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School reform group lags on registration

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: October 31, 2014 - 1:12 PM

The reformer-backed political fund that brought major new money into the Minneapolis school board elections didn't follow Hennepin County campaign law when it began handling money.

That's resulted in a complaint that the county's election office has forwarded to the county attorney's office for review. The election office hasn't yet disclosed who filed it.

Daniel Sellers, listed as chair of the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, admits that his group erred in not filing its campaign registration within the 14-day window required after raising or spending $100.

Sellers said Friday that the failure to file on time was an honest mistake, and that as soon as he discovered the omission he was at the county election office with the required filing the following Monday.

But the failure to file meant that campaign material was already appearing in mailboxes across Minneapolis from a group listed on the mailer but not on file with the county. It's not as if the fund's officers had no experience with campaigns and filing requirements; treasurer Seth Kirk chaired the campaign committee for the 2012 re-election campaign of board member Carla Bates.

According to the fund, it got an in-kind donation of staff work from the 50CAN Action Fund worth $438.04 on Aug. 31, meaning that a registration with the county was due by mid-September. The first cash contribution was from former Piper Jaffray CEO Addison Piper of Medina, who donated $1,000 on Sept. 2,

Sellers is also chair of the 50CAN fund, which also spent more than $6,000 in support of electing Josh Reimnitz to the board in 2012.  Piper contributed to 50CAN that year as well. Sellers also heads MinnCAN, the Minnesota affiliate of 50CAN, an education reform advocacy nonprofit.

There's also a difference between the finance forms submitted by Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund and Students For Education Reform Action Network Fund. The latter fund shows a contribution of $10,638 on Aug. 11 from the Progressive Education Fund, which would trigger an even earlier registration date . But the Progressive Education group lists the contribution as occurring on Sept. 29.

Sellers said the August date was the date of an invoice but that it wasn't paid until the latter date. Ginny Gelms, who runs the county election office, said it's up to attorneys to determine which action triggers a registration deadline.

Despite a name suggesting a student group, the SFER fund lists former Minneapolis school board member Chris Stewart as chair. It has been criticized by some union teachers as an "astroturf" entity, a perjorative term implying a false pose as a grassroots group. 

The Progressive Education group reported $228,300 in contributions, which has sparked controversy, since almost all of the cash cash originated outside Minneapolis. It has supported Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano as at-large candidates in Tuesday's board election.

(Photo above: Daniel Sellers.  

State raids Community Action of Minneapolis; employees laid off

Posted by: Alejandra Matos Updated: September 26, 2014 - 11:59 AM

Community Action of Minneapolis laid off its employees and is no longer accepting energy assistance applications after state officials raided its offices Friday morning.

About a dozen Department of Commerce and Department of Human Services officials, including its lead auditor, showed up as the nonprofit organization was opening its doors, warrant in hand, to obtain all of the organization's financial records.

The Star Tribune first reported Sunday that a new state audit concluded that leaders of the organization misspent more than $800,000 on trips, golf, spa visits and even a personal car loan for its chief executive.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said these practices contributed to poor outcomes for the agency’s clients.

“Our first priority must be to ensure that low-income people in Minneapolis and other parts of Hennepin County are getting the help they need,” Jesson said. “The state’s action will make sure these Minnesotans have services that will help their families improve their lives and ensure basic needs are met, especially with the cold winter months around the corner.”

Gov. Mark Dayton supported the action by the two agencies.

“The governor believes the Departments of Commerce and Human Services are acting properly," said Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson.

The state immediately ended all contracts with the organization and vowed to collect any misspent tax money.

Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman is working to ensure those who need heating assistance will get it. 

“The Commerce Department has taken the urgent steps necessary to ensure Minneapolis residents get heating and weatherization assistance as winter approaches,” said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “We are immediately transitioning the Energy Assistance and Weatherization Programs from Community Action of Minneapolis to neighboring community action agencies. This will preserve our services to Minneapolis residents.”

Community Action chief executive Bill Davis could not immediately be reached for comment. The organization provides weatherization, heating assistance and career counseling.

Minnesota Community Action Partnership, the umbrella group for the state's community action organizations, said the raid is a crucial and needed turning point.

“Local Community Action agencies are good government institutions," said Arnie Anderson, head of Minnesota Community Action Partnership. "Now, we can get this fixed. It will be better than ever. “ 

By 11 a.m., Community Action of Minneapolis employees were told to go home.

"We've been laid off," said Leslie Powell, a staffer. "I walk to work every day and I care about my community."

Staff posted a sign on Community Action's window saying they would not be taking energy assistance applications until further notice.

Cedric Gibbs and Anita Nunn had their energy assistance application in hand when they saw the sign.

Gibbs is disabled and has received assistance in the past.

Anita Nunn also showed up to complete her application.

"I should have brought everything with me," Nunn said. "Yesterday they acted like everything was okay."

Debate over first black teacher in Minneapolis School District

Posted by: Randy Furst Updated: May 2, 2014 - 4:14 PM

A debate has emerged over who was the first black school teacher in the Minneapolis School District.

On Thursday, the Star Tribune wrote a front page story about Bertha M. Smith, who died April 18.

The story quoted Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis superintendent of schools, calling Smith “a pioneer in education in Minneapolis.” Johnson stated that “As the first African-American hired as a teacher in Minneapolis public schools, she (Smith)  broke down barriers and enabled our students, regardless of their race, to see themselves reflected in their teachers and school staff.”

The day the article ran, Joy Bartlett, who lives in Nevada, called to say that while Bertha Smith was an excellent teacher, Bartlett’s mother, Mary Jackson Ellis, was the first black teacher hired by the Minneapolis school district. Ellis died in 1975 at the age of 57.

We went to the newspaper’s morgue, where old newspaper clippings are filed, and found a two-inch article with the headline “Negro Teacher for Kindergarten Named” that had been published on Sept. 19, 1947 in the Minneapolis Star Journal, a forerunner to The Star, and then the Star Tribune.

The article says, “Appointment of Mrs. Mary Jackson Ellis, 4113 Fourth Ave. S., as kindergarten teacher in Hawthorne Elementary School, Twenty fourth avenue and Sixth street N., was announced today by the board of education. It said Ellis was “the first Negro teacher to be employed in the city school system on a fulltime basis in 35 years.

On Thursday, the Star Tribune contacted the school district which said it would look into the matter. A spokesman called back to say, “To the best of our knowledge, Bertha Smith is still the first black hired by the district.”

The Star Tribune, in its Thursday article, quoted civil rights activist Ron Edwards saying that Nellie Stone Johnson, a civil rights leader, and Cecil Newman, publisher of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a black newspaper, put pressure on the district to hire Smith.

Bartlett had a similar account. She said that Newman had learned that the district had refused to hire Ellis and called Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey. The two men visited the superintendent of schools and Newman said that if the district did not hire Ellis, he was going to go to press at 2 p.m. with an article stating that she had not been hired because she was black. The district relented and hired Ellis, Bartlett said.

Minneapolis teachers positioned for 2 percent annual raises

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 4, 2014 - 7:37 PM

Minneapolis teachers would earn at least 2 percent increases for this year and next under a proposed labor deal that has yet to be acted on by either side.

"It's pretty much what the board was comfortable with," said Rebecca Gagnon, who chairs the school board's finance committee.

Those increases represent salary scale adjustments, before any additional money a teacher would earn from moving up the pay scale for additional experience or education.  The district negotiated cutbacks in the rate at which a teacher gains those increases in the current contract.

That pay raise would be the first general increase in the cost of living granted to teachers in at least four years. However, many teachers saw their pay increase by $3,090 in the last contract in exchange for increasing the length of the school year by four days and the non-teaching part of their school day by 15 minutes.

The size of the salary hike is the only concrete detail to emerge since a tentative agreement was announced Saturday night. The district said Tuesday it doesn't plan to release terms until at least after the board considers the deal in private next Tuesday, and then only if it finds the deal satisfactory. In contrast, the St. Paul district and its teacher union released a summary of highlights three days after reaching a deal. That two-year contract included a general increases of 2.25 percent and 2 percent.

The Minneapolis board doesn't expect to vote on the proposal until sometime in April, after a teacher vote the district said it expects to be held during the first week of April after spring break. That couldn't be confirmed with the teacher federation immediately.

The size of the raises was disclosed, perhaps inadvertently, when a member of a board committee sought assurance that they would fit within next year's proposed $541 million budget.

Minneapolis teachers are paid an average salary of $65,224 this school year, according to data posted by the Minnesota Department of Education. That's third highest in the state, behind St. Paul's $65,840 and $67,848 in the Rosemount district. A district's average is affected not only by its salary scale, but also by the relative level of experience and education of its teaching staff.

The current Minneapolis pay scale starts a teacher with a bachelor degree and no teaching experience at $39,147, and tops out at just under $98,000, a level that few teachers reach.

Minneapolis police adding new online crime-mapping tool

Posted by: Updated: February 6, 2014 - 9:44 AM

By Meghan Holden

Police are adding a new online crime-mapping tool that will update daily and allow residents to see where crime is happening.

The RAIDS Online website allows users to search for different types of crime in specific areas of the city and report anonymous tips.

The tool also includes demographic data, like the median age, household income and population density of an area.

More than two dozen cities and counties in the state already use the tool.

Police will hold a news conference Thursday morning at City Hall to instruct residents how to use the tool. 

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