Did anybody else do a spit-take upon seeing the tweet Saturday announcing Rebecca Gagnon’s decision to run for a third term on the Minneapolis School Board?
Below a single sentence saying her candidacy was official, Gagnon posted a large blue block highlighting a quote from Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis DFLer, endorsing her as “a trusted public servant, well equipped to face tough challenges and passionate about public education who will fight for our students and schools.”
Directly above the tweet is a photo of Gagnon with longtime Minneapolis Public Schools critic Al Flowers. A screenshot is above.
I realize ours is not a culture of long memories, particularly in politics, but this merits a short trip in the not-so-wayback machine. To keep it short, there are links peppered herein for anyone who wants a more detailed reconstruction.
Some of you will recognize Al Flowers as the subject of numerous headlines over the years, many following instances where he literally shouted school board meetings to a standstill and others involving run-ins with the police.
The Minneapolis Police Department has been criticized for its often-brutal treatment of our city’s residents of color. And Flowers has a history of being abrasive himself. And of demanding restitution. Six times between 2004 and 2007 he took the city to court.
In July 2014, Flowers had an encounter with the MPD that sent him to the hospital. Two officers went to his home late at night to serve a warrant on Flowers daughter and declined his request to show them the warrant. Violence ensued, which each side accusing the other of being the assailant. Officers were cleared of wrongdoing – quelle surprise, right? – and a lawsuit filed by Flowers went nowhere.
The headline galvanized several MPS insiders, who were upset that a few weeks prior Flowers had been given a no-bid contract for $375,000 to run an afterschool character-building program that had no website, no phone number and no organizational backing. The contract brought the total pledged to Flowers to $405,000.
The irony that sent the tipsters over the edge: That Flowers was the guy to run a positive-behavior effort for children.
That amount was more than twice as much as the district had just invested in a long-discussed marquee initiative, the Office of Black Male Student Achievement. And it is a fourth of the budget cuts at Washburn Senior High Gagnon has proposed staving off using rapidly dwindling district reserves.
Flowers’ contract was placed on the school board’s consent agenda (the place where routine, typically ongoing business is listed) and thus got zero public vetting. Someone drew my attention to the contract, and I wrote a story about it. Both the board chair and MPS general counsel at the time said they were sure the entire board knew about it. Gagnon had testified in favor of it before the legislature.
Controversy ensued, with MPS severing the contract. Which was not hard to do because then-Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson had structured it in such a way that performance goals had to be met along the way if the money was to be paid out.
As the controversy spooled out – and boy did this one turn into a rager — it became clear that Minneapolis DFL Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, who was Flowers’ attorney in the MPD matter, and Sen. Hayden had both pushed hard for the contract for two years.
How hard and why? Some of things will likely be mysteries for the ages.
Zero additional light might ever have been shed except that statehouse Republicans smelled blood in the water and demanded an investigation. They submitted a list of questions they wanted put to a couple dozen MPS leaders. In response the district’s attorney submitted three affidavits, one from Johnson, one from the board chair and one from the district’s lobbyist.
They are remarkable documents. If you’ve ever wondered how it is that political sausage-making can be both legal and utterly shitty, the sworn statements are worth the quick read.
From my MinnPost story about the legal statements:
“If affidavits supplied by district leaders are to be believed, the chronology of events surrounding the awarding of a $375,000 contract to the ill-defined Community Standards Initiative (CSI) still reeks. But at least it makes some sense.
“In the story revealed during a standing-room-only Senate hearing, MPS leaders had reason to fear the disappearance of a vital $15 million integration revenue stream from the state and tried to engineer a CSI contract that contained safeguards to protect the district.”
In 2013, according to the affidavits, Champion and Hayden said they want to give Flowers $1 million from a pot of money upon which the district was desperately dependent. MPS pushed back. The push-me-pull-you went on for two years.
In 2014, the lawmakers paid Johnson a visit in which they complained that no contract had been cut. According to the affidavits, Johnson replied that Flowers’ initiative had not laid out a plan for what work would be done or how.
The district blinked, or as its legislative liaison said in his sworn statement: “The superintendent appreciated the risk the proposed amendment posed to reinstatement of integration funding and revenue available to MPS.”
In what appears from the documents to be an effort to retain the ability to stop cutting checks if no work was forthcoming, Johnson said she would prefer that MPS contract directly with Flowers.
Because the Capitol investigation was at root a GOP effort to make the DFL look bad, after one surface-level hearing the topic lawmakers dropped the topic. Beleaguered, Johnson resigned shortly thereafter.
When the district ended the contract, Gagnon said she was sorry that the effort hadn’t been able to go forward.