What started as a complaint about Minneapolis Public Schools busing turned into much ado about parent-district communications last week. A parent, Mary Hanson, was unhappy about her son having to spend an hour on the bus to get to Armatage Montessori, which is just 3.4 miles from her home. She called the transportation office, and when she didn’t hear back, she called Area Associate Superintendent Theresa Battle, who she says “scolded” her and went on a what she characterized as a “rant” about parents who want to send their children to magnet schools and are unhappy with the bus times.
When Hanson wrote a post about her experience on the MPS Parents Forum, an independent networking site on Yahoo Groups, Rachel Hicks, the Assistant Director of Media Relations/Public Affairs at MPS, contacted the forum and requested the post be taken down, saying it was libelous. After emails were exchanged, MPS backtracked on the request. Stan Alleyne, the Executive Director of Communications, now says that he never approved the request to ask the forum to remove Hanson’s post.
The Minneapolis Parents Forum is a group is led by parents and is dedicated to involving parents in questions about funding, staffing, governance, and academic achievement, according to the forum’s description. It was started in 2005 by Carla Bates, who excused herself from her role as a moderator when she decided to run for the school board.
The complaints over busing
One of Hanson’s children attends Armatage Montessori, a school she’s been happy with even though her son had to move there from Seward Montessori, where he used to attend, with the new Changing School Options regulations. However, she’s frustrated because even though the school is only 3.4 miles from her home, her son, a fourth grader, got his bus card in the mail with a bus time of 6:26 a.m. (school starts at 7:30). On the fifth day of class, he got a new bus time, which was even earlier, at 6:21 a.m. The bus ride is much longer than when he attended Seward, which is farther away.
Hanson was even more frustrated to find that some of the stops on the route, especially the earlier ones, don’t have children waiting at them, as the parents have chosen to drive their children to school. In subsequent posts on the forum, she also noted that a bus driver got lost on the way home, asked her 4th-grader for directions, and eventually found the bus stop after a 90-minute drive. That this happened on the same day that the 6 p.m. after-school activities bus failed to show up at Anthony Junior High only added to frustration with the MPS transportation system. (The activities bus eventually showed up at 7:15 p.m., by which time Hanson had picked up her students.)
Two sides of a conversation
When the Transportation office didn’t return her calls in 24 hours, Hanson called Theresa Battle. Accounts of that conversation differ, depending on who is telling the story. In her post on MPS Parents Forum, Hanson wrote:
That will be the first and the last time I ever waste my time trying to get an answer out of Theresa Battle. She was completely unsympathetic, very harsh and scolded me for choosing a magnet school and not sending my child to our neighborhood school. She also told me that Armatage was a community school for kids who lived near it (not so, it is only a magnet school now) so I assume she is not very aware of boundaries, pathways, and bus issues.
From our conversation, it seems to me that Ms. Battle would prefer to do away entirely with magnet schools in general and with Montessori magnets in particular. She also ranted extensively about parents who want to utilize the magnet schools the district offers, but then are displeased with their kids having long bus times. She also complained about how the district is having to use integration money on transportation rather than having it spent closer to the kids, an issue I agree with in theory, but that doesn’t seem like anyone cares about in practice: case in point- I brought up how ridiculous it was that according to the school choice website, our middle school choice is Anwatin (nearly 10 miles away) rather than Anthony (3 miles) and that wouldn’t that use a lot of those precious dollars she is so concerned about? She blamed that on the school board voting on the pathways in CSO.
Battle has a different version of their conversation. “There are three sides to every story- there’s one person’s side, there’s the other person’s side, and then there’s the truth,” she said. While Battle said she wouldn’t characterize what Hanson wrote as a lie, she said Hanson mixed fact and fiction.
“I think parts are accurate but there are many assumptions that were made that don’t have facts,” Battle said, particularly Hanson’s assessment that Battle would want to eliminate magnet schools in general. Battle said she has taught at a magnet school — St. Paul Central — and has sent her children to magnet schools.
Battle said it was difficult to respond to Hanson’s criticism, and had particular issues with some of the verbs that Hanson used…that she “complained,” that she “scolded.” “It’s all from her perspective,” she said. “Scolding her? Why would I scold her for something I’ve chosen for my own children?”
Battle agrees that she did say that integration can be used for other purposes besides busing, and that the money that goes toward busing is funding that MPS has to pull from other uses. “That’s something we have to weigh,” she said. “That was the point I was making.”
However, Battle said it was never her intention to scold Hanson. “I have to acknowledge that’s how she perceived it. Sometimes I can have a teacher voice. Sometimes that can be interpreted as harsh.”
Slander? The heavy hand of Media Relations/Public Affairs
Rachel Hicks, Assistant Director of Media Relations/Public Affairs for MPS, contacted Peggy Clark, one of the forum moderators. In an email, “Ms. Hicks identified Ms. Hanson’s post as ‘fallacious’ and ‘slanderous’,” said Clark, “which would have been ‘fightin’ words” in my youth.”
Clark contacted Hanson, and asked her if there was anything untrue in the post, to which Hanson replied that it was accurate, according to Hanson.
“It’s a parents’ forum,” Hanson said in an interview. “We have every right to report our experiences with the district staff… I thought the whole thing was very bullying.”
Hanson said her overlying feeling is that the district is reading the parents forum to “spy” on parents. “Not in a customer service way, like ‘how can we fix things?’, but ‘what are parents saying about us?’” Hanson said.
By Friday, MPS rescinded their request to have the post removed. Hicks said in an interview on Friday that at this point, the Communications Department was still determining if and what a response would be. Hicks said that it’s “very rare” for MPS to request a post be removed.
Clark said that no such request for deletion has been made since at least September 2008, prior to Hicks’ employment with MPS.
“In general,” Hicks said, “The Parents Forum has been a very effective tool. We believe its there for the right reasons. We are proud of our parents using it for communications too. We would encourage their use,” she said. “It gives us input on what parents are thinking.”
Stan Alleyne, the executive director of the MPS communications office, said he was concerned people might think that MPS was trying to control the forum: “We’re not,” he said.
“In this situation,” he said. “This needs to be my decision whether someone asks for something to be removed. “It has to go through the proper channels,” he said.
“When it’s your name on something,” Alleyne said. “It’s a time when you’re sensitive.” Alleyne said he did not approve of the decision to ask the post be removed. “We’re trying to figure out how to do social media. We’re to figure out how to do a better job.”