Strange bedfellows: Minneapolis Public Schools pay critic to do PR


When the Minneapolis Public Schools awarded a no-bid, $15,000 contract to Don Allen, a vitriolic and frequent critic of the Minneapolis Public Schools, lots of people were shocked. While this investigation began with the Don Allen contract, the bigger issue is how the MPS contract system works. How does MPS decide where public money should be spent? How does it choose the best contractor for the job? How do individuals and organizations in the community find out about contract opportunities? Who makes the contract decisions for MPS? How much information and oversight does the Board of Education have?

While Chris Stewart was serving on the Minneapolis Board of Education in 2010, he saw that Don Allen was under consideration to receive an MPS contract for a publicity campaign promoting MPS as a great place to enroll students. For Stewart, there was no question that the contract should not go forward. During his last month as a school board member, Stewart tried to find out why the contract was even considered, and worked to have it pulled from the consent agenda. 

On December 2, Stewart wrote a letter to Dan Loewenson, who was at that point the Assistant to the Superintendent and School Board Liaison:

“We have had many conversations about the district’s granting of contracts to individuals in the African American community that are actively sowing discord in the community (much of it against MPS) I’ve asked many times why we pay individuals to be our adversaries in public. I’ve expressed how important it is for new, less transactional relationships to be developed.  And, I’ve expressed the cynicism that develops in the community when they see us doling out checks to individuals considered to be questionable in many ways.

It is maddening to see this institution participating in ghetto politics and, frankly, it looks manipulative. It smells funny…” 

Loewenson responded:

I know this phenomenon has caused you consternation for a long time now.  You are not alone and sometimes we get put into very odd positions by applying our “rules” and procedures in as fair a way as we know how to which does not allow us to screen out applicants or contractors for their personal opinions or public behavior (even when it disparages the District which employs or contracts them.)…”

The question, however, was not really about screening out “applicants or contractors.” Instead, the question was the MPS response to an unsolicited request — from a critic who has consistently said MPS is a bad place for African-American students — for a $15,000 contract to produce public relations videos promoting enrollment in MPS. Why would someone who calls MPS “a system that has not worked for children, parents or the community” be a good choice to promote MPS?

The contract was pulled from the consent agenda. At that point, Stewart said, “My understanding was that the contract was dead.”

The in January, after Stewart left the board, Allen’s contract was put back on the consent agenda. During the January 25 meeting, Allen’s contract was approved as part of the consent agenda. In an interview this year, Stewart said, “You have no idea what kind of system that produced any kind of rational thought would sign it.” 


What MPS got for $15,000

Don Allen’s proposal, titled “Standard Commercial Production Agreement” and dated October 25, 2010, said that, “The campaign will include print ads, Internet, television and radio commercials that duplicated the message from radio and TV. The format is based on Public Service Announcements.” The “Agreement” identified the “completed product” as:

1. 4-60 second commercials

2. 4-60 second Minneapolis Public Schools television commercials

3. 4-60 second Minneapolis Public Schools commercials AVI/MP4 formats for Internet use.

4. 4-60 second Minneapolis Public Schools audio commercials for radio use.

5. 4-Print design ads to go with commercial themes (for use at the Minneapolis Public Schools-Communication Department).

The “Agreement” listed total costs as $18,900 for the production of four ads, with “Option A” of $7,500 for one commercial and “Option B” of $9,500 for two commercials. The January 25, 2011 school board consent agenda listed a $15,000 contract:

DWRA2 contract to provide video production services to the Office of Communications for the period November 23, 2010 through June 30, 2011. The contract is late due to a misunderstanding of contract processes.

Despite repeated requests from TC Daily Planet, MPS has not produced a copy of the actual contract with Don Allen/DWRA2.

In an email to Dan Loewenson on December 3, Stan Alleyne wrote:

…”I have been working with Don Allen on a small marketing contract.  But it’s not just Don, it’s other professional video production people as well as mass media professionals.  It’s about marketing some recruiting messages leading up to and during School Choice season.  If I thought Don would be filming and editing, this would certainly be shady.  He’s one of several people we will be working with to make 3 PSAs for television, radio and social media outlets.  Our meetings have been professional and productive.  Let’s talk.”

The “3 PSAs for television, radio and social media outlets” ended up being a two-minute video posted on MPS’s website and YouTube channel on May 20, and a second video that is only on the YouTube channel. Alleyne said that he didn’t have plans to post the videos in media outlets. By the end of June, YouTube’s view counter showed that the first video had been viewed 18 times.

We asked Don Allen to respond to questions about the contract in an email:

TCDP: MPS said that the outcome of the contract with you was a single video,* which is posted on their website. Did you deliver other videos or material to them in fulfillment of this contract? If so, can you please furnish copies of that material, or a description of it?

A: First of all, they lied – there was two (2) commercials delivered to them and they wanted to the intellectual property  to my print campaign so they could do it themselves – but as you know, the talent is not in the building. And yes, the MPS has transcripts on file that shows Prince did attend North High School.

Ms. Regan, since I’m not a non-profit or in the business of supplying client product to media sources, I can tell you that I produced 2 videos for the district, to include MP3 downloads of the commercials for radio. The original contract said 3 commercials and it was amended by the communications department to do only 2 because in their words,

“Sup. Johnson was being uncooperative in scheduling a time and place to shoot the commercial with my crew.” (This is personal problem the MPS superintendent has with certain Black men in the community.) I was asked to go back and re-edit the commercials using Rochester native and assistant communications director  Rachel “I’ve never seen a proposal like this” Hicks to do a :15-second close on the commercial. I went back 3 times per their request with them knowing that per the contract, I would go over 20 hours. This was okay’d by Stan.

We interviewed about 20 students and barely found 6 that could say and read “This is a public service announcement from the MPS.” (Shame: Education in the MPS!)

I submitted an invoice, per my contract for the additional 20 hours of editing time, crew and travel and it was accepted by Stan Allenye but Sup.Johnson refuse the pay the the balance of $3800.00 – the communication staff basically lied to legal counsel Amy Moore and told her that I did not complete the contract when that was not the case. To this day, the MPS communications staff will not meet with me, nor will Dan Lowenson answer important questions.

[* NOTE: After we sent this email to Don Allen and received the response above, MPS clarified that there were two videos produced by Don Allen for this contract, here and here. Don Allen also uploaded a video attacking the MPS Communications Department on April 13.]

When bloggers and reporters raised questions about the contract, no one at MPS was able to explain the process for decision-making on the contract.

“Having followed Don Allen’s blog and online radio show for some time, I was shocked when I found out that MPS awarded him a contract to promote the schools,” said Ed Kohler, who has blogged about this topic, in an email interview. “I was more concerned with how Don Allen was hired for a contract than whether he was hired,” Kohler said. “Who decided that this was a good decision? What was the decision process? Were other people or businesses considered for that work? Did the work need to be done at all? The responsibility falls to whoever controls the money. Who decided that this was a good use of taxpayer dollars?”

How it happened

Allen apparently got his contract by sending a proposal to someone on MPS staff, telling them that they should pay him to produce a specific public relations campaign. No one within MPS has suggested that there was any internal decision to have such a campaign or to look for a contractor to produce a campaign. As far as TC Daily Planet has been able to discover, the idea for the $15,000 contract originated with Allen.

While the contract with Don Allen is an egregious example, lack of oversight or a transparent process for awarding contracts may be a bigger, systemic problem.

The consent agenda for board meetings includes a list of non-controversial items and contracts that the district staff presents to the board for approval without discussion. The description in the board minutes says:

These action items represent those that do not involve major policy decisions, budget decisions, taxing decisions, bond awards or items related to the Superintendent’s contract or evaluation. Business items on this agenda are previously authorized or budgeted expenditures.

Lydia Lee, who has been on the school board since 2005, said “there’s rarely any debate” over contracts. Lee believes that in the past, before she was on the school board, more scrutiny was given to individual contracts. During her time on the board, however, there is hardly ever any question over them.

Generally, Lee said, the school board members are given a list of contracts to be approved in the consent agenda on the Friday before the board meeting. If a board member has a question about an individual contract, they are supposed to email Loewenson.

Why was Allen’s contract put back on the agenda in January, after previously being pulled from the consent agenda at the request of board members?  “You only do that when you have some sort of compelling reason to pay a person,” Stewart said. “When you are that stubborn.” 

Generally, Stewart said, board members don’t question contracts that are put before them. They simply vote for whatever is recommended by the district staff. It is even more unusual for a contract to be taken off the agenda and then put back on. As far as Stewart knows, Dan Loewenson, currently the MPS Chief of Staff, was the only person who put items on the consent agenda.  

“When you are defying a sitting school board, there’s a reason,” Stewart said.  “More than one of my colleagues supported getting [the Don Allen contract] pulled.  The way you do it — you do it very sneakily.  You put it back on consent agenda.  And you don’t put the person’s real name, just their initials.” (The $15,000 contract was with “DWRA2” for video production services.)

Making deals: Contracts with friends and critics

The Don Allen contract is an example of a contract with a critic. “You’re paying not to expose you,” Stewart said, “to not to destroy a project you have a lot of money invested into. Surely I would say district pays people who are critics of the district.”

Other sources, including people who have worked, or still work, with MPS, would only speak anonymously because they feared retaliation. These sources, as well as Stewart, criticized MPS for giving out contracts to insiders or “friends” of district staff, rather than looking for multiple quotes or making a public request for proposals.

Awarding contracts to insiders can be problematic in two ways. First, it means less access to the contracting system for people without inside connections. That means they have no opportunity to compete. Second, contracts have been written for amounts that fall below the threshold for requiring competitive requests for proposals, and then given multiple renewals. Each renewal, in itself, may fall below the threshold amount, but the total for the contract ends up being a lot higher.

One example is a 2008 contract with Brun Winter Reese. Lynn Brun and Cheri Winter Reese worked for the Communications Department at MPS and quit their jobs during the tenure of former Superintendant Thandiwe Peebles. (Peebles was ousted in 2006 after allegations that she had MPS employees run personal errands for her.)

Brun and Reese formed their own PR firm, and have been awarded MPS contracts. A contract for $48,000 to “provide strategic communications consulting and support services to the Office of Communications” lasted from May 1, 2008 through October 31, 2008.  That contract was amended several times, first to extend through December 31, 2008, increasing the total contract amount $72,000. Three more extensions brought the end date to June 30, 2010 and the total contract amount to $255,600 over a two-year period.

Stan Alleyne is currently Executive Director of Communications for MPS, but was not yet working for MPS at the time of the Brun Winter Reese contract. According to Alleyne, the Brun Winter Reese contract was a single source contract, meaning they didn’t have to compete with anyone to get the job. “They had such an advantage knowing the inner workings of department,” he said, which was one of the reasons no other quotes were sought.    

Alleyne also said Cheri Reese was on the hiring committee that hired Susan Eilertsen, who was the MPS Communications Chief of Staff responsible for renewing the Brun Winter Reese contract.  

Cheri Reese confirmed over the phone that she was on the hiring committee for Susan Eilertson, but she said she took issue with being characterized as a “friend of the district.” She said: “Our goal was to work ourselves out of a contract. We were not interested in maintaining a position, or taking it away from someone who could do it in-house.”

Another example of insider contracting is the MPS contract with Courtney Cushing Kiernat, who served as a co-chair of the Strong Schools, Strong City referendum campaign.  After the referendum passed, Kiernat was contracted as project manager for the Changing School Options Plan, which is meant to encourage students to attend their neighborhood school. 

Kiernat’s contract also was a single source contract, according to Alleyne. “She was very instrumental under the referendum.  She has a strong skill set.  The Superintendent wanted her to assist us during the CSO.  She’s continued to work with us.”

Kiernat’s consulting firm, Courtney CK Consulting LLC, was contracted by MPS for $70,800 to “provide project management services for the Changing School Options Transition Process to Minneapolis Public Schools for the period September 14, 2009 through August 31, 2010.” Courtney CK Consulting LLC then got another contract for $70,800 for August 2, 2010 through June 30, 2011, which was amended last April to $95,000 in order to “add facilitation of the coordination of planning teams for 2011-2012 enrollment, facilities and transportation.” 

According to Kiernat, she was hired as a MPS staff member as of July 1, working under Dan Loewenson, though as of last week she was unsure what her exact title would be. Kiernat said: “I don’t know anything about the RFP process. All I can say is that I was asked to implement the Changing School Options, and then I was asked to remain on for other projects.”

Another problematic contract

Don Allen himself has frequently criticized another contract, the 2008 Supplemental Educational Services contract between MPS and the Urban League. While the contract was between MPS and the Urban League, the Urban League was not the agency to do the work. The actual work was performed by Front Street Marketing, a public relations firm.

The contract proved problematic, with the report submitted by the Urban League itself at the end of the contract acknowledging that “Team members were hired by community partner without possessing core competencies and necessary skill sets to carry out the full duties of the position,” and “Team members were assigned—and maintained on the project from a political basis instead of a practical basis.”

In addition to questions about how well the contracted work was performed, there are issues about the contract itself. Responding to an email with questions about his own contract, Allen said:

Just take a look at … non-bid contracts from the district including the $103,770.00 in 2008 that went to the Minneapolis Urban League for Front Street Marketing. Shouldn’t of that been an RFP?

Stan Alleyne confirmed that the contract never went through the request for proposals process, saying that it was a “pilot project.”

Spending public money

Contracts with “friends” or insiders sometimes may yield the best value for the public dollar. The contractors may be exceptionally well-qualified and their inside knowledge of how the district operates may enable them to deliver more services at a lower cost, but without a transparent, competitive process, no one can be entirely sure that this is the case.

State laws and government policies set up procedures for buying goods and services, awarding contracts, and, in general, spending public money. The procedures are in place to safeguard a whole range of values, from getting the best value for taxpayer dollars, to promoting transparency in the conduct of public business, to ensuring opportunities for all to compete on an equal basis for public business.

TOMORROW: How MPS awards contracts