Thursday, June 4, 2015

Parent Activism in District 833

 Just how transparent is your school district?

The education children are receiving today may surprise most parents.  Many assume that if a school looks great from the outside, great things must be happening on the inside.  One thing is certain; we spend way too much money on education and the results are pathetic. It is estimated that the state of Minnesota will spend $17.7 billion on education in 2015.  Total spending in 2014 for South Washington School District 833 was over $250 million.  With such large amounts of cash flowing into local school districts, the opportunity for wasteful spending and misallocation of funds has proven to be too much of a temptation for many teachers and administrators.  

An article in the Star Tribune placed a spotlight on questionable spending in the Minneapolis school district when it was found that nearly half of expense reports lacked supporting documentation, even though this was against district policy. Tenure allows these people to remain handcuffed to the classroom so breaking a few rules isn’t much of an issue.  To obtain the information necessary to shine the light on this wasteful spending, the Star Tribune made use of a data request under Minnesota Statutes Section 13.43.  The data request can also be a powerful tool for the average citizen, allowing them to become a watchdog over their local school district.

  How you can put the data practices act to work in your school district

Guidelines on how to request data from a government entity can be found on the website for the Information Policy Analysis Division or IPAD.  According to IPAD, under the DataPractices Act (Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13), you have the right to request information from a government entity.  If you are seeking information regarding yourself or your minor child (in data practices terms, you are referred to as the data subject), you have the right to access the data free of charge.   Advocating for your child becomes even more important when you or your child have been bullied or manipulated by administrators, special education teachers or school psychologists.  The manipulation of parents and taxpayers needs to be exposed so that we can advocate for students and our community.

 School districts are required to have a Data Practices Compliance Official and the district must keep all data in such a way that it is easily accessible to the general public. Examples of written requests may be found on the IPAD website. Districts may require you to fill out a simple form which can be mailed or faxed to the Compliance Official.  You may request to inspect data free of charge before making the decision to request digital or hard copies of the information. If you or your children are the subject of a data search, the school does not have the right to charge you for searching and retrieving the information and may only charge for the actual cost of making, certifying and compiling of copies.

 Data requests are a good way to keep tabs on the dirty little secrets districts love to hide.  However, don’t be surprised, if during the course of inspection, unexpected issues arise.  Problems receiving data, especially if it’s for a controversial subject that may jeopardize the integrity of the school district may be experienced.   When this occurs, an appeal may be made to the state IPAD agency for an advisory opinion.  IPAD does not have the authority to force the district to comply with the decision but you will then have the option to file a complaint in district court or with the Office of Administrative Hearings.

Confronting District 833 

Efforts by school administrators to control information parents receive became very obvious with the South Washington County School District in February 2013.  On the morning of February 14, 2013, distressed East Ridge High School students began texting parents asking questions and expressing complaints about feeling uncomfortable and indoctrinated.  After receiving a phone call from a parent complaining that a militant group, The Black Panthers, was being commemorated over the intercom during morning announcements, parent activists were moved to action.

Because East Ridge is a public high school, one would think retrieving the actual announcement would be as simple as calling the office and requesting a copy of the script.  Office staff is usually more than happy to comply.  In attempting to do so, the staff was hamstrung by roadblocks put up by administrators who were not comfortable revealing the details of what was read that morning.  Multiple calls were made by many concerned citizens (a number of whom were members of the Tea Party Alliance) asking the district to release the announcement to the parent of a student attending East Ridge High School.

The parent was called after school was dismissed later that afternoon with the promise an envelope containing the announcement would be made available at the school’s front desk.  Upon arrival at the school the parent found the front desk area abandoned and no one in the office staff would answer repeated knocks on the main office door.  Not easily dissuaded, the parent drove to the athletic entrance and made her way to the office.  Office staff greeted her with blank stares and said that there was no envelope. Not wanting to go away empty handed, the parent asked to speak to the Athletic Director.  During this discussion with office staff, the Principal stood close to the distressed mother watching the discussion transpire without once coming forward to assist.  Only after getting a hold of the Athletic Director was the announcement made available outside the school walls.

 The morning announcement read over the PA system that Valentine’s Day was a commemoration of the two radical founders of the Black Panther Party - Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.  Part of the announcement included a poem of declaration….”I pledge allegiance to my black people……”  The inappropriate way in which a topic of this nature was brought forward to the unsuspecting students, faculty, and staff was reason to disseminate the details to the citizens of the community and the press.

This blog and national talk show host Jason Lewis were instrumental in providing the community, state and nation with information regarding the situation. In the days following the East Ridge announcement commemorating Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the district received numerous calls and e-mails from the community questioning how and why a subject of this nature was communicated in such an inappropriate manner.  The group that raised the issue with the morning announcement were called racists and asked why they were against Black History Month.  The administration and school board said that the ERHS Principal had been receiving threats from those who responded with concern; friends, members of the local GOP and Tea Party members.  Those accused could not let such innuendos go unchallenged.  In response to the accusations, a data request was submitted for the threatening emails and their corresponding police reports, pursuant to Minnesota Statutes Section 13.43, subdivision 1.

 The heavily redacted emails received from the district as a result of the data request were an insult to the parents and students of District 833.  The Principal asked directly in one email, if one of the accused parents had a concern about “celebrating Black History Month.”  Additional emails between the Principal and the District Communication’s Director indicate concerns over A MN Hockey Mama’s blog.  Administrators seemed to be attempting to guess the identity of whoever was responsible for the dissemination of this story, in an attempt to redirect blame and minimize their own lack of oversight.  A school board meeting on April 25, 2013 was quite revealing when the mother of an Occupy WallStreet radical made a statement supporting the Black Panther announcement.  A savvy member of the group of parents that raised the original concern made and interesting connection while viewing the school board meeting online.  The result was a story by Meredith Jessup of The Blaze.

From the Black Panthers to finances - Data requests reveal District 833 secrets

Watchdogs continued to hound the district and the results have been fruitful.  In November of 2014, Principal Aaron Harper of East Ridge High School resigned after he allegedly used taxpayer money to purchase iPads, retail shopping memberships, gift cards and other items.  He is now facing a criminal investigation for maintaining a “slush fund” from students parking fee revenues.  Data requests submitted by the South Washington County Bulletin to District 833 in November were finally released after an appeal to the state IPAD agency.  The appeal was required to declare the data as public, in opposition to the district’s claim that the data was not in the public domain.

Data requests for campaign finance reports from the “Vote Yes” Committee in 2013, revealed non-compliance with campaign finance law and a complaint was filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings.  The “Vote Yes” committees are well funded campaigns that receive thousands of dollars from teachers unions, principal associations and construction companies. These funds allowed the “Vote Yes” Committee to hire an attorney to represent them during the hearing.  The judge ruled in favor of the “Vote Yes” Committee but the data request bore much fruit.



The “Vote Yes” Committee received a $2,500 donation for the construction company Kraus-Anderson.   Kraus-Anderson has completed over 200 K-12 education projects totaling $700 million in the past five years in the state of Minnesota.  Construction projects in South Washington County include East Ridge High School and the addition to Bielenberg Sports Center.  Interestingly, a multi-million dollar “no-bid” contract was awarded to Kraus Anderson by District 833 for construction of a new middle school and other projects within the district. 

The battle continues

 The resignation of 11 administrators from District 833 over the last several months, the censure of a school board member and concerns over proposed tax increases have led to more data requests.

Members of our political activists group received a tip that there was a connection between the censure of a South Washington County School board member and the censure of school board members in Farmington and Duluth.  The mystery was revealed when an activist in another part of the state reported that the law firm representing South Washington County was also representing the school districts of Farmington and Duluth. In an article from the (1-11-15), “Censure is Infectious”, the author takes the law firm to task calling them “generously paid character assassins.”

 Should a law firm have the authority to remove wayward board members who refuse to toe the line?  Fear of censure or the embarrassment of removal should not be a consequence for disagreeing with the administration. These political witch-hunts are often pressed by the school administration and majorities on school boards who wish to purge trouble makers.  Local control will be lost if law firms and the federal government control our schools rather than an elected school board.

 School districts across MN need oversight by political activists now more than ever. South Washington County Schools will soon be asking voters to fork over $149 million.  Continuing to feed the beast is not in the best interest of the students or the taxpayers.  It is my sincere hope that activists across the state will expose the secrets they keep.

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