT president, Panning-Miller taught at South High, a diverse school with three academic tracks. He taught in the school's "open" program, which attracted college-bound achievers. Neighborhood kids, who tended to be poor minorities, were spread across a general liberal arts track and a "comprehensive" program. Teachers were often reluctant to bid into South, he says, because those with the least seniority were relegated to teaching in the lower tracks.

"In some ways you're saying, why don't we have more martyrs?" says Panning-Miller. "Why don't we set up a system where we don't need martyrs? Why don't we set up a system that's less segregated? Why don't we eliminate classes with 60 of their kids on individual education plans?"

According to the state Department of Education, just 5 percent of Pratt's 90-child student body has an IEP: No matter how you do the math, that means no more than two high-needs pupils spread among four seasoned teachers.

Contrast that with W. Harry Davis Academy, a world away on Minneapolis's north side and struggling with high teacher turnover. It has 475 students, which is 100 more than last year; 16 percent have IEPs and 96 percent come from low-income households. The only groups of students deemed proficient on state tests are the school's Latinos and its English-language learners.

Superintendent Bill Green has said he would like to create incentives for teachers who take jobs at struggling schools. But with an average Minneapolis teacher's salary at $58,000, it's hard to imagine what kind of incentive would induce a teacher to give up the sunny, tranquil classrooms at Pratt.

 

TWENTY YEARS AGO, AT THE AGE of 19, Stewart set out to make his fortune in California. It was supposed to be the land of opportunity, but even after four interviews with McDonald's he couldn't land a job. He'd even ditched his New Orleans drawl—"I was acutely aware how much smarter I got when I lost my accent." But after a few months Stewart was sleeping in a park.

He got on a bus headed east. Everywhere the bus stopped Stewart would get off, find a newspaper, and look at the want ads to see what the job market was like. "Salt Lake City, Omaha, Des Moines"—he shivers at the last—"the economy had tanked."

He got off the bus in Minneapolis. The next day he had two jobs, one in the young men's department of the Donaldson's at Southdale, and another across the hall in a nut shop. He was thrilled, but even before he got out of the mall he realized he'd never be able to put together first and last month's rent.

He was still pondering this when he met a girl whose mother rented rooms in her house in St. Louis Park. She called home, and her mom said Stewart could stay if he promised to hand over $60 from his first paycheck and another $60 every week thereafter.

To Stewart, this particular yarn is about social capital. To get to the moral, fast-forward 13 years. Stewart was working for a staffing company, one that wasn't particularly interested in the kind of temp workers who couldn't get permanent jobs on their own.

"We didn't even want 'those people' in the lobby," he says. "But [the company] did like the commission it got when I placed someone on a job." His bosses dubbed his caseload "the huddled masses," but otherwise they let him be.

One day, someone from a social service agency appeared in the office, wanting to see the guy who could place anyone. She sent him a test case, and when Stewart found the person a job, the woman called him and said she was moving out of town. Did Stewart want her job?

"It was one of the few times in life when God spoke to me. I really believe that," he says. "From that moment on, I was happy. In fact, I was self-righteous."

In his new post, Stewart revisited the subject of social capital daily as he helped welfare recipients find work. But he always felt like he was years too late. After five years, he went to work for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, where his job now is to work with Minneapolis schools and colleges to make sure they provide the training the state's businesses want future workers to have. Again, he found himself feeling that whatever he might accomplish, it was coming years too late in the lives of his clients.

It had to start in school, he reckoned. But he couldn't get the district's attention to do anything about it, partly because of the administrative staff's notoriously insular culture and partly because the school board and its superintendent were in the process of melting down. Thandiwe Peebles's dramatic flameout in January 2006 was followed by the news that four of the school board's seven members would not seek re-election. Stewart immediately grasped the importance of the moment.

"With four people leaving, there would be this ability to inspire change," he says. And the field of potential replacements didn't do much for him. "One of the things that compelled me to run was the fear that the candidates would be the usual suspects. I did not see a diverse selection of black candidates. There was no one who could challenge the black leadership. There was no conservative.

"Win or lose, I decided to run an as outsider candidate who was going to say what I saw, whether it was palatable or not."

 

WHEN PEOPLE START FILTERING IN for the board's final public interview of Interim Superintendent Bill Green, there's a microphone set up near the front of the room. An administrator hurries to find someone from audio-visual to take it down. The public will get to question Green, she explains, but they'll have to write down questions to be read by Pam Costain and board member T. Williams.

As it happened, she had nothing to fear. The crowd that routinely shouted down the old board is not in attendance. Instead, the people at this meeting lob softballs at Green, an Augsburg professor and former school board member. Chances are they're representative of the middle-class parents who have been lobbying the board since New Year's to hire Green and get on with it. "If they don't do this, it's gonna be Jennings all over again," a man in a suit and overcoat says to the woman at his side as they push into the room.

He means David Jennings, of course. When Superintendent Carol Johnson announced her resignation in the summer of 2003, the single most pressing issue facing the district was the racial achievement gap. A number of the city's schools were failing under the then-brand-new No Child Left Behind law. Propelled in part by a settlement with the Minneapolis NAACP, which in 1995 sued over the state of the district's poorest schools, families of all classes were decamping for private schools, charter schools, and suburban schools. The board needed someone who could stop the outflux. With virtually no public discussion, it tapped David Jennings, the school system's chief operating officer.

A former Republican speaker of the House in the Minnesota Legislature, Jennings had impeccable political ties to the Capitol at a time when state support for public education was flagging; he also outlined bold plans for revamping the district financially, including the closure of a large number of schools. But Jennings wasn't an academic, and he was white.

And not just white: During his days in the Legislature, Jennings had voted against making Martin Luther King Day a state holiday, and against divestiture of state assets in apartheid South Africa, as Rev. Randy Staten of the Coalition of Black Churches hastened to point out. Staten's group and three other organizations filed for an injunction barring the district from negotiating a contract with Jennings. Less than a month into the job, Jennings quit.

"When you start looking for a permanent superintendent, you've got to look for an educator, preferably," Bill English, another Coalition of Black Churches member, told district officials at a community forum where Jennings was roasted. "And let me be very clear: a black educator."

Which is exactly what MPS got in Peebles, except that it handed most of the hiring process over to a search firm so it could be conducted in private. Following two days of discussion, the board chose Peebles from among the search firm's three finalists without so much as a cursory reference check.

This time around, many of the African American leaders aren't so much absent as they are biding their time, not hostile to Green per se, but unwilling to endorse him before seeing tangible results. Which will come only when and if Green and the new board succeed in turning the Titanic.

The agenda at a business meeting before the public session illustrates just how much housekeeping needs to be done, including the closing of schools, the disposal of buildings, and other unpleasantries first brought up by Jennings. But the details keep threatening to swamp the vision portion of the talk.

For instance, Costain and incoming member Tom Madden want staff to change the board agendas so that it's more clear to the public just what's being voted on during what's called the consent agenda, the portion of the meeting where the board traditionally has given an up-or-down vote to recommendations prepared by staff on contracts with vendors and other routine business. Mauri Melander, the superintendent's seemingly omniscient liaison to the board, offers a number of ways in which this can happen, and Costain has an idea of her own.

Stewart jumps in. He wants to know why board members don't read the contracts; he's curious whether there's any fat in them. He's literally asking for reams of documents, Melander warns. Surely he doesn't want staff to copy those and leave them on his porch? After some back and forth, discussion shifts to keeping the contracts in a place where board members can review them before meetings. Most likely this can happen in conjunction with another change the board wants, namely the routing of every bit of spending through the office of newly hired Chief Financial Officer Peggy Ingison, a highly regarded budget hawk who until recently was Gov. Tim Pawlenty's finance commissioner.

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.

"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.)

Pratt itself was mothballed in 1982, as a part of the first wave of closings when MPS was contending with a decade-long exodus that dropped the student body from 65,000 to 39,000. Many of the schools closed that year were razed, but Pratt's neighborhood came to its defense, demanding that the building, which faces Tower Hill, stay open as a community center. The school was reopened as a K-3 program in 2000 with just kindergarteners and first-graders. When its first pupils were in third grade, the district agreed to expand Pratt by two more classes to K-5. Prospect Park committed $1.1 million to the effort.

Ten months later, in early 2004, David Jennings put the school on the list of buildings he thought should close. Pratt was indeed a jewel, he conceded to the Star Tribune, "but our view as a school district has to be larger than just that one school." MPS had more pressing problems in schools in neighborhoods that weren't as organized as Prospect Park, he said.

Members of the school board at the time proved softer touches, eventually agreeing to leave open Pratt and a number of other schools serving vocal—and affluent—families. When every single southwest Minneapolis school slated for closing survived, families in North and Northeast cried foul and the number of minority children leaving the city only accelerated; MPS had 43,000 students in 2004, and just 36,000 today.

The new board can't afford to bow to all comers, Stewart says. Still, he tells the dads at Pratt, their school deserves to stay open. If it weren't integrated, and if it weren't for the community's creative financing, it would be a different story. In fact, MPS should figure out how to replicate its successes elsewhere.

It takes 90 minutes, but Stewart finally finds something not to like in Pratt's basement. The lunch that's being set out consists of grilled cheese sandwiches and vegetable egg rolls going cold and soggy in individual plastic wrappers. "I'm sorry," he snaps, holding up a sandwich displaying the crispness of a potholder. "One of these days I am just going to lose it. I mean, look at this."

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