Mahmoud gets two boosts

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 11, 2012 - 9:09 PM

Two schools get awards, while an official sees no need to repay grant.

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Eric Mahmoud

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Charter school entrepreneur Eric Mahmoud got a double dose of good news Tuesday.

First, the Minnesota Business Partnership added another laurel wreath to the North Side school administrator's collection by citing two of his schools with its Minnesota's Future Award for their standardized test results with low-income black students.

Second, Legislative Auditor James Nobles announced that a defunct school whose board Mahmoud once led doesn't have to repay the state any of the $6.2 million grant used to build its facilities more than a decade ago.

Mahmoud said via e-mail that his schedule was too packed to allow him to respond immediately.

The award by an organization representing the state's largest employers was the first to go to Minneapolis schools since it was established in 2006. Most previous metro awards by the group have gone to St. Paul schools, with one to Columbia Heights. The award brings $30,000 to Harvest Prep and Best Academy. A third Mahmoud-run charter school, Mastery Academy, just opened on the Olson Highway campus under contract with the Minneapolis School District.

The legislative auditor's opinion came after the Minnesota Department of Education referred the matter to Nobles following an internal review of the 1999 grant of $6.2 million. The money was to build living quarters for students on SEED Daycare's campus.

The department raised the long-dormant issue of whether the state was due any money for the short-lived residential school called Synergy Academy, brainchild of former Gov. Arne Carlson. Nobles said that SEED leased space to Synergy because the latter institution wasn't permitted to own space. When the school closed, SEED declared Synergy in default and took over the space, Nobles said, remodeling it for classrooms and other school purposes. He said his office found no evidence that the state had tried to claim the space, and he said it was his office's understanding that the department considered the use of the space by SEED acceptable.

Charlene Briner, the department's chief of staff, said in a statement that it was "pleased that questions which have lingered within [the Education Department] for nearly a decade have been clarified and resolved."

However, Mahmoud still faces detailed questions from the authorizer of Harvest Prep and Mastery, Audubon Center of the North Woods, over issues of finances, governance and the relationships between the two schools and SEED. SEED is the nonprofit company run by Mahmoud and his wife, Ella, that rents space to the schools at 1300 Olson Highway and provides them administrative services for a fee. Audubon extended its contract with Mahmoud's schools by only six months until it gets answers to those questions.

The Star Tribune last month reported on a number of issues involving Mahmoud, SEED and their finances. The school has been operating under a forbearance agreement with investors in its bonds after missing several payments to them. The Star Tribune reported that Mahmoud is paid about $273,000 for his various roles with SEED and Best, more than the best-paid district superintendents in Minnesota.

The academic citation from the Minnesota Business Partnership was based on three years of academic results. The 2012 scores of 79 percent proficient in reading for Harvest Prep and 73 percent for Best Academy compared with 76 percent proficiency statewide. For math, Harvest Prep recorded 81 percent proficiency and Best 77 percent, compared with 62 percent statewide. For science, no students were rated proficient at Harvest in 2011, the most recent results announced, and 14 percent were proficient at Best.

Charlie Weaver, the partnership's executive director, said that the results achieved by the two schools prove there's no reason that every student can't do math and read at grade level. He credited a no-excuses attitude by educators at the schools for their success.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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