What’s making news in Minneapolis, reported by the Star Tribune’s team of city reporters. Send news tips to suzanne.ziegler@startribune.com.

Posts about People and neighborhoods

District focuses spending on academic needs

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: June 10, 2014 - 8:25 PM

Minneapolis schools will increase spending by 6.3 percent in the budget year starting July 1, with major chunks going for lower class sizes in the district’s worst-performing schools, to expand specialized classrooms for recent immigrants and to build the district’s math and reading teaching.

The district plans to spend $775 million overall, or $46.5 million more than this year.  Much of that increase will go toward a building program aimed at kickstarting the district’s five-year plan to expand  or remodel buildings to hand more than 3,000 expected additional students.

In the core general fund that most directly affects classrooms and students, spending is up by $8.8 million or 3.1 percent, to $543 million. The board approved the budget unanimously, but for one absence.

One $2 million chunk is designed to lower K-3 class sizes in seven low-performing schools to 18 students per classroom. That’s a goal set in recent union negotiations but research suggests it’s not low enough to nudge student achievement upward on its own. The affected schools are Bethune, Lind, Laney, Hall, Hmong International, Green Central and Sheridan. There’s another $3 million reserved for putting out fires on class size bulges that often arise when students actually show up in August.  

Another $1.5 million will go toward added classrooms at Andersen and Sullivan schools to teach recent-arrival Somali immigrants, $3.5 million is to make sure all schools have at least a minimal program for students learning English, while another onetime sum of up to $5 million was added from budget reserves at the last minute for redesigned programs for students learning English.

That latter addition provoked some board discussion about how transparent such last-minute spending pushes are. The money will be used for such purposes as changes in assessing the skill levels of newcomer enrollees, and potentially to encourage teachers to add training in working with such students to their current teaching licenses.

“There were some issues we needed to address immediately; we couldn’t wait,” said board member Alberto Monserrate. But board member Josh Reimnitz said he’s concerned about how the last-minute addition occurred, and Tracine Asberry raised similar questions.  But Rebecca Gagnon said the change moves the district can respond quickly to community concerns.  Robert Doty, who heads district finances, said he’ll work to manage spending to attempt to offset what otherwise throws the district into an unbalanced budget.

The district is also committing more money to places where previous investments have paid off.  Those include the AVID program that attempts to prepare students on the cusp of being able to go to college to have a better chance to succeed, the Check & Connect program to reduce dropouts, and more money for engineering, math and science promotion programs.

There’s $9.2 million for specialists in math and reading who will both teach in classrooms alongside teachers, demonstrate added techniques and help schools raise their performance in these areas. That’s an approach the district used previously but let drop for several years in the case of reading.

Mpls shines at avoiding sewage overflows

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: June 6, 2014 - 5:19 PM

While some metro metro communities are blaming aging infrastructure for the discharge of raw sewage into area waters after heavy rains last weekend, the Hennepin County community with the oldest sewers didn’t spill a drop of sewage.

In fact, Minneapolis has had only two small sewage overflows since 2006.  Those 2010 discharges of 200,000 gallons pale in comparison to the 360 million gallons spilled in 1984.

The city’s stellar record is the result of a long and costly investment in separating its stormwater and sanitary sewers. The job isn’t done, but most of the heavy lifting was completed between 1960 and 1995.

“We’ve made amazing progress in separating our sewers, even relative nationwide to comparable cities,” said Kelly Moriarty, an engineering supervisor for the city.

Mound and the Metro Council were blaming each other in the wake of last weekend's rains for the pumping of untreated sewage into Lake Minnetonka.

In the old days, both sewers that carried stormwater and those carrying sewage emptied into the Mississippi River and other natural waters.  By the late 1930s, household and business sewage headed to the new Pigs Eye metro sewage plant.

New developments got dual piping to handle the two flows. But that left hundreds of miles of older streets where sewers still had combined roles. It wasn’t until a massive Minneapolis street reconstruction program that began in the 1960s that those older streets got separate storm drains. The city also worked to take out connections where sewage can cross from one pipe to another.  The separation accelerated after 1986, both under pressure from environmental regulators and because state and federal aid supplemented utility bills paid by customers. To preserve capacity, property owners also were required to disconnect downspouts from sewers, and property owners have been encourage to adopt practices to hold back rain flow..

Overflows can happen when it rains or there’s heavy snowmelt because excess water reaching waste sewers flows into storm sewers that head directly to the Mississippi.  When sewage pipes reach capacity, regulators divert waste flow into the river. Otherwise pipes would burst from pressure or sewage would back up into basements.

The job of separating sewers in Minneapolis is 95 percent done, but separating remaining links has gotten harder and the remaining fixes are the most expensive. However, that degree of separation is sufficient to eliminate all but rare overflows.  

(Photo: Workers for the city work at finding breaches and repairing the city's storm tunnels. Photos by Richard Sennott.)

Samuels, Minck give "reformers" a school ticket

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: June 3, 2014 - 9:04 PM

The race for two city-wide school board seats in Minneapolis suddenly got much more intriguing Tuesday with late filings by former Council Member Don Samuels and another candidate likely to be backed by those who style themselves school reformers.

Samuels and Andrew Minck filed on the last day to swell the field to seven candidates for the rwo seats to be filled. Also running are DFL endorsees Rebecca Gagnon, an incumbent, and Iris Altamirano, plus three lesser-known candidates, Ira Jourdain, Doug Mann, and Soren Sorensen.

Samuels had said several months ago that he was interested in filing, but only if he had a job that permitted him to spare the time needed to serve. He could not immediately be reched for comment.

Minck and Jourdain, competed for at-large DFL endorsement at the party's late April convention. Minck finished last and Jourdain finished third in balloting.

Minck is an administrator for Teach For America, a former charter school administrator and a onetime Teach For America teacher. Both he and Samuels are likely to draw support from the same backers who helped Josh Reimnitz set a spending record for a school race for a district seat in 2012. Samuels ran for mayor with a campaign plank of reforming schools.

One of the three district seats to be filled this election also got a contest when Jay Larson filed, joining Nelson Inz to seek the Nokomis area seat. Inz whipped Larson decisively for party endorsement. Inz is a charter school teacher, while Larson has been a parent activist at Lake Nokomis Community School and at the district level.

Unopposed for election are incumbent Jenny Arneson for an East Side seat, and newcomer Siad Ali for a seta in the city's eastern midsection.

Mpls. releases new principal assignments

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: June 3, 2014 - 5:25 PM

Five new principal assignments have been named in Minneapolis district schools, with the top jobs in 11 schools yet to be filled, in part due to an administrative reshuffle announced May 23.

The reassigned principals are Cheryl Martin, who moved from Kenwood to Bethune, replacing Melissa Jackson; Renee Montague, moving from Bryn Mawr to reopen Cityview; Karon Cunningham, moving middle schools from Olson to prepare for reopening Franklin in 2015; Merry Tilleson, moving from assistant principal for Lake Harriet’s upper campus to head the lower campus, and Jonathan Luknic, moving from coordinator of the Office of New Schools to Pillsbury.

The list of principal assignments is eagerly awaited by parents. It is being announced weeks later than normal this year.  That’s partly because the district just named four principals to the ranks of associate superintendent in a move designed to give people at that rank fewer schools on which to concentrate.  That leaves vacancies at Windom, Sullivan and Anthony schools.

The other schools where principals haven’t been named include South High School, perhaps the district’s biggest unresolved gap, Barton, Bryn Mawr, Harrison, Kenwood, Nellie Stone Johnson, Olson and Webster, which won’t open for 15 months.

The district hopes to announce a new South principal within a week, filling a vacancy created last August when Cecilia Saddler was made associate superintendent.  The district was able to cross another major principal vacancy off its list last month when it named Rhonda Dean to head Washburn High School; she is the sole principal so far to be hired from outside the district, although more still are possible.     

City can demolish north Minneapolis apartment building

Posted by: Alejandra Matos Updated: June 2, 2014 - 5:15 PM

A north Minneapolis apartment building that’s been vacant since it was damaged by a tornado in 2011 could soon be facing the wrecking ball.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the City of Minneapolis can forge ahead with plans to demolish the building, which has been at the center of a long-running battle between its owner and the city.

In its ruling, the court rejected Mahmood Khan's argument that the city's decision to demolish the building was arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable. Khan, the building's owner, also argued that he was not provided due process before the decision was made.

In an interview Monday, Khan said he had no comment because he had not reviewed the court's opinion and had not heard from his attorney.

At one point, Khan owned 50 buildings in Minneapolis' north side. Some have gone into foreclosure or faced demolition. In 2012, city records showed Khan's houses had racked up at least $112,654 in citations and vacant-building fees that he has paid, been assessed for or had pending against him. Those buildings had 712 police calls in the last 18 months. In 2012, police also rescued two runaway teens working as prostitutes in a house Khan owned.

The city ordered that the 11-unit apartment building at 2501 Golden Valley Road N. be demolished after telling Khan for two years that he needed to repair the building. The city stayed the demolition multiple times to allow Khan time to settle an insurance claim, get an assessment from the Historical Preservation Commission and get funding for the rehabilitation project.

But in April 2013, Council Member Don Samuels asked the City Council to strike down the stay of demolition because he said he spoke to developers who told him that Khan was asking for an unreasonable amount for the property's sale, and that rehabilitating the building was economically infeasible.

According to court documents, Samuels opined that there would "be no possible way" for Khan to rehabilitate or sell the property during the six-month stay. The City Council then voted unanimously to demolish the building immediately.

In an attempt to stop the demolition, Khan argued to the Court of Appeals that the City Council acted arbitrarily and capriciously for considering what Samuels brought up at the meeting.

The court said that Khan's argument had merit because "Samuels brought up evidence outside the administrative record." But the court said that did not require the Court of Appeals to reverse the city's decision.

The record indicates that the council would have acted reasonably by demolishing the building immediately, without imposing a stay, regardless of the complained-of hearsay report by Samuels," the court said.

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