Here we go again: white Southwest families exploit MPS’ budget crisis to tilt the scales in their favor – again

Dr. Sergio Paez

The phrase “watch whiteness work” has never been more appropriate in Minneapolis’ education politics.

More on that shortly, but first the backdrop.

The Minneapolis Public Schools are broke. Between 2012 and 2017 the district busted its budget, spent its reserves and dug a hole that now challenges its very existence. Two years ago Ed Graff, MPS’ superintendent, warned of the district’s looming deficit (which reached $33 million last year) and promised a plan to get the system back to fiscal health.

After over a year of tweaking, trimming, squeezing, plotting, and planning Graff’s financial team delivered a proposal for cuts that was equal parts thoughtful and painful. It was a jagged pill to swallow, but fair people could see how it was necessary.

Unfair people were not as accommodating. Some of them adopted Veruca Salt as their spirit animal.

One group, parents at Washburn High School, home to the child of a school board member, responded by quickly organizing to make sure budget cuts did not take away any of their ponies.

Here’s a spoiler: they won. Whiteness always does in Minneapolis.

Funding (white) Privilege

Washburn is the lowest poverty and whitest school in Minneapolis, and the majority of the money cut from their budget was from a special fund given to them by a previous superintendent to subsidize their wide array of elective classes that poorer schools didn’t have.

Washburn and South High schools got the money in 2015 so they could move from six-period to seven-period days. The funds were presumably intended to ease their transition with the expectation that the schools would make budget adjustments to pay the continuing costs.

They didn’t make the adjustments and instead treated the special funding as mad money. Last year Washburn gave up their seventh period but they still want the money.

Schools that already had a seven-period day, like Roosevelt High School, didn’t get the same bump in funding that Washburn did which meant they were paying for something that the superintendent was subsidizing for wealthier schools (using money from the general fund).

In short, the funds being cut by Graff from their budget was money they shouldn’t have received in the first place. But, when you are privileged, losing anything seems like oppression.

(White) Parent Power

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The power of Southside parents was evident when Director Rebecca Gagnon introduced a surprise resolution that took her school board colleagues and district staff off center. It called for $6.4 million of “time-adjustment” funding to be restored immediately, with some or all of that money coming from future revenue earmarked to restore the district’s anemic reserves to the level specified in board policy.

The district is supposed to reserve a fund balance that is 8% of total expenses to weather unforeseen events like a government shut down. The current board voted to suspend that policy for one year so they could draw from the reserves to solve past budget shortfalls. Since then the reserve has since dwindled to a dangerous 4% for the fiscal year 2018. That means Gagnon’s resolution could drive MPS into statutory operating debt and make it a budgetary red-light district under the watchful thumb of Minnesota’s Department of Education.

To that point, Ibrahima Diop (the district’s Chief Financial Officer) said at a recent school board meeting that the reserves could only cover two weeks of expenses if there was an emergency. Gagnon’s response was to suggest the district get outside financial advice to second guess Diop’s understanding of the budget.

Everyone who encounters Diop says the district doesn’t deserve him. Almost no one considers Gagnon a cognitive champion.

A tough process

At the front end of the budgeting process district leaders must predict how many students will be enrolled, how much money that will come from local levies, referendums, and property taxes (along with state and federal sources); and how much money is needed to keep district commitments to staff, programs, schools, and special student populations.

The state only chips in $6,067 per regular education student, but some students fit into special categories that generate substantially greater funding. For example, students struggling with poverty, those that are learning English as an additional language, those that qualify for special education services, and those needing gifted and talented programs generate additional funds on top of the basic formula.

MPS also gets $16 million for integration efforts, $9 million for extended day learning options, $20 million in state grants, and $41 million in Federal support for programs mostly aimed at addressing poverty.

Altogether this means a school’s fortune is tied to how many students they attract and the number of its students qualifying for special categories.

Feed the rich

Clearly, Minneapolis’ high schools with the largest number of affluent parents are the winners of Gagnon’s resolution.

Washburn would get have its time adjustment funding returned along with $241,800 in one-year bridge money, and Southwest would get an even longer bridge at $293,000. The former would end up recovering the majority of their budget cuts, and the latter would actually see a budget increase over last year. The majority of MPS’ poor schools can’t say the same.

Gagnon has said she feared failure to pass the resolution that organizers at her school wrote for her would cause them to bolt the district or actively work to kill the upcoming $30 million referendum.

That’s hardball.

So, who are the losers? In short, we don’t know yet. How Graff squeezes the proverbial blood from a stone is a mystery. MPS staff agonized for months on how to obtain a structurally balanced budget (one where projected expenditures are less than projected revenue), so it isn’t as if there is an unseen pain-free way to produce $6.4 million.

22 of the schools prioritized in the new budget have greater than 70%. poverty, far higher than Southwest’s and Washburn’s rates. They may get a small increase in funds upfront, but they should brace for a kick in the ass later.

For example, Patrick Henry’s budget reduction was greater than Washburn’s (1.9 million vs. 1.6 million), but their share recovered ($550,605 vs. $787,248) from Gagnon’s resolution may not cover other services the Graff may be cut to fulfill it. This includes custodians, English Language Learner services, support for struggling black male students, and minority teacher recruitment.

That’s something Gagnon’s crew omitted when courting Henry and other schools to join forces with Washburn.

The question we all should  ask once the details of Graff’s new budget are announced is how did a board with a majority of representatives from communities of color allow one white school board member and a handful of white parents act as a shadow government and privately rewrite an urban school district’s entire budget merely to save a few dollars for their own kids?

The answer is that Gagnon endorsed them all during their elections, something we should remember as she seeks another term on the MPS board this year.

MPS might fix its budget mess by cutting support services to black males

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After three years or so of overspending, the Minneapolis Public Schools have a problem.

It’s a $33 million problem that has district leaders scrambling for good china to sell, jewelry to hock, and useless programs to cut.

Guess what might not survive?

Insiders say the Office of Black Male Student Achievement could quietly shut down.

It’s been three years now and Michael Walker, the OBMSA’s Director, and his staff have failed to wipe out the racial disparities it took the district a century of neglect to create.

With a budget Armageddon pending, programs that don’t work must go. Or, so the internal narrative says.

MPS Superintendent Ed Graff practicing a trite brand of confessional and practiced transparency sent a public letter back in February to announce the problem:

….for the past five years, MPS has routinely spent significantly more money than it has – resulting in mid-year budget shortfalls that jeopardize the stability of our schools and their management. You may recall seeing the audit of last year’s finances which found a $21 million shortfall mid-way through last year. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. During each of the past five years, auditors uncovered similar mid-year shortfalls totaling anywhere from approximately $326,000 to $38 million.

Don’t worry though, Graff has a plan for resolving the budget problem.

A 10% reduction in costs from central administration, 2.5% skimming from school budgets, and a squandering of the district’s reserves for the rest.

Of course, the incessant whispers about a certain MPS’ Board Chair who got far too cozy with the previous Chief Financial Officer (to the point of acting like a paid employee rather than an elected board member), which resulted in the district being broker than broke, isn’t the worst of it.

The real problem, the one that justified establishing the OBSA, remains the same.

Black kids in MPS are drowning academically and socially.

The MPS is a district of “schools,” and as such you expect them to be teaching, and for students to be learning, and by any measure that isn’t happening – especially for the high-potential students Walker is nurturing to health.

Just look at this nonsense:

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One in five black students proficient. Even fewer prepared to be scientific.

It’s hard to imagine the Minneapolis Board of Education has time to discuss anything other than [black] student achievement, but this isn’t really a “black” or “achievement” oriented board.

Ok, so it’s not all bad news.

Looking at overall suspensions the trend is going in the right direction with fewer suspensions, out-of-school removals, expulsions, referral to law enforcement, and administrative transfers.

 

See the good trends for yourself:

Overall

That’s something to celebrate.

We can’t be sure that Walker’s (all-black) team of professionals made that happen, but it’s progress.

Back when Walker’s office started MPS black students had an average 1.9 GPA, a 36% 4-year graduation rate, 5,701 days of missed because of suspensions, and 20,893 referrals for discipline.

Since then the OBSA has engaged the black community – elders, parents, leaders, barbers, you name it- and internal stakeholders. They have trained 1,200 teachers with strategies for reducing bias against black males.

But, happy stats aside, real problems remain.

For instance, 2017-18 looks bad for Washburn High School. Their suspension, removals, and calls for law enforcement point upward:

Washburn (2)

Southwest High School seems to have obliterated suspensions by punting kids into police paddy wagons and waving them adieu.

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And, North High, the really tiny school with small class sizes and more funding than any school in the district?

A damn trainwreck.

Here are their suspensions:

North

And, their academic outcomes?

Scandalous:

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To that we say….

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This looks like a district that needs Walker and his office more than the other way around.

Listen, it’s obvious MPS has a problem with black students, and those problems won’t be solved by starting and stopping programs that improve the culture of schools and provide critical mentoring and support.

In the past, BAE raised holy hell to get a realistic budget for Walker and the OBMSA. We feared the district was treating this work like a vanity project only to give the illusion of equity.

We won’t stand for that now.

Every city with a black male achievement program says the same thing: the work takes time and district leadership has to be in it for real.

Walker and his team are doing their work, building something that is essential, and they deserve to keep their little $1.2 million budget to continue.

This board, this superintendent, and all their careerists need to find a way to fix the budget mess they created without robbing the OBMSA to do it.

We’re watching.

 

Black student pushes back when her suburban school asks her to colonize Africa

A student at a suburban school district in Minnesota says her high school’s social studies teacher asked her to participate in an assignment where the goal was to colonize Africa. Wayzata high school where she attends has less than 7% black students, and as one of them, she wasn’t having it.

She put her school on blast in a Facebook post saying “so im in world history and our teacher tells us we playing a game. I thought it was sweet till he passes this out!!!”

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The game was called come from a learning unit called “Race for Colonies in Africa and Education” produced by a teacher-led curriculum provider called The Center for Learning who says their mission is to “help teachers succeed in the classroom.”

The rules of the game: “Today, you are going to enter a race for colonies in Africa: however, you must claim colonies in the order below and with the limitations noted. Your goals are to get the best land, minerals, and resources that you can. Good luck.”

Apparently curriculum vetting in Minnesota is so poor no one saw how such a lesson would offend black students.

It isn’t the first problem with curriculum in the Northstar state. Last year Minneapolis Public Schools had to issues that generated public protest.

The first happened when a middle school student refused to play a social studies computer game that virtualized slavery. In that game students were asked to take the role of a slave girl who won points by being appropriately deferential during encounters with racist white southerners.

In another incident parent activists shut down school board meetings demanding Minneapolis school officials end their contract with a curriculum company that sold the district a reading series full of racially insensitive portrayals of people of color.

“Why is this okay? How does no one see the problem with this?! literally telling a room full of white kids to go “colonialize” and take what they want is not a game and its not funny,”the Wayzata student wrote.

“[T]here are way more productive and less damaging ways to learn this BS. why is this real life?”

Making matters worse, her white peers weren’t supportive. “I refused to play and my teamates caught attitudes,” she says.

Thus is the state of integration in America.

BAE joins CJP in filing a Department of Justice complaint against Harrison school

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If you read the website for Harrison Educational Center you might get the impression that it represents the best Minneapolis Public Schools can do for students with extensive special education needs.

It says “At Harrison Education Center, we treat ourselves, each other, and our school with respect. We take responsibility for our learning, honor our community, and strive for a safe and positive school for all.”

Besides creating a respectful “community” the school also touts its academics.

“Harrison provides students with a comprehensive educational and behavioral program designed to improve their academic skills and support appropriate school behaviors,” the site says.

One problem.  That rosy picture is it disputed by students and observers who have had a very different experience with Harrison. At least one student, “J.G.” a sixteen year old formerly assigned to Harrison, says his experience was far from respectful. In fact, he says students were routinely stripped of their basic civil rights.

According to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights division Harrison has an abusive environment that denies students of their federally protected right to a “Free Appropriate Public Education.”

The complaint was filed by the Community Justice Project and supported by Black Advocates for Education on March 20th.

This isn’t the first time these issues have surfaced. In recent years there have been news reports, community advocacy, and even a lawsuit to call attention to conditions at Harrison- but no systemic change.

Student attorneys, headed by BAE co-founder Nekima Levy-Pounds, along with BAE members, expect threat of action from the DOJ will give MPS leaders a push to change how special education students, and those who are black and poor, are educated in Minneapolis.

See the full complaint below.

Statement of support for the #MOA11 and #BlackLivesMatter

#MOA11

The Black Advocates for Education (BAE) was formed to pursue educational justice for black children, and to challenge the white supremacist structures that diminish lives in our community. We see no greater expression of that challenge than the courageous organizing carried out by a new generation of social activists who fuel the #BlackLivesMatter movement. They have bravely stepped forward at a critical time in history when the collective consciousness of oppressed people is rising, and the stoic indifference of oppressors is being disturbed.

We stand firmly united with them. We believe all people who envision a moral and just universe should do so.

Just before Christmas last year about 3,000 #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators gathered peacefully at the Mall of America. They came together in a show of solidarity with others across the country who were also gathering to assert the sanctity of black life. Symbolically, there could not have been a better time to assert the unsurpassable worth of black lives than during the season when good people celebrate the birth of Christ, who is the eternal champion of the poor and the oppressed.

Further, there was no better location to hold such a demonstration than the Mall of America, a symbolic capital of our country’s gross materialism which places desire for things above care for people, strivings for wealth above submission to compassion, and selfish individualism above the achievement of a beloved community.

It troubles us that the response of Mall of America property owners and public officials has been to use the power of law to suppress the voices they care not to hear. They are pursuing criminal charges against 11 courageous demonstrators who have been singled out for prosecution by the City of Bloomington’s attorney. One of those demonstrators includes a BAE founding member, civil rights attorney and law professor, Nekima Levy-Pounds.

The founding members of Black Advocates for Education stand with our sisters and brothers who are facing charges, and all of their supporters. We join their call for a boycott not only of the Mall of America, but also the City of Bloomington.

We heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King who said “somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”

We are black advocates. We know #BlackLivesMatter, because Black Lives Matter! We intend to be God’s relentless co-workers until first are last, and the last are first.

More power to the #MOA11 and the millions they represent in the U.S. and around the world.

Peace.

Hooray! MPS children have been emancipated from virtual slavery

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During black history month we were incredulous to learn that Mission 2: Flight to Freedom, a “game” that virtualizes slavery and places students into the role of slave, was being used in at least one Minneapolis public school.

On February 18th BAE members sent the following message to Minneapolis Public Schools:

Dear Chair Arneson and Interim Superintendent Goar,

It has come to our attention that a student at Seward Montessori school has asked to opt out of participating in the use of Mission 2: Flight to Freedom, a software that simulates slavery.
We are disturbed that any children in the MInneapolis Public Schools would participate in the gamification of a human atrocity. For black children this “game” can be harmful and cause a hostile learning environment.
We would like to call your attention to two pieces of information:

First, a blog post by Rafranz Davis points out the problems with this slavery simulation software. Educators of color have widely rejected this software.

Second, she also highlights the fact that years ago black parents in Arizona sued for discrimination after their schools used slavery simulation software.

We call on you to end the use of this demeaning and debasing software in Minneapolis Public Schools. Please send a directive for all your schools insisting they stop using Mission 2: Flight to Freedom and any software that simulates slavery.
In the interim a deeper analysis of this story was done by Beth Hawkins writing for MinnPost. You can read there here.
We are happy that the Minneapolis Public Schools have done an investigation into the use of offensive slavery simulation software and concluded it is not appropriate for students. See their letter below.

MPS Slavery Simulation Complaint by Black Advocates for Education