I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but the Star Tribune’s relentless unsubstantiated attacks on the credibility of the Minneapolis Urban League (MUL), an 89-year-old civil rights organization, has me wondering if they have declared open season on legacy institutions.
In a May 15 front page story and blog post at Star Tribune.com a day earlier, the Star Tribune again wrote inaccurate and misleading information about the Minneapolis Urban League (“Urban League Academy to close amid scrutiny”).
Staff Writer Alajandra Matos and Editor Baird Helgesen link the MUL board’s decision to close the Urban League Academy to their previous reporting of possible program overlap between the Urban League Academy (ULA) and a separate MUL program, the 13th Grade. They infer their reporting precipitated closing the ULA.
Despite our repeated efforts to set the record straight the campaign of misinformation continues. Here are four facts the writers knew or would have known if they had bothered to ask:
First, there is no “double billing” and MUL consistently has denied that claim. Double-bill means to invoice two different accounts for the same service. That never happened. The Minnesota Department of Education was billed for career-readiness services provided to 13th Grade participants and MPS was billed for ULA students. A few individuals were both ULA students and 13th Grade participants, which is commendable given the intensive resources needed to move this population to self-sufficiency. The Star Tribune’s characterization of this as double-billing is inaccurate and intentionally inflammatory.
Matos, when I spoke to her, attributed the allegation of double-billing to Michael Goar, MPS interim superintendent. Helgesen, in a recent email, said the Star Tribune had extensive conversations with Goar and “the school district made very clear [overlap between the two programs] could not happen.”
No one at MPS, including Goar, has said that MUL alternative school students cannot receive additional or overlapping services, and for good reason. MPS uses multiple state and federal funding sources for its traditional students, including revenue for general education aid, referendum proceeds, special education funds, federal grants, compensatory aid, integration aid, extended time aid and limited English proficiency monies. If MUL is double-billing (and, it is not), then MPS is double-billing times four.
The Star Tribune repeatedly has stated, “Urban League officials said there was nothing in the two contracts that prevented double billing,” which implies we acknowledge double billing but argue it is contractually permissible. Matos and Helgesen contend Scott Gray, my predecessor as CEO, made that statement. What Gray actually said was the ULA and 13th Grade contracts do not prohibit mutual enrollment of participants. He did not admit or defend the practice of double billing as the Star Tribune clearly intends to imply.
Second, the decision to close ULA was driven by financial considerations. The MUL board voted in April to lease our school building to a private concern, well before the Star Tribune’s reports about program overlap. That decision left our alternative school without a home for the coming school year. After a diligent search for a substitute site and architectural assessment of our other buildings provided by MPS, we determined it was not financially feasible to lease or convert alternative space. The Star Tribune inferred we closed due to their critical reporting, but that is self-serving puffery.
Third, MUL has not been “looking for ways to increase revenue through new programs,” contrary to the Star Tribune’s assertion. Chasing grants is not a sustainable growth strategy and, moreover, is inimical to the integrity of MUL’s mission. Our approach is to create innovative and better ways to serve, consistent with our mission and core values.
The Star Tribune’s reporting has been a distraction from our work to eliminate barriers and build pathways to success for people of African descendants. News organizations have a right to raise questions about public billing. But, to ignore facts and mischaracterize truth in pursuit of a predetermined narrative is wrong. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to reach that conclusion.
Steven Belton is interim president of the Minneapolis Urban League.