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.

Charter school acknowledges "historic" union vote

Posted by: Anthony Lonetree Updated: June 12, 2014 - 11:51 AM

Barring a finding that people were coerced in voting, the Community School of Excellence announced it would abide by what it described as a "historic unionization vote" by employees Wednesday.

"The union campaigned on the theme, 'Say Yes to CSE Success!' and we trust that the union and all our employees will go forward together with commitment and dedication to our mission," Superintendent Mo Chang said in a statement released late Wednesday night.

The St. Paul school becomes the second unionized charter school in the state.

The vote to form a union affects all of the school's approximately 120 employees, and comes nearly a year after the state Department of Education shed light on management issues at the North End area school by calling for an investigation into the alleged misuse of funds as well as allegations that it engaged in retaliatory employment practices.

An independent investigation depicted a tense working environment in which employees were fearful of disagreeing with Chang. She survived a call for her dismissal.

The K-8 school, which teaches Hmong culture and language, has seen remarkable growth. This spring, it had 958 students -- more than five times the number when it opened in 2007.

The run-up to Wednesday's vote had been contentious, with Education Minnesota filing six charges of unfair labor practices against the school.

Board Chairwoman Patti Hessling said in Wednesday's statement: "We believe the charges are without merit and will defend them if they are not withdrawn."

Wednesday's vote now awaits certification by the National Labor Relations Board. The next step, then, would be contract bargaining.

"I've often said a union contract is like the First Amendment for educators," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said Wednesday. "It permits them to speak out without fear about what's happening in their schools. Those conversations are vital for keeping families engaged and schools focused on preparing students for successful lives."

WMEP parents, teachers seek principal ouster

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: June 11, 2014 - 8:34 PM

An attorney representing multiple parents and teachers Wednesday evening asked the school board of a west metro integration district to fire its sole principal after submitting a dossier about Kevin Bennett to the board that alleges multiple misdeeds.

The request is the culmination of 18 months of turmoil in the arts-oriented West Metro Education Program that directly educates just over 1,000 students but offers programs for thousands of other students and teachers at 10 suburban member districts plus Minneapolis.

The turmoil began in early 2012 when Principal Kevin Bennett was put on leave and later suspended for two days for several infractions, including using his position to date several subordinates. The upheaval continued with Superintendent Daniel Jett soon placed on leave and later reinstated without discipline, only to resign at the start of the school year effective June 30.

Meanwhile, more than half of WMEP’s board turned over this year, and it’s now examining whether the district should continue, whether it should operate schools, whether it needs a superintendent, and whether it needs to revamp academic leadership.

The dossier assembled for board members suggests that the board is out of touch with what’s happening in the schools and suggests a number of transgressions by Bennett. They include accusations that he’s had multiple affairs with staff members, that staff of the district’s downtown Minneapolis and Crystal schools have difficulty locating him during the workday, that he's lost the confidence of students and staff, and that he promoted a business of his while at a national principals conference to which the district paid his attendance. Bennett has not responded to multiple Star Tribune requests for comment, and walked away from a reporter Wednesday.

"These problems continue and they're serious," Corwin told the eight of 11 board members who attended. Teachers say the turmoil is driving their peers to teach elsewhere, including the president of the faculty union.

The list of accusations was assembled behind the protection of attorney Gregg Corwin, whose retainer is being paid by a group of about 10 staff and parents, several of whom are active in leadership of the district's two schools.the school’s leader. Most opted to remain anonymous, fearing retribution.

“Parents are afraid for their kids. Teachers are concern for their jobs and they’re concerned that they’ll be called racist because [Bennett's] African-American,” Corwin said in an interview.

The dossier represents a stunning turnaround for Bennett, who was named Minnesota’s 2012 middle school principal of the year.

A teacher union survey conducted in 2013 documents a massive disaffection among teaching staff. For example, it found that 87 percent of teachers disagreed with the statement that their principal treated all employees fairly, up from 25 percent in 2011.

One award-winning young WMEP teacher now teaching in another district said in a statement included in the dossier that Bennett played favorites, especially favoring young, attractive female teachers. “KB is a terrible leader and the last person that should be in charge of a school,” said Erin Aulik, the former teacher.

Parents complained that the impact of Bennett’s entanglements with selected female staffers eventually drew scorn among older students. The district had a program oriented toward students that urged them to think responsibly, respectfully and safely, urging them to think twice. “A tweet currently circulating amongst students is, ‘I guess Mr. Bennett didn’t think twice,’ ” wrote Bob Aldrich, who has been an officer in the parent-teacher group. “I had a parent of a fourth grader tell me their child now knows all about adultery. They learned it at school.”

Some parents complain that the board is disengaged with school issues and Jett hasn’t held Bennett accountable. “What does it teach our kids? That right or wrong, it’s no big deal? That rules don’t really matter? That if you’re in charge, you can behave with impunity? What messages might boys internalize, what about girls,” parent Kristin Parker Clay asked the board last year.

Jett also did not respond to requests for comment. Board Vice Chair Julie Sweitzer said Wednesday, “I think the board has been quite engaged with the [WMEP] schools.” She said that any information submitted will be given “serious attention,” but added, “I am not going to talk about any individual employee.”

Complaints involving Bennett have been submitted to the state Board of School Administrators three times. Antoinette Johns, the interim WMEP leave while Jett was on leave, said she referred Bennett’s suspension to the state board. Last August, some parents requested in a letter that the board revoke Bennett’s principal license. Recently, a parent whose daughter was listed on a student Web page singling out “ugliest” WMEP students said she asked the board to investigate what she said was Bennett not following district policy on cyberbullying.

Janet Mohr, the board’s administrator, said it has not taken any disciplinary action involving Bennett that meets the statutory threshold allowing disclosure.

Among other issues, the dossier highlighted rising spending by the district on lawyers, while some faculty and parents have complained of cutbacks in arts programming. Parents also raised issues of whether Bennett's business interests have distracted him, and note that a district employee has been listed as one of his business employees.

Meanwhile, the WMEP board on Wednesday authorized the hiring of Keith Lester, former Brooklyn Center superintendent, from three finalists for interim superintendent to lead the district while member districts reassess their commitments to WMEP and the board decides whether it will continue to operate schools and other programs. Lester formerly was a WMEP board member when superintendents of member districts joined representatives of member school boards on the WMEP board.

One issue for p[arents has been that unlike voter in traditional districts, they can't elect the entire WMEP board. Some get to vote on all members from their home district, one of whom serves on the WMEP board, but that's not always true in Minneapolis, which elects a majority of its members from smaller districts.

(Photo above: Kevin Bennett)

Union vote set at St. Paul charter school

Posted by: Anthony Lonetree Updated: June 9, 2014 - 8:47 PM

The Community School of Excellence, hit last year by allegations it misused funds and engaged in retaliatory employment practices, could soon become the second unionized charter school in the state.

Teachers and other employees are scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to form a union at the school, a magnet for St. Paul's Hmong families -- with 958 students enrolled last week.

In February, staff members contacted Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, about organizing a union. The move came after the state Department of Education called for an investigation into allegations against the school and its superintendent, Mo Chang, and about a month before two teachers filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming that white employees had been subjected to retaliation and discrimination, among other concerns.

The school has denied the teachers' allegations.

Of the move to organize, Education Minnesota president Denise Specht said in a statement Monday: "The educators at the Community School of Excellence want respect and a stronger voice in their school so they can improve the quality of education for their students. Those are important goals and Education Minnesota is ready to help those educators achieve them."

Chang could not be reached to comment.

In a statement Monday night, school board Chairwoman Patti Hessling said that the school did not believe a union would add to its success or provide an answer to its challenges.

"But the school respects the protected rights of its employees to make a free choice about union representation as well as to engage in other ways of working together for their mutual benefit without a union present," she added. "We believe that we can achieve best results for our students and our staff by working together directly."

Last summer, the state Department of Education asked the school's authorizer, Concordia University, St. Paul, to investigate reports of misused federal food funds and other allegations.

The independent investigation substantiated claims that Chang improperly directed staff members to enter or have students enter lunch codes for meals that were not eaten and encouraged staff to not report suspected cases of child abuse.

While some complaints were unsupported, the report concluded that Chang had threatened staffers and created an environment where workers were afraid to disagree with her.

But the school board succeeded in fending off Concordia's request to dismiss Chang.

The unionization vote is a "wall-to-wall" vote, meaning all employees, from teachers to cooks to education assistants, would be part of the same bargaining unit, Education Minnesota said.

The school has about 120 staff members.

Earlier this year, 25 teachers at Twin Cities German Immersion School, which also is in St. Paul, gave 80 percent support to forming a union, making it the state's sole unionized charter school.

Minnesota's first charter school, City Academy in St. Paul, was union-represented initially, but no longer is due to a reorganization.

Absent guest of honor has a good excuse

Posted by: Pamela Miller Updated: June 5, 2014 - 3:22 PM

The retiring Anoka-Hennepin superintendent will be skipping a gala in his honor Thursday night, but the head of Minnesota’s largest school district isn’t playing hooky.

Dennis Carlson, below, who was to be honored at the event in Andover, was in Woodstock, N.Y., to celebrate the birth of his grandson, Gideon Lee Carlson Cook. Gideon entered the world at 11:35 p.m. Wednesday, weighing 8 pounds, 11 ounces. Both baby and grandfather are reportedly doing fine.

Carlson and his wife, Edee, were in upstate New York for more than two weeks, waiting with their daughter, Annie, for the big event.

Plans were for Tom Heidemann, chairman of the Anoka-Hennepin school board, to speak on Carlson’s behalf on Thursday,
PAUL LEVY

Governor Dayton dishes on new plan to provide free meals to hungry Minnesota students

Posted by: Kim McGuire Updated: June 4, 2014 - 12:08 PM

Governor Mark Dayton served breakfast to students at Morris Bye Elementary in Coon Rapids, taking time to dish on state's recent investment of $4 million in school lunch and breakfast programs.

State lawmakers approved legislation that includes $3.5 million for the school lunch program to help ensure 61,000 low-income students have access to healthy meals at lunchtime.

It also provides $569,000 for an imitative that guarantees 64,000 kindergarten students will be provided a free breakfast.

“We cannot expect our students to succeed on empty stomachs,” said Governor Dayton. “Healthy meals are crucial to our students’ achievements. I thank Senator Alice Johnson, Representative Jerry Newton, Senator Jeff Hayden, and Representative Yvonne Selcer for passing this very important measure.”

Dayton was joined at Morris Bye by Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius,as well as Senator Alice Johnson and Representative Jerry Newton.

"When a child is hungry, they have a difficult time learning and concentrating in school," Johnson said. "Studies show a nutritious breakfast will reduce absenteeism, help close the achievement gap and increase graduation rates.

The new initiatives follow a January report from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that showed 46 school districts had policies that denied students lunches if they could not pay for it.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that 138 Minnesota schools were eligible under a provision of new federal law that would make it easier for low-income families to apply for free or reduced price lunches.

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