The questions started after the Minneapolis School District awarded the Minneapolis Urban League as much as $800,000 a year for a program that never lived up to its promise of graduating the city’s most troubled high school students.
Then Minnesota legislators agreed to give the Urban League $300,000 a year for nearly identical work, paying some of the same staff to work with many of the same students the school district already was paying to help.
Now top state officials and Minneapolis school leaders are investigating whether the Urban League is getting paid twice for similar work.
“It’s alarming,” said Michael Goar, the Minneapolis School District’s interim superintendent. “When there is an issue that they are getting paid both [from the district and the state], then we have to look into it.”
The Urban League’s programs, the 13th Grade and Urban League Academy, originally were designed with very similar missions — to help teens and young adults graduate from high school, then find jobs or go to college. The organization used school district money to help students struggling to get diplomas from Minneapolis high schools. State records show that, since 2013, the Urban League put many of the same students in both programs and graduated only a tiny fraction. State officials say they have no other details about the program they fund and no proof the effort has been successful.
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she never supported the state grant for the Urban League’s 13th Grade initiative. She said the state law was written in such a way that she has no authority over Urban League spending.
“I had concerns right at the beginning because it was not really clear what they were set out to do,” Cassellius said.
The head of the Urban League said the organization has done nothing wrong.
“There is nothing [in the contracts] that says that a 13th Grade kid can’t participate in the Urban League Academy or vice-versa,” said Scott Gray, the Urban League’s CEO.
The accusations of double billing come at a crucial time for the Urban League, one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the Twin Cities.
Gray, who has led the Urban League for six years and recently won a Bush Foundation fellowship, announced last week that he is resigning in early May. On Tuesday, Minneapolis school officials will weigh whether to cut Urban League funding or extend the contract another year. Officials say the program has consistently failed to meet even basic goals.
At the State Capitol, the two legislators who pushed the 13th Grade measure hardest in 2013, Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, are seeking to triple funding for the program to $1.8 million over the next two years.
The senators defend the Urban League’s work as essential to closing the city’s achievement gap between white and minority students, which is among the worst in the country.
“Unfortunately, the Minneapolis Public Schools are not graduating kids of color at the level they should,” Hayden said. “We want to get those kids from where they are now … so they can take care of themselves.”
Gray also is harshly critical of state and school leaders who, he said, have failed to make a serious commitment to providing resources necessary to help these troubled teenagers.
“They say they want to do better, but there has to be some real intentional strategy, vs. liptalk,” he said. “Our kids need real resources.”
The Urban League has a budget of about $3.5 million a year, the bulk of it coming from state and local grants. Its influential and politically connected board includes Peter Hayden, who served as board treasurer until recently stepping aside. He is the father of the senator who initially sought the state funding for the 13th Grade.
As it was conceived, the 13th Grade was designed to help students between 16 and 24 who are on the streets, according to Urban League board Chairman Clinton Collins Jr. The goal is to help individuals who had not completed high school get their diploma or a high school equivalency and help place them in college or careers. For those who have a diploma, the program is designed to help them get a job or go to college.
Hayden and Champion took up the cause at the Capitol. The proposal initially laid out expectations and goals of the program, like enrolling 50 young adults, and gave the education commissioner the ability to develop a plan with the Urban League.
The bill received two hearings at the Capitol but never was included in either the House or Senate’s final budgets.
At some point in the closing hours of the legislative session, $600,000 was added into the budget for the Urban League. But the measure stripped all accountability measures and left Cassellius without any authority over the 13th Grade.
“It was built so that the money just went straight through as a grant, in that we were not responsible or put into the mix at all,” Cassellius said. “It was strategically built that way, I believe, because of my concerns.”
Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, who helped craft the education budget in 2013, said the way the organization got the money was inappropriate. “How does something show up without any accountability and nobody cares?” asked Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis.
Both Hayden and Champion said Cassellius never raised concerns with them.
“I’ve never had a conversation that says that she didn’t support this,” Hayden said.
The measure was lumped into a much larger budget bill that passed the DFL-controlled House and Senate and was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Gray said the 13th Grade and the school-funded program, called the Urban League Academy, initially had similarities, but the organization retooled the 13th Grade program when school officials refused to participate. Without the district, the program was unable to offer high school diplomas or another high school equivalency.
In the program’s first year, nearly 40 percent of the students enrolled in the 13th Grade were also billed to the district as Academy students, according to state records. Gray said there is less crossover this school year.
Both senators and Urban League officials point to the 13th Grade’s reported success of placing 97 percent of this year’s participants into full-time or part-time jobs.
Hayden’s effort to give state tax dollars to an organization where his father served on the board has sparked criticism from legislators. Hayden remains at the center of a GOP-led Senate ethics inquiry over his role steering money to Community Standards Initiative, which also had ties to his father.
Hayden has denied any wrongdoing, and said his father did not benefit financially from his ties to the Urban League or CSI. The senator said his father “was just serving his community.”
Other state legislators aren’t so sure.
“To me, it’s a problem when you look at government as a way to give money to my friends or my associates,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
The Urban League Academy’s standing with the school district has been shaky for at least two years.
In March 2014, district officials told the school board not to renew the district’s contract with the Urban League, saying it was failing to meet the needs of students. Since 2013, graduation and achievement on state exams have remained far below district expectations.
Many board members, including Peter Hayden, and board Chairman Al McFarlane, who runs community newspaper Insight News, lobbied the superintendent and the board to extend the contract for at least two years.
Ultimately, the contract was renewed for one year.
On Tuesday, the Minneapolis school board will decide whether to extend the contract once more. Some district officials argue the Urban League should get another chance because the district had not given the organization its full support.
The measure to increase funding for the 13th Grade remains in play at the Legislature.