Questions about the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism continue to swirl in Minnesota’s Somali community. Somalis are the main focus of Minnesota’s federal pilot program to dissuade disenfranchised youth from joining overseas terror groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Islamic State in the Middle East.
In a previous post on Minnesotacivic, I discussed some of the contributing political factors that led to the selection of the seven Somalis among the 15-member delegation from the Twin Cities. This post explores the non-Somalis.
Of the eight non-Somalis, seven were law enforcement leaders or supporting staff. It was fitting for law enforcement leaders to attend a summit that discussed national security.
However, the inclusion of a representative from Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), the state’s 3rd largest and chronically underperforming district, is dangerous and it has angered Somali parents with children enrolled in the district
Parents send children to school in order to learn and master the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic without fear of being monitored. Somali parents with children in MPS are puzzled at what compelled a district — which has persistently failed at teaching basic skills to minority students including Somali-Americans — to cheerlead for the Counter Violent Extremism pilot program.
One answer lies in the political dynamics of MPS. Leaders in the district have consistently secured funding through the political process.
The idea of MPS participating in the federal pilot program originated from Mohamud Noor, who was appointed to the school board in 2013 to complete the term of Hussein Samatar, who had passed away unexpectedly. Noor made the proposal after no money reached Somali community organizations, despite the district allocating $5 million to English Language Learners (ELL) students to get an extra help. But then Noor abandoned the idea and left the board to run for state representative.
Some in the school board continue to champion the idea, insisting the district be proactive and engage the US Attorneys Office rather than wait for potential subpoenas. Others on the school board have heard from angry Somali parents and want the district to disengage from the Counter Violent Extremism pilot program, but they're not sure how.
Regardless of which way current board members lean, MPS became involved in the program with the goal of becoming a grant recipient. Courtney Cushing Kiernat, executive director of external partnership and institutional advancement, who represented the district at the White House Summit on Combating Terrorism, is no stranger to political mobilization that leads to funding.
Courtney held various political posts in the past. She ran R.T Rybak’s 2005-2006 fundraising operation for Minneapolis mayor. She served as the board chair of Womenwinning, a progressive group dedicated to getting women elected.
Courtney was once disenchanted with MPS. In 2008, she told MPS officials “Yeah, I'd like it if my daughter wasn't in a class with 28 kids, but I'd also like it if the state stepped up" while co-chairing a $60 million referendum which passed.
After the referendum, Courtney signed a $70,800 contract with MPS to “provide project management services for Changing School Options Transition Process to Minneapolis Public Schools for the period September 14, 2009 through August 31, 2010.” Courtney’s consulting firm signed another contract with MPS for the same amount which lasted August 2, 2010 through June 30, 2011. The contract was amended in April to $95,000.
Courtney joined MPS as a staff member on July 1, 2012, with some responsibility on grant requests beyond normal school funding sources. MPS received over $30 million from donors from 2011-2014. This is an institutional effort and might be miniscule in an overall district budget hovering around $800 million but Courtney’s experience as a fundraiser and effective political operative is certainly a factor. Effective political navigation which secures future funding is a key reason she represented the district at the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism.
Political mechanization with the goal of securing funding for the school district is a nobble enterprise. But MPS’s calculus on the Counter Violent Extremism pilot program, which targets Somali-American children, is dangerous. This creates more confusion and anxiety in a community which is already distrustful of federal agencies. Anxious families could become more disconnected from schools in the district, leading to an increase in dropout rates.
An alternative for MPS would be to reverse course and leave it to the Somali community organizations to handle programs and any associated funding. Even a fiscal agent role for MPS presents a danger to parental trust. A hands-off approach from the Counter Violent Extremism pilot program is the least dangerous path forward for MPS.