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COMMUNITY VOICES | Report the truth - My response to Minnpost
Over the last few years I’ve read Beth Hawkins’ Learning Curve articles on Minnpost about education with great interest. I have understood them as opinion pieces by a columnist that had a very clear point of view about the education policy. Unfortunately, I have to express concerns about the continual bias, poor research, inaccurate statements and lack of context that I have observed in what seems to be an attempt to turn opinion columns into journalistic articles. It is reckless and unfair.
Beth Hawkins last article titled “Minneapolis School Board's self-evaluation surfaces concerns about conduct” published by Minnpost on February 26th was biased (which may be expected), full of inaccurate reporting, badly researched, and out of context (which should not be). I would hope that Minnpost editors would demand that their reporters do their homework, ask people they are reporting on for their response to accusations, add context and perspective, and report accurately.
Here are some specific examples from Ms. Hawkins’ Feb 26th article:
“A facilitator from the Minnesota School Boards Association walked board members through the results of an anonymous self-evaluation, noting that they gave each other low marks in the ‘conduct and ethics category. Specifically, a majority of the board had opined that its members and the superintendent do not trust one another, work as a team or engage in joint problem solving.’”
Let’s add some perspective. Board members did answer a questionnaire to self-evaluate as a way of finding out what our strengths and weaknesses were. 8 out of 9 board members responded. We rated questions from 1-7 with 1 being the lowest rating and 7 the highest on several questions. We rated an average 5 on board Vision, 5.4 on Structure, 5 on Accountability, 5.5 on Advocacy and an average 4.8 for Conduct and Ethics. In almost every category, low marks were only given by two board members.
On the question, “the board, its members and the superintendent work together in a climate of trust and mutual respect:” three members gave low marks, three middle marks and two high marks. Hardly the majority that Hawkins claims. This is definitely an area where we need improvement. There are personality and style differences among board members, which may explain the 7-2 vote on the recent election for board chair. I don’t believe respondents meant distrust between the superintendent and the board. I do believe that a strong majority of the board does operate in a climate of trust and mutual respect. Unfortunately there remains a difference of opinion by two members on how and by whom the board should be led.
Disagreements over leadership in elected bodies are common, and healthy. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul City Councils were recently divided over who should be their Presidents. Legislators often disagree on leadership. It’s democracy.
Yes, the board needs to work on getting all board members to feel they are operating in a climate of trust and mutual respect. We have been working on it. We’ve had several retreats, several with outside consultants, and many long conversations, and we still have two board members who are unhappy. More than anything, this is the reason board members were quiet during the last retreat. Regardless, as chair, I will continue to act collaboratively and inclusive of all members.
Hawkins also reported: “To add to the discomfort on display, they also gave each other low marks regarding 'demeaning verbal or nonverbal communication.' On the question 'the board avoids demeaning verbal or nonverbal communication,' four board members answered yes and three no. We need to continue do work to find out why three feel that way. Many attempts have been made, but we need to continue to work on it. That’s why we did the survey.
Hawkins further reports: “Upon which the outsider delivered — doubtless unwittingly — the coup de grace: ‘I do hear from boards where there are complaints about behavior,…Sometimes it helps to have a code-of-conduct policy….If the board isn’t following its own policy, how do you expect others in the organization to follow policy?....You lead by example.’ ”
There has been no claim by anyone that any board member has violated any policies. To add perspective, the “outsider” was giving examples of what other boards have done, never suggesting this board was violating any policies. By leaving out the context, the reader gets the impression board members are violating policy, which would be a serious accusation. This type of reporting is especially damaging and irresponsible
Next in the article: “Philosophical and political issues increasingly have divided the board over the last three years.” The board is not divided on policy. Just looking at board meeting minutes for the past three years (they’re online on the MPS website) would show it's not. In the past three years we have had major substantive votes on a five-year enrollment plan, a discipline policy, an equity policy, budgets and significant votes related to our relationship with charter schools, contracts with unions and the superintendent. We’ve evaluated the superintendent. All received overwhelming positive votes with the occasional one or two oppositional votes.
The MPS board approved our last teachers contract, the most reform-oriented this district and state has ever seen, with only two votes against. The board has been completely united in our goals for negotiating the current contract. In multiple postings, Hawkins has continually suggested that the board is split between pro-union and “reform” oriented factions. That just isn’t true.
Yesterday, Hawkins reported: “Monserrate chaired the board in 2012 and 2013; Mammen took over in 2014. Arneson has served as vice chair last year and this year. On their watch, policy has been that board meeting agenda items must be approved by the chair and vice chair. At the start of the year, Bates and Asberry were denied board officer positions. They were assured that their concerns would find a place on board meeting agendas.”
If she had contacted any of the three leaders mentioned above, Hawkins would have found out otherwise. It's my understanding that in past boards the agendas were mostly decided by the superintendent and his/her staff with some input from the chair. In 2011 the full board decided to have the meeting agendas decided jointly by the chair, vice chair and superintendent. A lot of work went into this change with a lot of board input. The practice of the chair deciding agendas in elected bodies is common practice. Minutes of agenda setting weekly meetings are sent to the board every week. In fact, Director Asberry attended many of those weekly agenda setting meetings. Neither I, Monserrate nor Arneson, can remember where an item has been requested to be added to a future meeting agenda by a board member that is has been denied or not redirected to an appropriate committee for action.
Hawkins offers as proof of her assertion that board leadership does not include Bates and Asberry’s input into the board agenda by stating: “In January, for example, during the time near the end of the board’s monthly meeting when members have an opportunity to speak briefly on any topic they choose, Bates proposed creating an ad hoc committee to consider the future of swimming in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Calling it 'impulsive,' Monserrate argued against Bates’ proposal to study the issue. Bates countered that she had been trying to get the issue onto the agenda for months but had been denied.” Hawkins even suggested that this was an attempt to shut Bates out. In actuality, Bates’ request was appropriately made during new business, not during the board member reports. Bates made a motion, it was seconded and debated. Director Bates then respectfully chose to withdraw her motion. She was not shut out. (For a more complete context of what happened at the board meeting you can go to the MPS web site in the Board of Education section and watch the video of the meeting in the audio and video section. The referred exchange is at the 2:05:00 mark of the video).
Readers of the Minnpost “Learning Curve” column would be forgiven for getting the impression that the Minneapolis School Board is dysfunctional, unproductive board. This could not be further from the truth. Over the past three years MPS has been opening schools rather than closing them. Minneapolis families are choosing MPS schools again. We have for the first time in years structurally balanced our budget without dipping into reserves, or relying on federal stimulus money. Instead of one financial annual report prepared by auditors (as we did three years ago), the board now gets to see monthly financial statements with actuals against projections. The district's credit rating was actually increased over the last two years. After years of school attendance plans that were disruptive for families and unstable leadership in the district, Minneapolis Public Schools is stable again.
There is much more work to be done. I acknowledge that four-year graduation rates are not even close to where they should be. But they are steadily moving upwards, especially among students of color. This pace needs to dramatically increase, but even Beth Hawkins recently reported in Minnpost with the headline: “After years of talk, MPS takes decisive action on the achievement gap”. The board fully supports these strategies. We will see more exciting positive news and accomplishments in 2014.
I also expect that all of my board colleagues will continue to look for better ways to communicate openly, honestly and respectfully with full transparency. We have a critical job to do together, in concert with our superintendent, teachers, students, families and community partners, and we can only succeed if we do.
I’m no pollyanna. I know that reports of discord sell newspapers and generate tweets. I expect and welcome criticism. However, I do expect journalistic fairness and accountability, and we ask that reporters and editors do their homework, do accurate research, fact check, contact people they are accusing to get their version of the story, and accurately report. In these freewheeling times of online media, opinion posing as truth, and instant press deadlines, is this too much to expect? Our democracy hopes not.
Chair, Minneapolis Board of Education