At its May 27 meeting, the Minneapolis School Board approved a budget of almost $550 million. Before their vote, board members were walked through a breakdown containing highlights of the financial package.
There were small pots money for programs ranging from support for girls interested in science to efforts to keep struggling learners in the classroom. There were modest funds for the hiring of additional teachers if enrollment grows in the fall. There was an item — the one-time expenditure of $5 million for English language learners — that sparked controversy because it was an 11th-hour addition. And another — $200,000 for the newly created Office of Black Male Student Achievement — that raised eyebrows among some who believe the amount to be too low.
Curiously, there was no discussion of a $375,000 amendment to a contract issued to a group called the Community Standards Initiative (CSI), which aims to generate positive interactions and engagement between Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and its communities of color. Instead, that item was approved at the board’s previous meeting, with no public discussion. It was included in the consent agenda, which is supposed to contain items of routine, ongoing business that do not involve major budget or policy decisions.
(Other items on the same consent agenda included the purchase of fuel oil to top off district heating tanks, the purchase of literacy and science textbooks for fifth-graders and numerous student transportation contracts.)
CSI founder is Al Flowers
Over the last couple of days, the district’s dealings with CSI have been the subject of a quiet round of questioning among district insiders, one of whom brought it to MinnPost’s attention. Why now? The group’s founder is community activist Al Flowers, a frequent critic of MPS whose name is in the headlines after an encounter with Minneapolis police over the weekend left him battered.
The item passed as a part of the May 13 consent agenda brought the total the district will spend with CSI to $405,000. According to documents attached to the agenda the contract will run from June 19, 2014, to June 19, 2016.
According to the description of the contract contained in the consent agenda, CSI is a “niche or specialty” vendor that will provide “Deliverables set in the areas of Youth Development & Community Engagement, School Intervention and Health and Wellness.”
Despite having attended the vast majority of the board meetings over the last year, the author was unaware of the CSI contract until Monday.
The Saturday Flowers-police incident has sparked calls for an independent investigation, as well as more racial sensitivity within the Minneapolis Police Department. Flowers has appeared bruised and with a bloody eye in this publication and others. There are some members of the MPS community who, while unwilling to criticize Flowers, are asking about the size and nature of the CSI contract.
District representatives Wednesday referred questions about Flowers to Clarence Hightower, who is CSI’s fiscal agent and administrator. The group’s contracts with MPS are signed by Hightower. CSI materials circulating since the idea was announced are clearly marked with Flowers’ name as author.
Campaign to ‘get back to good’
Here is what appears to be on the record so far. In August 2011, Flowers and several other community activists held a press conference in North Minneapolis announcing a campaign to “get back to good.”
Support MinnPost by becoming a sustaining member today.
In April 2012, Hightower elaborated in a presentation to the school board on progress made by the group using two $15,000 grants from MPS and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board. The idea, he explained, was to engage the city’s 87 neighborhoods, the park system and churches in “getting back to good.”
CSI would work on increasing student attendance and parental involvement. And it would field a “critical response team” that would work to “defuse tense situations,” “establish a ‘climate check’ ” and restore “positive behavior at the scene.”
More details would be forthcoming once the group had an idea how much funding MPS would be able to supply, Hightower told the board. His New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church served as fiscal agent for the program.
Facebook page appears inactive
In July of 2013 a Facebook page was created; it has garnered 28 likes and currently appears inactive. A bill that would have appropriated $350,000 for the effort failed to make it out of committee in the 2013 Legislature.
It is worth noting that at the April 2012 meeting a somewhat differently configured school board seemed delighted to hear that the community effort was in the works. Several said they were anxious to hear details.
The two contracts [PDF 1, PDF 2] between MPS and CSI list very specific activities and specify attendance goals and desired outcomes. Major activities include staging a number of community events, training students on conflict resolution and identifying students who would benefit from referral to mental health services.
The agreement includes funds to pay for several part-time positions, including a program manager and staff in each school. Payments will be made when the activities outlined have been performed.