Category: Blog

Ed Graff and the Unbearable Lightness of Being

Remember back three years to the night Ed Graff appeared on the scene? Minneapolis Public Schools was enduring an expensive and painful superintendent search in which feuding board members went to the mat over a mediocre field of candidates, ultimately selecting one no one realized was embroiled in a scandal.

Appearing at the 11th hour with his quick smile and low voice, Graff seemed too good to be true. Two board members traveled to Anchorage, where the school board had declined to renew his contract, to do their due diligence. They came up with the same thing the reporters did: Graff was liked and respected, but the board had “very aggressive goals” for closing the achievement gap that would require different leadership.

We get that now, don’t we?

In introducing a PowerPoint about a reboot of the Comprehensive District Design at the most recent board meeting, Graff acknowledged the community outcry that last spring sent him back to the drawing board.

“One thing we heard over and over when we first released our comprehensive design is that we didn’t provide a clear rationale for such changes that were proposed,” he said. “People told us, essentially, we weren’t offering a compelling ‘why.’

“While we made an assumption that everyone had a good understanding of the disparities in our district — disparities that have withstood varied attempts over the years to be reduced or eliminated — that simply wasn’t the case.”

I know he was at the forums where the community expressed its displeasure, but I’m not sure where he got the idea that there is a lack of public understanding that MPS has long fostered deep inequities. At the meetings I tracked, parents had understandable concerns (that went unanswered) about what their new square on the map would look like and why.

But many demanded to know why the plan, which was indeed vague and poorly circulated, seemed likely to increase segregation in district schools. They were begging for the system to be disrupted.

And so what utter disappointment is it that Tuesday’s fresh round of PowerPoints — which articulate not a plan but a pushed-back timeline for creating a plan — contained not a single bold, energizing idea. There’s no vision of what the MPS of tomorrow could look like, no talk of capitalizing on the passion on display at last spring’s meetings for the most popular school models, no cutting-edge programming groups of teachers could own.

What there is is a whole lot of fine print about acronym-littered federal mandates coming down the pike that MPS is going to have to respond to, ranging from figuring out how to comply with laws saying teaching talent must be more equitably distributed between poor schools and wealthy ones to — and someone actually had to find a way to keep themselves awake while typing this onto a slide —  the impact of the impending “Inadmissability on Public Charge Grounds.”

It’s not a vision designed to get people excited. It’s a bureaucratic to-do list. (And I daresay one that’s intended to telegraph a few things to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, with whom district brass have been in negotiations over the 2019-2021 contract.)

And — sorta side note — I’m sorry to say this, but many of the proposals to change contracts and policies to drive equity are proposals former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson fought for, in some cases got and then, as molehills piled up to become mountains, became the hill she died on. I know nobody wants to hear it, but we replaced a woman leader of color with a white man, who is making more tentative attempts to do similar work.

Related: Who attempts a redesign without soliciting the opinions of the leaders who survived the last one — particularly people like Pam Costain, who have been very public about what they tried to do, which elements work and what they harbor remorse about? Someone who is not in the habit of listening first, I’d say.

My fear is there is no plan. Graff has been on the job more than three years. Ask about his accomplishments and you will hear he purchased a literacy curriculum that seems unlikely to jibe with what we understand the science of reading to be. And he has succeeded in mostly not talking about academic achievement gaps.

Apropos, did you notice there was no news release, no public vow to do better in the wake of last week’s release of the 2019 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments? There was one slide — the “why” in the new PowerPoint — but if you blinked…

Lots of urban superintendents take six months or a year to learn a district and then unveil a strategic plan. The most successful of them get an early win or two —open a high-tech high school that’s successful out of the gate or locate an elementary program in a museum or a theater. Everybody wants the good juice. The buzz generates political capital to spend on the harder stuff to follow.

What’s that? Yes, I am aware Graff has worked for some exceptionally problematic boards. And he gets full points for truth-squad-ing last year’s budgetary debacle, wherein liberal white Minneapolis’ favorite DFLers pretended that the dictionary entry for “racial equity” says, “Consider yourself at liberty to take dollars from poor children and divert them to a school you’ve just spent 10 years deliberately making whiter and wealthier.”

But you might also remember that a year ago when the Comprehensive District Design — the name was electrifying right from the start! — was first proposed at a strategic retreat of the board, Graff asked for direction. Did the elected leaders want community schools, which KerryJo Felder had already announced were the new plan, or integrated schools? Perhaps unable to acknowledge this problematic impasse, the board adjourned without setting a direction.  

When the community’s visceral reaction to the first design, which many people read as an unsophisticated way to save money on busing, was spilling out, the board’s ambivalence was raised a lot in Graff’s defense. I’m sorry, but the converse can be true: No firm direction by your board can be interpreted as tacit permission to do what you feel like doing.

The aforementioned early wins? Yep. That’s a textbook way to score a couple. But if you aren’t willing to engage people in your own backyard, why would you look to cities where real progress is taking place and ask how they did it?

By the time the new schedule plays out, it will have been four years since Graff was hired. By the time any specific school-level changes are implemented it will be 2022. Then six years will have gone by, which is the average tenure of a big city supe. It’s also half a child’s school career — a generation ground to bits by the PowerPoint machine.

A few months into Graff’s tenure when people in the community were beginning to complain that the new administration didn’t seem very interested in hearing their frustrations and hopes, I was on the phone with a fellow curmudgeon.

“You know,” he said, “not engaging is a survival strategy.”

True dat.

I’m afraid that the can is being kicked down the road again. I’m afraid that the need to respond to very justifiable federal mandates to make painful changes — which is why we have federal mandates, FYI — is dominating an agenda that could be dedicated to finding ways to energize the community to take ownership of a system of next-generation schools.

I am afraid, bottom line, that we are squandering an opportunity. While the lack of engagement might make it easier to quietly shuffle some things around between now and 2022, it’s ultimately the death-knell for an institution that cannot afford a scintilla more public disinvestment.

You Know the Old Saw: Trust but Verify.

Minneapolis School Board candidate Sharon El-Amin has apologized for posting anti-gay and anti-transgender items to Facebook. There are things about the apology that are going to have me in watch-and-wait mode.

And yet when someone has acknowledged being closed-minded and says they wish to change, my first instinct is to give them the room to do so. That’s the latitude I am eager to receive when I have hurt or offended. Sometimes the best I can offer the person against whom I have transgressed is my sincere wish to do better going forward.

As unsure as I am that Ms. El-Amin knows many families like mine or understands our experiences — including the rate at which transgender people of color are murdered on our streets — I am hard-pressed not to point out that we’ve seen precious little public self-reflection from several current board members during some of the very high-stakes policy debates of the last couple of years. A lot of revisionist history. And not much willingness to admit poor choices.

There are three public candidate forums coming up. I think we ought to attend, ask careful questions and evaluate El-Amin’s responses – as well as those of her three opponents — with our children in mind.

 

The League of Women Voters forum is October 2: https://lwvmpls.org/school-board-candidate-forum/

Several groups will hold a forum on October 15: https://secure.everyaction.com/kXVGA5hqm0mne_IuABH6TA2

The Graves Foundation will hold a forum on October 22; details TBD due to the original venue’s cancellation. You can follow them at @JDGravesFdn to be kept in the loop.

 

 

Minneapolis School Board Candidate Says Her Words Weren’t Homophobic or Transphobic. Some of us Aren’t Satisfied

Have you been following the Facebook flap concerning posts made by Minneapolis School Board candidate Sharon Dumas El-Amin? Myself, I’m having a hard time looking away.

To me the dustup is important for two reasons. First, we have a candidate in Minneapolis in 2018 running to be a champion for children who has a hard time understanding why some of her statements strike many as homophobic and transphobic.

Second – and likely more impactful for the long term — are we okay electing people with this level of scrutiny? Personally, I think the model in which a tiny slice of the populace that is laser-focused on a hyper-narrow set of interests elects a school board has to go.

For a host of reasons. To which we can add this.

A longtime community activist and head of the North High School parent organization, El-Amin sought and did not receive the DFL endorsement last spring. No surprise there; see the “hyper-narrow” reference above. Lots of people were impressed with her remarks and yet with a political process as broken as the Minneapolis DFL’s she was not a contender for the party nod. The endorsement is about a single litmus test.

El-Amin stayed in the race anyhow, which is terrific from the standpoint of refusing to let one meeting attended only by usual suspects control things.

But then last week a 2016 post from El-Amin’s Facebook was re-posted to the Contract for Student Achievement page, a place where people interested in K-12 education hereabouts congregate. I was the first commenter out of the gate and my reaction could best be summed up as “holy shit.”

The post in question:

Some of us asked El-Amin, digitally, to explain. Which she did:

“Sharon El-Amin is for everybody! I am not anti LGBTQ, absolutely not!
I support and respect a persons right to be who they want to be and be who they are. It is not my position to judge people. We are all part of this community.

“Facebook posts I made in 2016 are being taken completely out of context. The point of the posts was that as an African American woman I am constantly worrying about my African American male family members safety. Especially my sons and husband. They cannot leave the house with certainty of not facing violence whether it be random or the police. I love my family to no end.

I was simply pointing out the fact that as African Americans our rights are continuously infringed upon.”

Saturday, El-Amin posted a fuller, but still not full-throated statement again insisting she will “fight for the safety and inclusion of all students,” including LGBTQ ones. And also re-iterating her conviction that those of us who found the original post to be inflammatory and offensive had taken it out of context.

But there’s no detail about what she does believe, how she came to those beliefs and how upholding the dignity of gays, lesbians and “transgenders” relates to continued violence against African American men and boys.

El-Amin suggested we check her history. Unfortunately, it contains more posts that I’m hard-pressed to see as anything but homophobic and transphobic. But you decide for yourself:

 

Some of these have since been taken down. Some are still up.

Personally, I think that if we are to survive and to end all kinds of systemic oppression and marginalization we have to leave room for people to re-examine and move away from views they come to understand as biased. Many white people – myself included – are grateful for the conversations that brought us to awareness of our white privilege.

Asking opponents of same-sex marriage to consider the roles that love, marriage and family play in their own lives moved the electorate in Minnesota five years ago to extend marriage equality to all of us.

Barack Obama was magnificent and eloquent when he explained that his own views on the rights of LGBTQ Americans had “evolved” — in no small part because he and Michelle got to know same-sex couples raising their daughters’ classmates.

El-Amin’s statements lack this authenticity. Insisting that people who feel harmed and threatened by your speech have simply misinterpreted you is not the same as truly seeing those people and understanding their realities. We have yet to hear her explanation why she was moved to equate same-sex marriage with polygamy, why mocking transgender women is acceptable, and most important if she is in fact an ally of LGBTQ children and families, how she would act on that commitment on the school board.

Which brings us full circle to my second point. If Ms. El-Amin harbors bias toward gays and transgender people and is elected, she’d likely be a lonely presence on the school board, and many of our kids are insulated by other adults in the system who have created affirming spaces. (Though one rogue board member walking a school’s halls demanding to know who pees where could upend that apple cart.)

The fact that we’re having this debate on Facebook rather than in multiple, meaningful vetting processes is a problem. I daresay if you’ve watched a school board meeting in the last year or so you must agree.

We have board members who either don’t grasp the basic financial and operational concepts they are supposed to be responsible for or willfully making up their own so as to justify reprehensible decisions.

We have one board member who cheerfully admits he doesn’t open emails from district staff and instead calls his friends for help understanding policy.

We have one who, confronted telling mistruths in a candidate forum, took off her mic and walked away.

We have another who is so prone to rambling digressions in which she contradicts her own statements and decries her own votes that other board members have considered putting time limits on how long each may talk.

I could go on, but the bottom line is this: We have the board we elected. It’s made up of people we settled for. (And not for nothing a couple who have become pretty strong voices during their tenure.)

I will reiterate: I think this particular governance model is irretrievably broken and I’d sure like us to be having a rational discussion about what could work better instead of surrendering that conversation to folks who would like to starve the beast. But if we don’t have that kind of spine, let’s at least insist on a better process for getting to know our candidates.

 

 

T-Paw Has an Education Record, So Why Resort to Dubious, Misleading Political “Facts”?

You know what erodes the public’s trust? #FakeNews.

You know which side of the political aisle it gets generated on?

Yeah….

I was typing away doing my actual job this afternoon, trying to arrange actual facts in a news story discerning readers might or might not end up drawing some conclusions about when a tweet caught my eye. Sent out by A Better Minnesota, it concerned today’s not-very-surprising, blast-from-the-past entrant into the state’s gubernatorial race, Tim Pawlenty, and K-12 education.

“As #mngov, @TimPawlenty short changed out kids by ‘borrowing’ $2 billion dollars in funding from schools to cover up his $6.2 billion budget deficit, leading to thousands of teacher layoffs,” it said. “We need a gov that values our children’s future. #MeetPawlenty.”

There was a link, and a graphic that said, “Tim Pawlenty laid off thousands of teachers, MinnPost, 8.27.10.”

I finished my actual work before I called my personal archival droid up from the basement to request some intel. Teacher layoffs and ed finance was my MinnPost beat, circa 2010, and I was pretty sure I never typed those words.

I mean, I remember layoffs and I remember lots of things Pawlenty did in his first stint in the governor’s mansion that can fairly be classified as bad for schools. And I remember a recession that was bad for schools, families and pretty much everyone else.

But the tweet as written? No. Continue reading

Anybody Remember the $400,000 No-Bid Contract MPS Inked With Its Most Profane Critic? Apparently Not

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. Continue reading

What Happens When a Rapidly Segregating School Loses its Poverty Aid? Or: Making Mincemeat Out of Equity

Travel back with me to 2009, when Minneapolis Public Schools was in the process of trying to quell an insurrection of wealthy white parents. With the exception of the crunchy-granola set, which has long maintained an enrollment stronghold at South High School and doesn’t have enough money to count as wealthy anyhow, the chattering classes wanted to send their children to Southwest High.

But even with a future expansion under discussion Southwest could only hold so many teenage bodies. Kids literally were sitting in window wells in some classes. Lunch was often eaten in the hall. On the floor in shifts.

You remember this, right? The battle of the entitled reached its apex with a raging debate about higher-level math. Southwest, parents actually howled at the board, had all the special math teachers and Washburn had none. Seriously, families knew the names of individual math teachers. It was like fantasy football, but with licensure status instead of career stats.

Parents who couldn’t so much as do long division held forth at parties: Who was the district kidding insisting students at both schools would get a world-class education? Continue reading

How Does a Senator Deal with a Teenager Who Knows Exactly How Gun Control Bills Die? Why by Cutting his Mic, of Course

Photo: Groven, in suit and tie, calls BS on Sen. Warren Limmer.

Pity poor Warren Limmer, Republican of Maple Grove and a former corrections officer, who was handed his potooty this week by a group of students led by Josh Groven, a senior at the School of Environmental Sciences in Eagan. It’s safe to bet the former corrections officer never saw it coming.

Because how many of Limmer’s constituents know enough parliamentary process to understand how the will of the people gets subverted in the people’s house? Or put another way, how a cynic kills a bill that has the enthusiastic support of the public but not so much the lobbyists. Groven knows: Bills that don’t get committee hearings don’t advance to a vote. Limmer has refused to take testimony on gun control.

Energized though he was by this month’s youth-organized gun control marches and the sight of the Parkland shooting survivors in the national spotlight, Groven fears that the Limmers of the world won’t change until forced into close proximity with the young people trying to throw the impact of gun violence into stark relief.

To that end, earlier this week Groven, 17, and two dozen of his fellow students of American government staged a sit in in Limmer’s Capitol office in St. Paul, punctuated by an impromptu turn at the testifiers’ table during a Senate hearing on another issue. Limmer? He gaveled Groven out of order, cut his mic and had him escorted out. Continue reading

The Proposed MFT/MPS Contract Is Out and It’s… A Little Sleepy

You know that old saw about much ado?

After months of name calling, ugly memes and board room protests, the proposed contract between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Minneapolis Public Schools has been circulated. By my read it’s mostly a win for district leaders.

Well. Except for all of the posturing and base-energizing on the part of the union. And the very real harm done to a number of MPS employees who became collateral damage after they were pilloried for their “associations” with organizations – including a district funder – demonized by the MFT.

It’s not at all what I had expected. The district has no pennies to squeeze, so I had imagined it would give on all of the non-monetary demands on the table, which ranged from a provision that would have allowed teachers to exclude students with disciplinary histories from their classrooms to provisions guaranteeing access to potential union members should the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME deal labor the expected blow. Continue reading

What a Pornographer and a Preacher Could Teach Edina Schools

In the Name of Patriotism, the Edina School District Just Taught Students a Very Un-American Lesson

 

When I was in grad school at the University of Arizona, I took several courses at the law school from a man who wore, without fail, shiny leather pants and a shiny leather vest to every class. Not even chaps. Zero-vent cowhide. In Tucson. In triple-digit weather.

I think his name was Bob, but a lot of ephemera has been engraved on the hard drive since then so I can’t swear to it. He made me feel very rubber-neck-y, in a gross way.

The most salient media law precedents of the day involved Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt who, questionable taste in everything notwithstanding, was a free speech crusader. Naturally, I remember all three terms as if they were yesterday.

I remember in particular the precedent set in the then-recent Hustler magazine vs. Falwell, in which the court held that a jury of reasonable men would know that a feature declaiming Jerry Falwell’s deflowering in an outhouse by his mother was satire. It was an important precedent in terms of the bounds of political speech, and unless one of you wants to step forward to correct me I believe it still stands.

Leatherman’s classes taught me a couple of things. One, if you are going to skewer a living figure, make sure your parody eventually becomes so over the top no one can mistake it for news. And two, absolutely free as it must remain, speech has consequences.

I wonder if the Edina School District did the best thing recently when it agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the Edina High School Young Conservatives Club. I know enough school administrators to imagine that their fervent desire was to put a cork in the controversy that sparked the lawsuit. Continue reading

Hard Truths About the Threats to Minneapolis’ Teachers of Color and How to Protect Them

 

Do you remember that ugly meme that went around a few weeks back? The one that attempted to smear several Minneapolis Public Schools administrators for their “associations” with KIPP schools, Teach for America, Minnesota Comeback and my own kid’s scrappy little standalone school?

There was one administrator one there who for good reason is embroiled in scandal: The district’s enrollment chief, who runs a side consultancy that steers families – presumably wealthy ones – to private schools and equips them to justify this decision to critics. He didn’t “associate” with the rest, but you’d never know it from the lines and arrows and conspiratorial language on the meme.

(It’s tempting to veer off on a rant questioning whether we remember other dark eras of U.S. history when we fired people – and worse – because of “associations.” But I am working up to a point and I am determined to make it.)

One of the people eviscerated by the meme was MPS Human Resources Chief, Maggie Sullivan, whose “association” is her service on the leadership council of the education advocacy group Minnesota Comeback. Among other things, Comeback has funded nine district initiatives, several of them in Sullivan’s sphere.

And a couple of them touted as victories by, or funded at the behest of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers – which drew up and circulated the meme: The “Grow Your Own” program that’s one of the most promising mechanisms for diversifying the ranks of the district’s teachers; a pilot studying the retention of teachers of color and the last referendum campaign.

So why hate on Sullivan – particularly if she’s bringing home the bacon? She’s not even a veteran of any of the education reform efforts the meme associated its other targets with. Before MPS, she worked for Pittsburgh Public Schools and before that for the Boys and Girls Club.

On Tuesday, Sullivan presented the Minneapolis School Board with the results of an equity and diversity impact assessment of HR policies and practices that affect recruitment, hiring and retention. No surprise, the presentation led with the yawning disconnect between the racial composition of the student body and the teacher corps. Continue reading