In the first of what is likely to be several meetings on the topic of district reorganization, the Minneapolis Public Schools board of education spent almost two hours with facilitator Betty Jo Webb on April 25 with a single agenda item labeled “School Transformation Discussion.”
The district is using school or district transformation to mean a reorganization plan that is likely to include school closures or consolidations.
At the Committee of the Whole meeting, school board chair Sharon El-Amin described the term, saying, “I think of this work as transformation because I understand that both our long-range financial situation, as well as what must be done to better serve our students, especially students of color, calls for a significant shift in how we operate and how we deliver the educational experience.”
El-Amin opened the meeting noting that the goal for the evening was for the board to share its values and non-negotiables with district administration.The board would not be getting into any specifics about future school closings and consolidations, El-Amin said.
Rather than sitting at the dais as typical, the board sat in a u-shape at tables. There were two rows of tables where members of the district administration were seated.
El-Amin opened the discussion by acknowledging the district’s financial challenges.
“For years our superintendent and finance team have articulated that our current structure is not sustainable. And, we have just one more year of the federal COVID relief funding to bridge us,” El-Amin said. “Progress will be made at the Capitol this year, but it’s not going to provide a total solution.”
El-Amin said that the process the board is beginning “will likely mean looking at every aspect of the organization, including how we use facilities, staffing, services, enrollment, and the number of schools and programs.”
Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox said she and district administration were there to listen to the board.
“We stand ready to provide necessary data and information, as well as historical context and learnings from others who have done this work before us over the decades,”Cox said. “Many of us have been through different reorganizations. And have learned about what's worked and where we could have done better.”
Before discussion began, Director Ira Jourdain, who represents District 6, interjected. Jourdain said he felt like the board had spent the previous twenty minutes not discussing anything of substance, describing the discussion as “fluff.”
“I thought this was about school transformation. This seems like a training,” Jordain said.
Jourdain said the community would tune out the discussion, noting that this happened during the process of the Comprehensive District Design. He said that once the board began the process of actually making substantive decisions as part of the CDD, the community was no longer engaged and then felt like the board had not communicated what it was doing.
“If I was a parent watching this, I probably would have turned it off by now,” Jordain said. “I think most people would just like to hear us get down to business.”
Webb said she had conversations with El-Amin and the board's vice chair, Colin Beachy, to set up the process for this meeting. Webb said the discussion was meant to “set the context” for the work ahead.
The board split into small groups to discuss three questions:
- What are some critical concepts that must be included in understanding what we mean by “district transformation”?
- What do we wish to stay true to in our journey to “district transformation”?
- What do you want to stay true to in linkages with the community in “district transformation”?
After three minutes of discussion, Webb asked someone from each group to summarize what had been said. Board members brought up values around community engagement, inclusivity, and transparency, but avoided specifics about what sorts of data or information might guide their decision process.
During the report back, variations of the term community were used over 70 times, while transparency was mentioned more than 20 times. Academics was mentioned six times and finances just four times.
Webb closed the discussion by noting that district staff had been taking notes on what the board members shared in their summaries. The next step, Webb said, is for the administration to take their notes from the discussion, and come back to the board with a definition of “school transformation” for the board to review. At a later point, Webb explained, the board will begin to take action but did not specify when this would happen or what actions would be taken.
The meeting didn’t include any information from district administration, as is typical in committee of the whole meetings. Typically, board members speak into microphones during meetings so that they can be heard by those in the room, and so that their comments can be translated into Spanish, Somali and Hmong. During the small group discussions, board members were not on microphone. The public was only privy to the summaries provided after the small group discussions.
In further departure from past practices, there were no materials provided to the public in advance of the meeting. Typically, meeting agendas and discussion materials are posted around noon on Fridays before Tuesday meetings. While this practice is not required by open meeting laws, it has facilitated transparency with the community about the board’s business.
This is the third conversation Webb has facilitated for the board this year. Before becoming a consultant, Webb worked for Minneapolis Public Schools as a social worker, principal and associate superintendent. She retired from the district in 1999. Webb first met with the board in a six-hour long board training and retreat on January 28, and came back on March 7 to facilitate a Committee of the Whole meeting.
Webb will return on May 2 to facilitate another board training and retreat. The meeting is open to the public. It will take place in a conference room on the fifth floor of the Davis Center at 5 p.m. Unlike meetings in the boardroom, the conference room does not have the technology for streaming or simultaneous translation. At the January board retreat in the conference room, audio was not amplified.
At its January retreat, several board members expressed concerns about how the board could engage in dialogue, coordination, and relationship-building given the requirements of Minnesota’s open meeting laws. The retreat took place after the board voted to delay the search for a new superintendent, which appeared to catch some members unaware.
In response to these concerns, Webb advised the board that it cannot shield its work from the public, even when it comes to sensitive topics, like school closures or district finances.
“You should be meeting in public. You are public servants,” Webb told the board at the January retreat.
The district is only in the second school year of implementation of the CDD, which was passed by the school board in May 2020. That reorganization changed the district’s magnet schools, placement policies and school boundaries. Previously, the district undertook a reorganization in 2009 called Changing School Options, which was a response to a significant decline in enrollment after the “Choice Is Yours” desegregation program was implemented in 2000.
In between the two districtwide reorganizations, the district went through a period of making changes to a few schools each year, changing grade formats, re-opening shuttered buildings, and moving around magnet programs. Those annual tweaks came to an end in 2016 when former Superintendent Ed Graff was hired.