By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
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Call it the shortest protest in the history of the Minneapolis Public Schools. At the start of last week's board meeting, a neatly dressed man stepped to the front of the room and laid a sheaf of papers next to school board chair Pam Costain. Her face registered momentary confusion, but she continued to describe the evening's agenda. As she spoke, some two dozen audience members stood to leave.
"You've been served," bellowed Al Flowers, a tall, imposing figure who often disrupts meetings with his loud, running monologues on the district's many problems.
This time, though, Flowers was done with just three words, and he and a number of other African American community activists filed out of the room. They'd come to serve the board legal notice that they were asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to declare the district's plan to close five North Side schools illegal.
When the new Minneapolis School Board was sworn in last January, no one sounded more certain about the need to close schools, and close them quickly, than new board member Chris Stewart. Minneapolis Public Schools were losing money and students, and Stewart was frustrated with what he saw as the outgoing board's failure to make tough concessions.
Fast-forward five months, and Stewart has gotten a crash course in school board politics. Specifically, he claims district staff members misled the board about the finer points of the plan passed last month to close five schools on the city's North Side and one in southeast Minneapolis.
"We blew it. We completely blew it," he says. "We got put on a tight schedule with a script put forth by the district. We were spoon-fed an agenda."
On taking office, Stewart and the other new board members inherited a long list of fires to put out. A $50 million budget shortfall is forecast over the next three years. MPS has lost 25 percent of its students in the past six years, and another 4 or 5 percent are expected to leave annually. The departures left so many classrooms empty that up to a dozen schools and programs would need to be closed.
Although the decision to close schools was sure to be politically unpopular, there was good reason to move quickly. The district was already in the process of placing students in schools for the 2007-08 school year. And the faster schools were closed, the sooner the district could get to work balancing the budget.
On March 20, district staff unveiled their plan: Under the "North Side Initiative," as it was called, five schools would close and students would be consolidated in the remaining programs. This would free up resources to reduce class size and restore art programs and other extracurricular activities.
But Stewart had concerns. The district's relationship with the African American community was already shaky. Protestors had been packing meetings for several years, demanding help for failing North Side schools, which have lost 44 percent of their students in recent years to charters and suburban districts. Because of the fast timeline, the only meeting for public input was scheduled for April 10, two days before the board was scheduled to vote.
And even though the plan was touted as revenue-neutral, the fine print seemed to suggest that savings from the changes would in fact help balance the budget.
"My question then became, So how much is the rest of the city kicking in?" Stewart says. "We have empty classrooms elsewhere. All the criteria we used to close schools on the North Side could be applied to schools anywhere in the district."
One Southeast school is slated to close next month and MPS administrators have warned families to expect cuts elsewhere in the city next year. But Stewart feared the plan would just accelerate the exodus of minority families.
"There was no chance public input was going to make a difference," he says. "You don't aggravate a community's sense of persecution if you look at the district as a whole. But we took actions and steps that were so retrogressive we lost trust."
On April 12, Stewart cast the lone vote against the North Side Initiative.
Board chair Costain declined to comment for this story, but in an open letter to district families, she defended the board's decision while conceding that "there are also areas of deep concern," including a failure to reach out to community members. "We did not do a good job of communicating the benefits of the North Side Initiative and engaging community members about it in advance of the decisions," she wrote. "This is still a work in progress and mistakes are being addressed."
Freshman member Tom Madden agrees, and adds that the board was careful to follow the rules outlining how schools are to be closed. "I think the process and the plan were well laid out," says Madden. "I just think our outreach and communications weren't what they could be."
Few people attended the board meetings leading up to the vote, including the people who are now protesting the decision, Madden says. "Those folks weren't there. And they weren't there because they agreed with the plan."
The North Side families who walked out of last week's board meeting have dubbed their group Save Our Children K-12, or SOCK. They're asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to overturn the North Side Initiative on the grounds that MPS didn't consider community input. In addition, the schools being closed have the lowest white enrollment in the district. "The decision was predetermined, that's pretty clear from the record," argues SOCK's attorney, Jordan Kushner.