The final months of the 2018-19 school year went from bad to worse for Robbinsdale Area Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins, with an uproar over his reassigning of a popular high school principal followed by questions of cronyism and possible fiscal mismanagement.
Though Jenkins was recently cleared of improprieties in his hiring practices and given a vote of confidence by his school board bosses — actions that led him to say he hoped he and his critics now could get a cup of coffee and “move on” — there is still discontent.
Many residents want the state auditor to dig into the district’s finances and other issues. The district ended its fiscal year Sunday with no rainy day funds.
And a student who led a protest at school year’s end that included the chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Mr. Jenkins’ got to go” said that if the superintendent wants to talk, she, for one, isn’t interested.
Anthonia Caston had been one of four organizers of the May 31 walkout involving dozens of students at Armstrong High School in Plymouth — a protest driven in part by budget-related school-safety concerns.
When asked last week if she recalled the chant, Caston replied, of course, she led it. “He’s just not doing his job right now,” she said. “I said it. I meant it.”
Only a couple of months earlier, Robbinsdale schools were being showcased by none other than Gov. Tim Walz.
Walz, a former teacher, was on a statewide tour to sell his education budget, and he made Meadow Lake Elementary in New Hope the final stop.
There, he stood before a group of boisterous preschoolers and asked if they were happy to be at the school.
“It is a great place,” he said.
That a district could be in a spotlight while also under fire is not unusual.
The Mahtomedi district posts robust test scores, among the best in the state, but has been dogged for years by a perceived overreliance on open-enrolled students — and by budget woes, too.
But a student walkout, parent and teacher unrest, and a petition drive to get the state auditor to probe its finances?
This spring, Robbinsdale was a model for all the wrong reasons.
Robbinsdale has 12,546 students, and its boundaries span about 32 square miles, including all of Crystal, New Hope and Robbinsdale, and parts of Golden Valley, Plymouth, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park. Jenkins said he told Walz that the governor would be hard-pressed to find another district with the range of diversity of Robbinsdale Area Schools.
“I said getting it right in Robbinsdale is really a blueprint for getting it right in the state,” Jenkins recalled in an interview last week.
He came to Robbinsdale in 2015 impressed with its commitment to equity and enamored of its beauty. The move has “exceeded expectations on all levels,” he said.
District test scores lag state results in math and reading. Robbinsdale also is one of 43 traditional public school and charter school systems put on alert by the state Department of Human Rights for disparities in the discipline of students of color and those with disabilities. In an agreement with the Human Rights Department, Robbinsdale said it would assign an administrator to work on the issues.
This spring, Jenkins decided that leader would be Armstrong High Principal David Dahl. Students, parents and staff at the school revolted.
“I think it’s fair to say that David Dahl as principal of Armstrong High School was a well-loved principal by his staff,” Peter Eckhoff, president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers, said last week. “Some of them are disheartened, and fair to say, quite angry.”
Kelly Guncheon, an Armstrong parent, questioned Jenkins and the truthfulness of his answers. A Facebook group, “Concerned about Robbinsdale Area School District,” was created and a petition drive launched. The group gathered more than 2,300 signatures and had thought its work was done. But it learned last week that it needed about 350 more, Guncheon said. He did not expect it to be a problem.
The state auditor does not have to follow through with a petition-driven request, “but nobody can recall a time when we didn’t do it,” spokesman Donald McFarland said. He said he knew the group proposed reviews in eight subject areas, but it is up to the auditor, he added, to determine the scope of the work.
“We’d be up front about what we can and can’t do,” McFarland said.
In addition, a review of the district’s audited financial statements showed the school system’s unassigned fund balance, or rainy day fund, had a deficit a year ago — “a very material financial issue,” said Thomas Klick, a retired commercial banker who has grandchildren in the district.
On the rebound?
Jenkins, who has worked in Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan, has hired people with whom he worked previously. That, in turn, has raised questions about the appointments — and the cronyism accusation. This spring, the school board agreed to hire an employment investigator to review a complaint involving 12 hires.
Two weeks ago, when he was cleared, the board came just short of apologizing to Jenkins and the human resources staff.
“All you have done is attract quality people who have followed you because they know of your work,” Board Member Sherry Tyrrell said.
But budget issues remain. Greg Hein, the district’s interim finance director, confirmed last week that Robbinsdale was on track to show a deficit again in its rainy day fund — this time of about $3.8 million. That’d be just shy of “statutory operating debt,” he said, the point at which the state steps in to call for a fix.
Hein hopes the district could end the coming year with a small surplus. Guncheon says the district has been wrong before. If the petition drive he is leading is successful, and the state auditor agrees to examine the district’s finances, Robbinsdale would be stuck with the bill, which Jenkins says is unfortunate.
But he’s not fighting it — and now looks forward to some coffee-and-conversations events in August. As for the “Hey, hey, ho, ho” chant, Jenkins notes that he was hugged by some students, too. Caston, who will be a junior this year, said it’s true.
But there are concerns that need to be addressed, she said. Students at the walkout spoke of racial tensions as well as safety and insufficient staff support.
She plans to take the fight above Jenkins now.
Expect her to be at a school board meeting soon.