From classroom trends to school board decisions, Class Act will keep you updated on all the school issues followed by the Star Tribune’s education reporters. Contributors include Steve Brandt, who covers Minneapolis; Kim McGuire, who covers the west metro; Erin Adler, who covers the south metro; Anthony Lonetree and Libor Jany, who cover St. Paul and the east metro, and Paul Levy and Shannon Prather, who cover the north metro.

Missing board member raises WMEP issues

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: June 19, 2014 - 1:21 PM

Since his appointment to the board of a west metro school integration district, John Solomon has been missing in action more often than not.

Minutes of board meetings for the West Metro Education Program show that Solomon missed 18 of 26 meetings since he was named Brooklyn Center’s representative to the integration board.

Solomon said this week that he’s planning to ask the Brooklyn Center board, on which he also serves, to name a replacement. But the attendance issue highlights a bigger complaint made by dissident parents about the board of WMEP, which operates two arts-focused schools in Minneapolis and Crystal that go by the name of FAIR. They say it’s out of touch, a charge disputed by Vice Chair Julie Sweitzer.

"I think that the board has been quite engaged with the FAIR schools," Sweitzer said. The parent-teacher group demurred.

“Time and again, [joint powers board] members demonstrate, for whatever reason, that they are uniformed about many issues connected to WMEP,” the parents said in a cover letter to a dossier they last week asked the board to review.  The dossier covered alleged misdeeds by the district’s sole principal, Kevin Bennett, whom they want the board to fire.

Part of the group’s frustration is that the WMEP board doesn’t have the normal accountability to parents that marks most school boards.  That’s because the boards of the 10 member suburban districts and Minneapolis each appoint one WMEP board member. So parents typically get to vote for or against only the board member who runs in the school district where they live. And in Minneapolis, since the school board’s  WMEP representative, Kim Ellison, is elected form a North Side district, only one-sixth of that city's voters get a vote for or against her.

A set of recommendations to the WMEP board from two ex-superintendents of WMEP member  districts,  Ken Dragseth of Edina and Toni Johns of Brooklyn Center, noted that parents want more involvement in the board’s proceedings. The consultants recommended a parent advisory group meet monthly with WMEP’s top administrator and at least two board members.

The ex-superintendents also found that the format of the board hampered its supervision. Board members are appointed by the boards of their home districts and seven of 11 board members turned over at the start of the year.  That has slowed the board’s decision-making process on other major questions posed in the report by the consultants. One remedy would be to stagger the expiration of terms on the WMEP board.

Major questions hanging over the board include whether member districts remain committed to WMEP membership for the next three to five years or whether the district should fold, whether it should operate its two schools or shift them to another operator, and whether the district needs a full time superintendent and principal for a district of just over 1,000 students. (Besides running the schools, WMEP also provided training to teachers in its member districts and programs for some of their 99,000 students).

Those questions are necessary to answer before the WMEP board decides whether to hire a new superintendent to replace departing Daniel Jett. But the consultants said board turnover “can leave open a steady influx of members who have little knowledge of WMEP, its history and vision. This can lead to the [joint powers board] by lack of knowledge of WMEP relying more and more on staff to set the direction of WMEP instead of the JPB.”

Gregg Corwin, an attorney representing some parents and teachers dissatisfied with the district’s leadership, put it more bluntly. “Most of the board members are new and have no idea what the history is,” he said.

That’s also true if board members don’t show up.  Several times in the last two years, the board has had only a scant quorum of six of its 11 members show.  Solomon said time conflicts posed by his job as a child protection social worker for Hennepin County account for his many absences. Brooklyn Center board Chair Cheryl Jechorek said she was unaware of Solomon’s absenteeism. “I’ll talk to him,” she said.

But by the time that the Star Tribune reached Solomon, he said: “I’m preparing to ask them to have someone sit in my place.”

The WMEP board last week authorized its leaders to negotiate a contract for former Brooklyn Center superintendent Keith Lester to serve as interim superintendent for the next year. Lester brings the advantage of being familiar with WMEP because superintendents of member districts previously served on the WMEP board.   

Still, Sweitzer noted, in a remark sparked by Solomon’s absence: “It’s unfortunate that our Brooklyn Center representative isn’t here.”

(Photo: Third graders Curtis Hatcher, left, and Kashawn Pierce read their book while their classmates worked independently in their classroom at FAIR School in 2012.)

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