So what’s the big deal about transparency?


On July 12, after the TC Daily Planet published our series about contracts in the Minneapolis Public Schools, we finally received a copy of Don Allen’s contract as well as the Urban League’s contract for Supplemental Education Services tutoring outreach. When we compared the actual contracts to what we had been told by MPS officials, we noticed significant discrepancies.

First of all, while the $15,000 PR contract that was appproved on the school board’s consent agenda in January was for “DWRA2,” that name does not appear anywhere on the actual contract that was finally furnished. Instead, the actual contract contains the names “Don Allen,” “Donny Allen,” and “Donald Allen.” If the name of the production company was “Donald Allen” (or Donny Allen – the contract indicates both), why would the phony DWRA2 appear in the consent agenda? Perhaps the answer lies in former board member Chris Stewart’s speculation that Don Allen’s real name did not appear in the consent agenda so as to sneak the contract through without objection from board members who might have recognized the real name.

Then there’s the no-bid Urban League contract for $103,000 in 2008. When we received that contract on July 12, we noticed that nowhere in the contract is “Front Street Marketing” mentioned, though it is clear in emails and also verified by both Chief of Staff Dan Loewenson and Communications Director Stan Alleyne that the contract was for a Front Street Marketing project led by Todd Barnes, and the Urban League was simply the fiscal agent. Again, the question comes down to transparency. 

So, what’s the big deal about transparency? And what would that look like? What I know is from basic common sense and from experience with the roadblocks to information that I encountered while spending five months working on this story.

The reason transparency is important, first of all, is to build trust. This is true for any institution, whether it be the government, the nonprofit sector, or even the commercial sector. I think most people want to support the school district, but it would be easier to do so if we were given more information, and given timely and accurate information.

What would a more transparent school district look like? First of all, the MPS website could list all the contracts that are given out. There’s a page already for “Past Awards” if you click on the “Purchasing Department,” but you’ll notice that there are currently only two contracts listed, both awarded in February. We’d like to see all awarded contracts listed on this page. (For example, the board book for the July 12 meeting lists four contracts for board approval. Other contracts, not subject to board approval, are not listed anywhere, as far as we can tell. )

Ideally, all of the contracts would be listed, and real names would be used, and real amounts — none of these fake names like DWRA2 and the like.

Also, in the interest of transparency, there would be more opportunities listed, so that if there was a contract position available, anyone could see what it was, and perhaps apply. Honestly, we’re still confused about what the policy used to be, as well as the current policy for awarding contracts. It appears that, in the past, contracts that were over $100,000 required a Request for Proposals, except that sometimes they didn’t. The Front Street Marketing (aka Urban League) contract was over $100,000, but there was no bidding or request for proposal process.

We also believe that it would improve transparency to publish the contracts awarded (a pdf would suffice) as well as reports from contracts on the MPS website. The listings in the board book and in the MPS purchasing department site are relatively short summaries.

Currently, the system for obtaining information about the goings-on of the district are not working. It took five months and two newspaper articles shaming the district before they finally furnished actual copies of two contracts. It should not be this difficult to obtain public information about public money.

On July 22, Corey Mitchell at the Star Tribune wrote about $270,000 in pay raises this summer for 35 central office administrators, at a time when the district is cutting at least 118 jobs, including 52 teachers, to plug a $20 million dollar deficit. What’s noteworthy about Mitchell’s article (aside from the obvious) is that four school board members interviewed for his article said that they had no idea that the pay raises were going to happen. Apparently, the lack of transparency extends beyond pesky reporters  to school board members themselves. 

I haven’t heard back from the school board members that I interviewed for my article since it’s been published, except for former school board member Chris Stewart, who thanked me for writing it. So I have no idea if they appreciate that TC Daily Planet is looking into these issues or if they see it as a nuisance.

I did hear back from several concerned citizens, saying they were glad that I looked into it, and they had tips for me to look into it further. Still, I wonder sometimes if anybody is listening. The word transparency is used  a lot. I feel it’s regarded as a value.  But you can’t just say “We’re working on being more transparent.” You actually have to do it.  I wonder if the school district is listening. I hope, for the sake of the children whose futures are at stake, that they are.