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 Alejandra Matos, 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 Shannon Prather, who cover the north metro.

Edina school board authorizes May 5 referendum on a $125 million bond proposal

Posted by: Kim McGuire Updated: January 12, 2015 - 9:16 PM

The Edina school board on Monday authorized a May 5 referendum on a $125 bond proposal which calls for making upgrades at every school, building a new high school addition and a multi-purpose activities center.

The plan calls for reconfiguring classroom space at every building to create "flexible learning spaces", places where students can break off into small or large groups, and allow teachers to switch between working with students one-on-one or as a whole group.

"We know a one-sized classroom doesn't fit all learning styles," said Superintendent Ric Dressen.

About $31 million of the bond proposal would go toward building a new addition at the high school - a move that's being driven by the district's decision to move ninth grade students from the middle schools.

If approved by voters, a multi-purpose activities center would also be built at the high school. School leaders have said the building would be used for physical education classes, extra-curricular activities like robotics, and community events.

Where the district ultimately puts the activities center appears to be a growing source of contention among some residents who live off Creek Valley Road and worry about increased traffic and noise.

While school officials are discussing a number of siting options for both the addition and activities center, they say they can't make final decisions until after voters approve the bond request and the design phase begins.

School board members urged residents to be patient and stay engaged as the bond request moves forward.

"This is not the end of the discussion," said Cathy Cella about the board's decision to authorize the referendum.

The May 5 vote will mark the first time in more than a decade the Edina school district has asked voters for a tax increase to pay for facility upgrades. If approved, the owner of a $400,000 home would see an a tax increase of $27 a month, or about $324 annually.

Minneapolis school district to review credit card purchases

Posted by: Alejandra Matos Updated: January 12, 2015 - 9:55 AM

Minneapolis Public Schools will review its credit card purchasing practices over the next 30 days, according to an internal note CEO Michael Goar sent to employees.

The review comes in the wake of a Star Tribune article that found employees are using district credit cards for unauthorized purchases and have routinely failed to produce receipts.

"The school district’s policies must be obeyed and carried out by every MPS employee empowered to charge expenses on district-issued credit cards," Goar said. " For that reason, over the next 30 days, the district will continue to review our purchasing practices. We will also schedule reminder sessions for all qualified employees to assure that they understand the critical importance of following procedures, rules and regulations with regard to expenses."

In the past six months, 262 employees charged $1.5 million on district credit cards. Officials say the majority of those purchases were for necessary expenses, such as supplies and books, but thousands of dollars were also spent on food, travel and other expenses for the district’s leadership team.

As of Monday morning, there were no further details about the review, including how many transactions the district will be scrutinizing.

Goar also said the finance department will "conduct an assessment to determine if additional infractions to our purchasing policy need to be more explicitly identified and reported publicly."

South Washington County board member censured

Posted by: Anthony Lonetree Updated: January 11, 2015 - 6:07 PM

A South Washington County school board member has been censured by her colleagues after she reportedly admitted to disclosing private personnel data received from the district's law firm.

The 5-1 vote against Katy McElwee-Stevens came last Thursday and centered on the contents of a letter sent to board members by the law firm on Nov. 4, 2014.

Board Chairman Ron Kath, reading from a board resolution, did not identify the subject or subjects of the letter. But the correspondence was dated two days before the abrupt resignation of East Ridge High School Principal Aaron Harper -- who had been the target of allegations that triggered a district probe.

Kath said that McElwee-Stevens admitted in a Nov. 24 interview with a school district attorney that she made at least five statements to an unspecified individual involving elements of the letter. But, Kath added, McElwee-Stevens said "she did not think she was doing anything wrong" because she originally learned most of the information from another source.

"Ms. McElwee-Stevens knew, or reasonably should have known, the importance of maintaining confidentiality," Kath added. "Board members are expected to serve as role models and must adhere to all legal and ethical requirements. Ms. McElwee-Stevens failed to fulfill this expectation."

The board resolution censuring her also put McElwee-Stevens on notice that the board would initiate action to remove her if she were to engage in the same or similar conduct in the future.

Voting against the resolution was Board Member Katie Schwartz, who said she did not believe the penalty was severe enough.

McElwee-Stevens is a Newport resident who has worked with students with emotional behavior disorder. Twice, she received interim board appointments before finally winning election to a board seat in 2013.

Study shows that closing schools due to bad weather doesn't hurt student learning

Posted by: Kim McGuire Updated: January 8, 2015 - 4:10 PM

Schools that closed Wednesday due to dangerously cold wind chills got their fair share of dings from students and parents. For the record, so did schools that closed.

But did either decision hurt student learning?

A study published last year by researchers from Harvard University might shed some light on the question.

That study, conducted at the behest of the Massachusetts Department of Education, found that keeping schools open during a storm is more detrimental to learning than a school closure.

Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor in Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, looked at student data from 2003 to 2010 and discovered that snow days level the playing field in a sense. When some students are at school and some decide to stay home, that makes a difference, and not for the better.

"With slack time in the schedule, the time lost to closure can be regained," Goodman wrote. "Student absences, however, force teachers to expend time getting students on the same page as their classmates."

Goodman theorized that one reason closures are less detrimental is because schools typically plan for them and can tack on extra days in the schedule. They do not, however, make up days for other student absences.

Metro-area schools that opened Wednesday saw big spikes in absences, which were excused in most cases.

St. Paul Public Schools, for example, had only about half of its students show up for school. Schools in Farmington saw a similar number.

Other suburban schools experienced a range of 10 to 20 decline in attendance. Many school administrators reported that attendance was down earlier in the week due to student illnesses including the flu.

Photo by Aaron Lavinsky

Students leaving Central High School in St. Paul on Wednesday. Photo by Aaron Lavinsky

Hill-Murray's first principal dies at 81

Posted by: Anthony Lonetree Updated: January 6, 2015 - 3:05 PM

After winning two independent state hockey championships, Hill-Murray High School finally joined the state high school league in 1974-75, and in that first year, entered state tournament play with a team led by future NCAA champion Rod Romanchuk and Olympic Gold Medalist Steve Janaszak.

Arguably its first great tournament moment, however, came a year later when senior winger Mike Hurt scored in overtime to lift the Pioneers over Minneapolis Southwest in the 1976 quarterfinals, triggering a massive on-ice celebration and cuing a robust run through the school's fight song.

"Hail the Pioneers to victory" was the song's key refrain, and leading the band in his signature green jacket was Frank Asenbrenner, the school's principal, who was deeply familiar with the tune -- having been its composer.

On Dec. 31, Asenbrenner died at age 81, and although he'd been retired for many years, Hill-Murray closed on Monday for his funeral.

A one-time band director at St. Agnes High, Asenbrenner took over as principal at the former Archbishop Murray High, an all-girls institution, before its merger in 1971 with the all-boys Hill High. At 6 feet 4 inches, he was a formidable presence at the school, but was known more for an energetic, friendly demeanor. It was not uncommon to see Asenbrenner at the door greeting students in the morning.

"I thought it was important that they see their leader -- to be out and visible, not off in a corner," he told the Star Tribune in 1997. At the time, his wife Margaret Asenbrenner, who since has died, marveled at his ability to handle so many responsibilities at once.

"He's just like a juggler, all the balls up in the air at one time, keeping them going," she said. "It's a gift."

Known as "Mr. A," Asenbrenner retired from school administration in 1991 -- but not before again hearing several full-throated renditions of the song he wrote. In 1991, the hockey team captured its second state title, and the coach that year was Jeff Whisler, a center on the first two tournament teams of the 1970s.

Asenbrenner is survived by eight children, all of whom played in the Hill-Murray band, and 16 grandchildren. In his obituary notice, the family preferred memorials to the Frank & Margaret Asenbrenner Education Fund, 2625 Larpenteur Av. E., Maplewood, Minn., 55109.

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