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Minneapolis Public Schools charges forward with controversial makeover despite pandemic

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

3/28/2020 Update: The superintendent's final proposal hasn't been posted to the CDD landing page of the Minneapolis Public Schools website. It can be found under materials for the April 28 special business meeting of the school board, here

 

As coronavirus (Covid-19) intensifies across the continent, Minnesota schools are closed indefinitely.

Teachers are trying to implement “distance learning” as students and their families focus on surviving historic unemployment numbers amid a housing shortage. Many lack reliable internet at home, potentially posing a problem for students who need credits to graduate.

In-person school board meetings are cancelled. The governor’s stay-at-home order doesn’t permit people to gather for public forums.

Nevertheless, after cancelling several meetings over the last two weeks, the Minneapolis School Board convened a “special business meeting” Thursday night. Board members voted to continue conducting “governing responsibilities” via conference calls during the pandemic, with public comments accepted in undefined “alternative forms.” Members also took the opportunity to congratulate each other for their handling of the crisis, and especially district Superintendent Ed Graff, who was given temporary authority to make executive decisions.

Although the Comprehensive District Design (CDD) was not on the agenda, it was the elephant in the room.

Administrators have been pushing the ambitious and hotly contested plan to redesign schools and boundaries since last April.  

A final proposal was released Friday. It shows K-8 schools broken up, with magnet programs taken out of south Minneapolis and transferred to more centrally located schools. It also reduces and consolidates the number of career and technical programs offered in high schools, which would eliminate an unknown number of teaching positions.

While the district argues the redesign will lead to better outcomes for marginalized students, teachers and parents opposed to the plan have warned its provisions are unproven and could have unintended effects of undermining equity. The last in-person board meeting on March 10 was attended by a rally of several hundred protesters who packed district headquarters.

In a statement, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) union said, "Although the Teacher’s Union agrees that the status quo is not acceptable, it also recognizes that any plan that was created without community, student, and educator collaboration and buy-in is destined to have negative impacts on the trust in Minneapolis Public Schools."

A petition on the union's website calls the board's moving forward "frankly unbelievable," and calls for the removal of CDD from the agenda "until student and staff are able to return to school and public dialogue becomes possible."

On March 17, school board chair Kim Ellison and Graff issued a statement that the CDD will be discussed on April 14, with voting April 28. In case of a prolonged state of emergency, these meetings could each be postponed one week.

During Thursday night’s conference call meeting, which was hindered by connectivity problems and poor audio quality, board member KerryJo Felder asked Ellison what “alternative forms” of public comment meant.

“It kind of worries me because I think we’re going to go through a vote, next month. And I don’t think we should be voting on anything. I don’t think we should be accepting public comments delivered in alternative forms because some parents might not know how to do it, might not speak the language,” she said.

“I know we’re trying to move forward with some of this, but I think we need to wait for the community, for actual public comments.”

“I think that’s something we’re going to have to talk about, which is why we don’t have it in the resolution, but we’re open to discussion,” Ellison responded. “So if anybody has any ideas, just send me some emails as we work through that.”

As about 25 people listened in, every board member but Felder voted to have virtual meetings without a plan for public engagement. 

“The plan isn’t good anyway, but moving forward during a pandemic, full speed ahead, is completely unacceptable and not putting kids first for a second,” said Greta Callahan, MFT union secretary and a kindergarten teacher at Near North’s Bethune Community School. “Especially right now, when people are literally surviving and finding a new normal, they’re being asked to just sit at home and accept this.”