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Angry groundswell rips MPS board: ‘Stop making excuses,’ ‘We want an audit’

“You all constantly claim you want community engagement,” law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds said. “But when we step up our voices are silenced.”

Nekima Levy-Pounds, left, was last on the speaking roster. Kermit the Frog's only statement was on his sign.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins

When Nekima Levy-Pounds rose Tuesday night to address the Minneapolis School Board there was a brief and pregnant pause. The University of St. Thomas law professor was part of a group that the night before had aimed a barrage of sharp tweets using the hashtag #jimcrowjr at Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and other district leaders.

Now members of a new group she helped found, the Black Education Advocates, were at the meeting to demand answers about a $375,000 no-bid contract being referred to in the community as “hush money.”

Levy-Pounds was last on the roster. In the hour before her turn came, a long line of community members stepped to the podium to air a diverse and mind-boggling set of complaints.

There were the North High School football players who showed up to ask for sports facilities equity. Or at a minimum indoor restrooms with running water.

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There was the woman who called out the district for letting employees into sporting events for free while charging even the poorest students.

There was the 20-plus-year early childhood education aide who broke down describing the bureaucratic snafu that cost her and a number of her colleagues their jobs last spring, and the bureaucracy’s disinterest in hearing them out.

And then there was Kermit the Frog, who showed up in a purple stocking cap and an orange jumpsuit emblazoned with the words “State Penitentiary,” a symbol of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The frog, who was about the size of a human teen, did not speak but carried a hand-lettered sign: “Minneapolis Public Schools awarded a $375,000 contract to an organization with no website, no phone number, #butthat’snoneofmybusiness.”

When Levy-Pounds finally spoke, her words summarized the evening’s angry groundswell. “You all constantly claim you want community engagement,” she said. “But when we step up our voices are silenced.”

‘Stop making excuses’

There was applause as she continued: “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Stop making excuses, hold yourself accountable and educate our babies.”

While she spoke, Black Education Advocates co-founder Chris Stewart, a former MPS board member, created a devastating Storify, “Jim Crow Jr., Minneapolis Style,” featuring the tweets coming out of district headquarters as well as memes starring Kermit sipping a cup of tea under provocative questions about the CSI contract.

Last week, the Black Education Advocates sent an open letter to district leaders calling for an outside investigation into a controversial contract that had been tucked into the board’s May consent agenda, the list of routine business requiring board approval but not meriting discussion.

The contract in question awarded $375,000 to the Community Standard Initiative (CSI), a group that had no legal structure and could not articulate a plan beyond a desire to work in schools and neighborhoods to promote positive behavior. District leaders had recommended against inking the deal, especially after a $30,000 investment in trying to help CSI develop programming yielded little.

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CSI did, however, have some powerful promoters. Minneapolis DFL Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion either urged the district to enter into the agreement or threatened to turn off a crucial funding stream, depending on which version of the story is being told.

A longtime district critic

CSI’s creator, Al Flowers, is a longtime district critic. He also has a long history of showing up in controversial headlines — most recently after an encounter with police that is still under investigation. Champion is his attorney.

CSI was paid $47,000 before news stories in this publication and others drew attention to the no-bid contract. The organization’s fiscal agent, Clarence Hightower, recently said it lacked the capacity to deliver the contracted services.

Minneapolis Public Schools leaders, meanwhile, were mum on how the item made its way onto the consent agenda and which version of the story about lawmakers’ intercession was true.

Board member Rebecca Gagnon last year testified in favor of the funding at the Capitol and her colleague Kim Ellison once worked for Hightower. District insiders have said at least four board members were in favor of the contract. Gagnon told the Star Tribune she is disappointed CSI could not deliver. 

A week ago, the Black Education Advocates — other members include leaders of Students for Education Reform — sent an open letter to district leaders calling for an outside investigation. A MinnPost request for comment on the letter went unfulfilled, although an article a day later in the Star Tribune elaborated on the district’s decision to end the arrangement.

Board chair replies to letter

On Monday, board Chair Richard Mammen replied to the letter [.png], saying that placing the contract on the consent agenda was legal and that he was confident all board members were aware of it. “The board will participate fully in any investigation ordered by an appropriate authority pertaining to this contract or any other matter concerning alleged ‘breaches of leadership,’” he wrote.

Over the weekend, supporters of the lawmakers and CSI called out the Black Education Advocates in radio broadcasts, calling Levy-Pounds a bourgeoisie black elite. (It’s unclear whether either senator knew of or had a hand in the broadcasts.)

Separately, members of another new group, Not on Our Watch, staged protests on the city’s north side. At Tuesday night’s board meeting, Natonia Johnson identified herself as a member of the second new group.

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“We want an independent audit of how the $47,000 given to CSI was spent,” she told the board. “We will get it. That’s not a threat, that’s a promise. You have not seen the last of my face.”

After Levy-Pounds spoke, most of the angry community members filed out into the foyer, where the din threatened to drown out Johnson as she made her first public remarks [PDF] on the controversy.

‘Had many reservations’

“In considering the contract with CSI, my staff and I had many reservations about moving forward with it,” Johnson said. “I was cautious because it was apparent that they would need significant support and assistance from the district to fulfill the contract. MPS did more than our due diligence to help CSI succeed, even linking them up with our research and evaluation team, to develop a specific timeline for implementation and execution, as well as metrics to determine how the program was progressing. But I was also optimistic about the potential for students to benefit from the services that CSI said they could provide.”

Johnson addressed the question of outside pressure only obliquely: “Several board members, elected officials and community members expressed support of this contract, which further influenced moving forward with the contract.”