Since launching in November of 2022, Minneapolis Schools Voices strives to provide accurate, timely and useful information about Minneapolis Public Schools’ district administration, school board, and schools for readers. We aim to reach a diverse group of sources and audience members who are parents, educators and community members in the district.
For over two decades, student academic data has shown a large, persistent racialized gap in the outcomes of the district’s students. In recent years, the chronic, inequitable, underfunding by the State of economically, racially and linguistically diverse school districts in Minnesota, like Minneapolis Public Schools, has become more apparent. The district is on the precipice of a financial crisis, long in the making, and delayed by the pandemic. At the same time, the district is working to become a more welcoming place for the diverse communities it serves. And, it is searching for a new superintendent to lead the district through an as yet unspecified “transformation.”
Amidst everything happening at the nearly 70 schools serving about 30,000 children in Minneapolis, MPS has a transparency problem.
The district has faced consistent criticism for years about its lack of communication with families, staff and community. Given the challenges ahead for the district, and the likely disruption to students, families and staff as the district confronts its large, structural budget deficit, it is even more important for the public to have factual, timely information.
In addition to leaving the public uninformed, a persistent lack of transparency also leads to public distrust, which community members mentioned time and time again throughout the superintendent search listening sessions. The school board has highlighted the importance of transparency and community engagement, particularly as part of the search for a new superintendent. It is our hope that any expanded transparency extends more broadly.
We believe the press plays a vital role in communicating with the public about the district, yet there are only a handful of reporters in Minneapolis who cover education full-time. We believe that having factual, accurate and timely information is essential for the public, who are the ultimate stewards of the district and its resources.
Given the lack of consistent public reporting about the district in recent years, we set out to develop a weekly newsletter to report on the district as a public service. As a small, virtual newsroom made up of part-time freelancers and a full-time community connector, we worked odd hours with time constraints due to the part-time nature of the job, but we are proud of the reporting we have done in the past eight months.
The lack of transparency and communication from the district made our jobs harder and deeply impacted the quality and quantity of our work.
Other reporters have noticed, too. On June 12, Minnesota Reformer reporter Deena Winter shared with MPR News that she had to go back and watch old school board meetings to "piece together what's going on" with the MPS budget because "the district, for some reason, didn't have time to talk to me about this topic."
The three main obstacles we have faced are access to district leaders and employees for interviews, slow responses to routine questions, and lack of response to routine questions. These obstacles have led to delays in sharing information with the public, or abandoning reporting on important topics altogether.
Access to sources
Education reporters typically can’t walk into a building and strike up a conversation with staff and students, which is how a lot of reporting is traditionally done. Some of Minneapolis Schools Voices’ best work was when we got to go inside schools and talk directly with teachers, families and administrators, like when we went to Hall STEM Academy to see the observatory, attended community engagement sessions about the superintendent search, or visited the spring showcase at Hmong International Academy.
It’s crucial that our stories are well-sourced with educators and MPS community members. District leaders and staff can provide valuable perspectives and information, too. But we often didn’t have access to the people we wanted to talk to.
The district’s communications department has repeatedly asked that any interview requests for district leadership, including principals, go through their communications department. In background interviews, sources told us the district asked them not to talk to the press without permission.
The district policy says that employees must direct interviews and requests for information to the communications department. The policy also says that “the students of the district are best served by a consistent, accurate and fully informed message about the district and its programs being shared with the public which builds broad-based confidence in and support of our school system.”
As journalists, our job is to “seek truth and report it” to the public, while communications professionals are invested in the district’s image. For example, the MPS Facebook page shows pictures of students smiling on field trips, graduation pictures and events and resources within the district. Our job as journalists is to report on the field trips and graduations as well as the impending budget crisis, lengthy school board meetings and potential school closures.
In a few instances, we quoted sources who were concerned about reprisal anonymously, meaning we knew their identity but agreed not to publish their names. Anonymous sources are often a last resort in journalism because they can lack credibility to an audience. Reporters more commonly agree to anonymously quote sources for issues of national security or high-profile issues, not for local education reporting; however, district leaders, board members, educators and parents have been the targets of harassment when they speak on the record in Minneapolis.
We continued to directly reach out to the people we wanted to talk to, although many wouldn’t talk without connecting with the district communications department. When we looped in the communications department, that was sometimes the last we heard back.
Working through these restrictions makes it more difficult to gather and report information. We aren’t alone in this experience reporting on the district. Both national and local reporting has made note of times that the district has declined to comment or make someone available for an interview.
As part of our reporting this year, we’ve requested to speak with Aimee Fearing, the Senior Academics Officer; Sarah Hunter, the Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives, Thom Roethke, the Budget Director; and Candra Bennett, the Senior Officer of Human Resources, among others. So far, these requests have been declined. Our reporting has missed out on important information about district academic initiatives, financial information and staffing because of a lack of access to sources.
The interviews we have been granted, including an August 2022 interview with Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox and Executive Director of Equity and Climate Derek Francis, interviews with four district principals over the course of the school year and the district adaptive athletics coach have included valuable information and perspectives for readers.
Going through the communications department often took longer and pushed our publication dates for many stories.
Without naming the specific reporting or inaccuracies, on Friday June 15, Minneapolis Public Schools sent an email to all employees, from Senior Officer of Finance and Operations, Ibrahima Diop, saying, in part, “I’ve noticed that many media sources have recently published stories about our budget, but not all of them are accurate. Our final budget resolution was updated after we received notice of new legislative dollars, so some people are working from our previous resolution with old numbers.”
At the same time, the district issued a press release sharing much of the same information as in the email to employees. Earlier in the week, Minnesota Reformer, KARE11, Star Tribune, KSTP, FOX9, and MPR, as well as our own outlet, published articles about the district’s finances. Missing from this coverage is any substantial interview or comment from district leadership.
Access to data and information
Through our reporting, we have worked to build a shared set of public facts about the district. We believe a shared set of facts among the district and stakeholders will reduce misinformation and disinformation, creating space for constructive dialogue. Obtaining facts is usually a simple task for reporters. But, reporting on MPS, it often felt like the district guarded facts.
Facts like dates, times and numbers, for example the number of middle school orchestras in the district, contribute to the accuracy of a story, and they bolster the information spread to communities. While dealing with district communications and employees, we regularly waited for days, weeks or are still waiting for answers to routine information requests. We were even told to submit public records requests for what we thought would be easily accessible information.
Below are some of the questions we have asked for this year that elicited a delayed or nonspecific response, were never answered or were asked to submit a data request:
- What are the climate goals for each school in their school improvement plan?
- How much ESSER funding has the district spent and how much is remaining? (The district told us to submit a public information request to obtain this information, on March 28. We received a response to that request more than two months later, on May 31.)
- How many students are on waitlists for each community school, broken down by students requesting an out of area placement, students requesting placement who live outside of MPS district boundaries, the number of students placed at each school out of area thus far, and the number of students open enrolled thus far?
- How many licensed teacher positions are there currently in district schools? How many ESP positions currently in district schools?
- Will the intervention triads be paid for using the designated "learning loss" pandemic aid?
Even tracking down information about pre-kindergarten classes proved to be a challenge. At the first regular board meeting in January, a group of district employees and a few parents spoke during public comments about the district’s proposal to move Hi-5 pre-kindergarten classes out of the Mona Moede early childhood center in North Minneapolis and into the district’s elementary schools.
We reached out via email to the district to ask how, when and with whom the district communicated that they planned to move these classes from Mona Moede. We also called Mona Moede and went through a chain of people who said they couldn’t talk to the media before being sent back to the district communications representative.
The communications representative responded to the email within an hour with a generic statement about Mona Moede. When we pressed for details about when and how the district announced the change, the representative pointed to a portion of the statement that said the announcement was made “earlier this year.”
In journalism, we avoid vague statements like “earlier” or “recently” and prefer to use exact dates for the sake of accuracy. The story about Mona Moede suffered because we could not provide details about the announcement.
We were working on a story about the MPS adaptive athletic teams at the same time as the Mona Moede story. Some of the emails about the Mona Moede story were in the same email thread as the adaptive athletics story. The representative quickly connected us with the coach of the adaptive athletics teams, and we interviewed him shortly after. The contrast between that communication and the questions about Mona Moede, which happened at the same time, stuck out because the adaptive athletics piece highlighted a positive side of the district.
Our job is to cover the district –positives and negatives included– not to make MPS look good.
We took a different approach to a story about fifth grade band at MPS. We started by reaching out to teachers through a connection we had from a previous story. This is a more traditional way of reporting that cuts out the third party of a communications department, making the process faster. After talking with three music teachers at the district, we had one unanswered question: which MPS middle schools have a band and which have an orchestra.
Some middle schools have the information either on their website or in the directory, but it isn’t standard across each school. Some schools have instrumental music teachers who teach band and orchestra. Other schools had references to an orchestra from a past year, but nothing current. We wanted accurate, up-to-date information to publish in the story.
We knew that most schools had bands and only a few had an orchestra, but we did not know the exact numbers or which school offered which ensemble, or both. At first, we called middle schools to ask what they offered. After talking with several secretaries, we got the feeling that they might not know the difference between band and orchestra. After voicing that concern to one of the instrumental music teachers, she quickly agreed that it’s common for people who haven’t played in an ensemble to confuse band and orchestra. She said that some of her students who play string instruments even say that they’re in band when they actually play in orchestra.
That same teacher connected us with an educator who facilitates instrumental music at the district, who the teacher was sure would know the answer to my question. We emailed that educator on March 15. After five days without a response, we sent another email repeating the question.
At this point, we had all the reporting needed to write the story besides the answer to this one remaining question about middle school band and orchestra. We pushed the story week by week because of this one remaining question.
Two weeks later with no response, we contacted the teacher who directed us to the instrumental music facilitator. They connected us with another program facilitator, who asked the same question about middle school band and orchestra. We clarified that that single question was the only query. She said she would nudge the other facilitator.
Two days after that interaction, the facilitator we had reached out to two weeks prior responded, saying “I am on Spring Break this upcoming week. Let’s connect in two weeks.”
We responded two minutes after that email repeating the question about middle school band and orchestra. They didn’t respond. We nudged the facilitator again after the break and never got a response.
At that point, we moved on from getting the information from the district. Again, the singular question we had was which MPS middle schools had band and which had orchestra. We ended up running the story with an approximation on how many ensembles exist in the district based on information on the websites, anecdotes from teachers and the phone calls to schools, and we clarified that the numbers were estimations.
The story was not nearly as poignant as it could’ve been because it didn’t have accurate information, and we delayed publication by at least a month because we couldn’t answer a singular question with a numerical, factual answer.
Timely sharing of routine data
Historically, the district has released a common set of data about its schools in a section of its website titled “student accounting.” The district delayed releasing much of this information last school year. That information has included monthly counts of enrollment by grade level and school; the race and ethnicity of students at schools, by grade level; the proportion of students in each school who qualify for special education, English learner or homeless and highly mobile services; the number of students that qualify for free or reduced price meals at each school; class size by grade level at each school; and counts of students at each school, by grade level, by the school students are zoned to attend compared to the school they attend.
This school year, the district chose to only release the enrollment counts and free and reduced price lunch data, so far.
This data was a way for reporters and the public to have basic facts about schools and students and compare trends over time within the district. Without this common set of facts, individual stakeholders are left to make assertions based on personal experiences, which may or may not be reflected in the data.
The community wants transparency
One experience that poetically displayed the lack of transparency at the district happened at a community listening session for the superintendent search at the Northeast Library in January.
At a community listening session in January at Northeast library, there were two current school board members and one former director at the session. Only three community members attended the session.
As the community members spoke with the facilitator, the board members sat at a separate table several feet away, hunched over and talking in hushed voices. Our reporter was seated near the community members, listening to their conversation with the facilitator.
One critique that the community members brought up several times was how they wanted more transparency and communication from the district. At the same time, the board members sat at a separate table, hunched over and talking in hushed voices. They didn’t interact with the community members during the discussion.
Midway through the conversation at the tables, the head facilitator told our reporter that the board members had said that they were uncomfortable with her, as press, sitting so close to the community members. Our reporter responded that the meeting was public, so she was going to continue to cover it. And she did.
It was ironic that the board directors, who didn’t listen to the community members voicing their desires for transparency and open communication with the district, were concerned about a reporter, whose job it is to communicate and inform the public, covering a public meeting. The situation was emblematic of a greater issue, which is that the district lacks transparency about MPS’ affairs from the number of middle school orchestras to the date of an email announcement to a massive data breach.
MPS’ transparency problem makes it harder for journalists to do their jobs, which in turn means the public is in the dark about what's happening within their own community.