How a well-intended project ended in failure
First of a two-part story
The Community Standards Initiative (CSI), a community-based program to assist Black students, initially struck many as a novel idea with potential. Community leaders felt an urgent call to advance culturally specific solutions based on their experience. As a result, the plan obtained start-up funding from Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).
The pressure to find solutions had built up over decades as the achievement gap continued to grow and proposed fixes seemed to lead nowhere. Parents, community leaders and others were putting increased pressure on the Minneapolis School Board and district administration to come up with answers. This pressure eventually produced the CSI proposal several years ago that was ultimately approved for funding by the district.
Although the school board had given the green light to a six-figure CSI contract, last fall the public learned that the CSI proposal was rushed through without adequate consideration of its details and specifics, and the usual crosschecking and safeguards were not in place. CSI simply was not yet ready for implementation, and after a couple of years, the project ended in the fall of 2014.
After the program was cancelled, many questions about CSI remained unanswered, including the possibility that it had received district funds in part to fend off district critics. Why did the board approve a plan that was not fully developed?
The MSR has undertaken a months-long inquiry into the circumstances of the program’s development, approval and cancellation in hope that a better understanding of what went wrong in this case will lead to more successful efforts in the future.
Many people were involved in the CSI story: Al Flowers, Clarence Hightower, Michael Goar, State Senator Jeff Hayden, and Nekima Levy-Pounds just to name a few. The MSR over the course of several months talked with many of them, and others as well.
“I organized everything and put it all together,” said Flowers of his original six-page “CSI: Minneapolis” plan that he presented in 2011. His goals included a series of community-based discussions on “acceptable values and standards in all 87 neighborhoods in the city of Minneapolis,” a Positive Behavior Incentive Program, and plans to “elicit the support and participation” of parents, community members, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), businesses, faith-based groups, and more notably, MPS.
Flowers’ goals included a “Getting Back to Good” promotional ad campaign, using Metro Transit buses and trains, and creating a CSI youth advisory board whose members would get a monthly stipend for participating.
“He [Flowers] came to our board and requested [funds],” explained MPRB Community Outreach Director Corky Wiseman on the $49,300 CSI received over the course of two years (2011-2013). This included a $15,000 “one time” planning grant and a $31,000 “professional services agreement” for youth camps and a “youth development series” for 434 participants during the summer of 2013. It also included $3,300 for “coordination and prep work,” including supervising youth and transportation to a Pan African conference in Mankato and coordinating summer activities.
The funds CSI got were “internal money we already were using,” added Wiseman. “It wasn’t additional money that was taken away from other programs. I thought they did a good job.” The only concern he pointed out “was to get the paperwork and get it on time.”
Youth Development Director Heidi Pope said that Flowers eventually fulfilled what was needed “by the end of 2013. I require [everyone] to turn in their reports before I issue a check. Yes, [he] did do that at the end of the year.”
Then Flowers received the first of two contracts, signed by former MPS COO Robert Doty and CSI Administrator Clarence Hightower, from MPS in 2014 — a $30,000 contract “to hire a program manager to work in partnership with MPS” effective February 1, 2014 to run through June 30, 2014. Because of the dollar amount it did not required Board authorization.
When asked, Flowers said it was “40-some thousand dollars…spent on salaries for five employees [and] one program director.” He said that two of the five employees were full time at $20 per hour, two were part time at $15 per hour, and one was a floater at $18 per hour — “all African American women,” Flowers said. “I was drawing about $1,500 a month.”
He added that $500 was paid for monthly office space at New Bethel Baptist Church in North Minneapolis, $600 each for four computers, and $3,000 for training. “They gave us the money to get started,” said Flowers of MPS.
The second and most controversial $375,000 two-year contract, signed in May 2014, also by Doty and Hightower, to run through May 2016, was unanimously approved by the Minneapolis School Board as a “consent agenda” item. “He [Flowers] came to us twice. It was reviewed by the superintendent office and it was rejected,” recalled former MPS diversity and inclusion director James Burroughs.
“Al came back with another proposal. I led a team that looked at the proposal…and I also said no.”
The MSR asked Interim MPS Superintendent Michael Goar, then the district’s chief executive officer, for comment. A district spokesperson replied that he “had no role in the establishment or the cancellation of the contract with CSI.”
“The school board had nothing to do with [cancelling] the contract,” said Minneapolis School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon, who voted for it. “It actually was former superintendent [Bernadeia] Johnson who cancelled the contract.”
Johnson, who resigned as MPS superintendent earlier this year, told the MSR that actually it was Hightower, the pastor of New Bethel where the program was based and, according to Flowers, the “fiscal agent,” who decided to call it quits.
“The administrative person who actually did the negotiations was Clarence Hightower,” reiterated State Senator Jeff Hayden. Hightower signed both agreements. Flowers admitted that he did not sign the two contracts — “I’m more the organizer of the project.”
The former superintendent said Hightower called her and said that CSI couldn’t meet the contractual terms. Johnson said, “One of the things we asked for [was] that they would be working with families and parents, and they weren’t doing that. They weren’t delivering on the expectations. We expected that would happen.”
“There were certain measures and metrics that had to be met by CSI regarding recruiting students, and those measures weren’t being met,” said Burroughs on why the contract was terminated in late September 2014. For example, instead of enrolling over 750 students, which was one of the stated expectations in the contract, less than 200 students were signed up.
Flowers said, “We had to do a different recruiting strategy. We had to recruit over the summer when school let out.”
“We [Johnson and Hightower] had a professional conversation about the contract, and we both decided it wasn’t doable,” said Johnson.
The MSR left detailed phone messages requesting comment for both Robert Doty and Clarence Hightower. Doty did not respond to our requests. Hightower contacted the MSR publisher to state that he will not provide any comment on the matter.
Next week: the fallout from CSI
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.