Turmoil at the top of West Metro Education Program

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2013 - 7:17 PM

The district with schools in downtown Minneapolis and Crystal is investigating the superintendent and suspended the principal for two days.

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Principal Kevin Bennett in 2012

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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A tiny school district created to achieve racial integration is in turmoil, its principal facing a suspension for inappropriate relationships with staff members, the superintendent on leave and under investigation, and parents left frustrated.

The explosion of personnel issues at the top came as the 1,052-student West Metro Education Program is already grappling with accomplishing its founding purpose to bring suburban white students to its downtown Minneapolis school and minority students to its Crystal school.

The district has also been forced to cut costs to pay for investigative bills and an acting leader while Superintendent Dan Jett is on paid leave. The board voted unanimously Wednesday night to extend the $3,000-per-week contract of the temporary superintendent for up to four more weeks.

“We definitely have our work cut out for us at the board level to recognize why we have these issues and what’s going on,” said Carla Bates, a Minneapolis representative to the district’s board.

The district, which is run by board members from 11 school districts from St. Anthony to Eden Prairie, was formed in 1989 as a way to provide opportunities for Minneapolis minority students to attend the Crystal school while drawing white suburbanites to the downtown school. But Bates said the Crystal school’s arts-focused program drew many white, middle-class students from Minneapolis and the downtown school drew many low-income minority students from suburbs, reinforcing metro segregation. Both schools are named Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School, or FAIR.

Allegations called ‘unfounded’

The two schools are overseen by Principal Kevin Bennett, last year named the state’s middle school principal of the year, who is paid $127,985 a year. In response to a Star Tribune inquiry, the district disclosed that the board suspended him for two days for infractions in three areas.

Bennett’s attorney, Clayton Halunen, said that he has told Bennett not to publicly comment on the matter for now, but added that Bennett believes the district’s findings “to be unfounded and motivated by personal animus.”

Halunen also confirmed that Bennett was the source of allegations against Jett, which prompted the board to put Jett on leave and authorize an investigation of him. There’s been no disclosure of why Jett is being investigated. The board voted for Jett’s leave and Bennett’s two-day unpaid suspension at its Jan. 30 meeting. Bennett will serve that suspension April 3-4, acting superintendent Antoinette Johns said Tuesday.

Three infractions detailed

The Star Tribune obtained a copy of Bennett’s suspension letter, which detailed the infractions.

He was reprimanded for failing to report in writing that someone came to the downtown school last fall during an open house night and berated a staff member with hostile statements and profane language. The letter said that Bennett said the incident was serious enough that police could have been called. If the report had been timely, the letter said, a trespass order could have been issued to bar the individual from the school. Asked who the person was, the district cited a state law barring release of data on any family member of Bennett’s.

Bennett also was reprimanded for attending an out-of-town conference in the fall of 2011 with a female educational assistant for the district. The letter said he had a personal relationship with the assistant, whose presence wasn’t authorized by the district and who socialized with him on the trip. The employee used one day of personal leave and two days of sick leave, but Bennett was aware that she wasn’t sick, the letter said. By not questioning that, he neglected his duty and engaged in conduct unbecoming a principal, the letter said. The situation raised questions of judgment, conflict of interest and favoritism, according to the letter.

Bennett was also reprimanded for getting the personal cellphone numbers of employees he supervised to send personal text messages, ask them out for drinks and dinner, and similar personal activities. The letter told him to immediately cease that. It noted that female employees could view such activities as a form of harassment, and said that such actions, combined with his supervisory role over them, “places the district at great risk of liability.”

The letter directed Bennett to discontinue such actions. Failure to do so, it said, could lead to disciplinary action against him, including termination. Bennett signed the letter acknowledging its receipt on Feb. 20.

Leaders under pressure

Asked what led to the turmoil at the top of the district, Bates said stress was partly to blame. The board was asking Jett and Bennett hard questions about developing a strategic plan to achieve the racial integration that was envisioned. Minneapolis Public Schools was also pressuring the district to admit more special-education and immigrant students at a time when the future of state integration funding is uncertain.

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