Mpls Urban League cleared of double billing

Interim director says MPS, Star Tribune culpable in alternative school’s closing

Steven Belton
Steven Belton

The Minneapolis Urban League (MUL) is still doing business serving the community, according to Interim Director Steven Belton. But “our image [has] certainly taken a hit,” said Belton last week in an MSR interview at the MUL North Minneapolis office in reference to recent Minneapolis Star Tribune published stories.

“I’m primarily concerned about our partners, service partners, and our funders, our corporate partners and the like, all of whom have eyebrows raised at this time and [are] waiting to see if this will settle down or whether it will continue.”

The Urban League Academy, an alternative school for local high school students, closed its doors last week. “A quarter of those kids were homeless,” explained Belton. “Half of them work and had jobs while they were in school. Many of them had to struggle and had to raise their families, siblings and the like. This was an extremely challenged population and we are very proud of [them].”

Eleven students graduated June 1 in the Academy’s final graduation class. In his June 4 commentary published in last week’s MSR edition, Belton strongly criticized the Star Tribune’s May 15 front-page story about the school’s closing, saying it contained “inaccurate and misleading information,” including claims the MUL may have “double-billed” both the state and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) in funding the alternative school and its 13th Grade program.

“The Urban League board in March or early April voted to lease its school building on 22nd and Blasidell to a private organization that was seeking to open a charter school,” he explained. “The terms of that lease will provide a substantial amount of monthly income…to the Minneapolis Urban League.” Because the lease called for the entire building to be used, “[it] left us without space for our own school.”

As a result, Belton and other MUL officials contacted MPS for help, said the interim director, who came on board shortly after the board decision was made. He met with MPS District Interim Superintendent Michael Goar.

“We point-blank told him of our decision. We needed a building and asked him to provide free space for our Urban League Academy. MPS has any number of buildings, many of which are vacant — even occupied buildings that have space. It made no financial sense to go from no rent to high rent, or any rent at all,” recalled Belton.

“He [Goar] got back to us the same day,” Belton continued. “We met with him at 3:00. At 4:00 we got correspondence from him that there was no room at the inn. They had nothing for us,” said Belton.

When asked if MPS had an obligation to provide space for Urban League Academy, the district’s communications department respondent by email, “The district does not have a financial obligation to support our contract alternative programs through free rent for their program. Historically, we have leased space to different CAP programs when it is available, but at this time we do not have available space to lease.”

“It was not a question of obligation,” explained Belton, “but an opportunity for MPS to keep intact its 89 students enrolled at Urban League Academy so those students would not have to disperse and find yet another school to continue their education. Students enrolled at the ULA were part of Minneapolis Public Schools. MPS contracted with Minneapolis Urban League to provide their education, but they remained MPS students.

“Many ULA students were highly mobile (changing residence more than three times during the school year), had a history of excessive truancy, and more than 25 percent experienced homelessness at some time during the school year. We were trying to prevent ULA students from becoming “homeless” in the school context. The request for accommodation was based on the observation and belief [that] MPS has vacant properties and excess capacity that could have been made available to ULA at minimal cost.”

MPS, however, did provide architects to evaluate both MUL sites. “This building [the administrative headquarters at 2100 Plymouth Ave. N.] is entirely cost-prohibitive because we would have to essentially retrofit the entire lower level. The cost figure easily would have been seven figures. The school district architects came back with the initial estimate [that] were low seven figures” to renovate the MUL South Minneapolis location.

“The decision was made to close the school” after that, said Belton. However, he had hoped that MPS would have been more helpful in helping MUL secure new space since it was a district contract alternative school.

“If they had provided space for us, or some source of funding… They said if they had given us space, all the other alternative schools would want space,” noted Belton. He disagreed with Goar’s decision “given that this was an unusual occurrence, given that we have 40 years of history [with MPS] and that we were taking their castoffs — the children they have the least faith in. We are disappointed.”

Furthermore, Belton believes that the Star Tribune reporting may have influenced MPS in withdrawing its support and ending a 40-year relationship with MUL. The MSR contacted MPS for comment.

“While Minneapolis Public Schools’ contractual relationship with the Minneapolis Urban League will be ending due to their school closing, there will be opportunities to partner on critical matters affecting African American students,” said an MPS Communications email statement. “We certainly hope that MUL sees this as a new phase in how we might partner in other ways going forward.”

“I believe this relationship is repairable, and I am very hopeful it would be repairable,” responded Belton. “While we are critical of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ track record in regard to the achievement gap, we need each other. We are critical because we are committed to the same causes. The question is whether what they are doing is working.”

Belton also noted the MUL board’s intention is to explore the possibility of starting a charter school, which he pointed out is a two-year process “from idea to full implementation. It will be a separate spin-off organization” from MUL, he added. “Our board has expressed some interest, but we are working on other things right now.”

Furthermore, Belton’s insistence that the MUL did nothing wrong despite the April 13 Star Tribune article, which questioned whether they got paid twice from MPS and the State Department of Education for the same costs, was supported by the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) in a recent review. “I believe the Star Tribune consistently has used that [double billing] term to get people’s attention,” and it was both false and misleading, he said. “The Star Tribune should take responsibility for its irresponsible journalism. A lot of people don’t read below the headlines.”

The MSR last week received a copy of the June 4 OLA letter sent to State Senator Michelle Benson, which states, “We were unable to substantiate the alleged improprieties related to double billings by MUL.” The letter further noted that the MUL “maintained separate accounting ledgers… We saw an allocation process to divide costs” between the Academy and its 13th Grade program. We found some Urban League Academy students also participated in the [13th Grade] grant program; however nothing prohibited MUL from providing those students with 13th Grade grant services.”

Belton said the 13th Grade’s future also is in jeopardy because of a jobs funding bill that didn’t get passed during this year’s state legislative session. “That program expires June 30,” he declared.

“The challenge will be that the 13th Grade was really designed to help young people between the ages of 17 and 26, and [there is] no other alternative or options. Unfortunately there’s nothing else here to replace it. We will be looking at alternative sources, going to foundations and the like” to keep the program going, if possible.

Belton, who reiterated that he is not interested in seeking his current position on a permanent basis, affirmed that he is “fully committed” to leading the MUL in the meantime. “The Urban League continues to be a viable organization. It continues to be committed to the African American community and to people of color and to the diaspora of Africa. We are focused on the needs of our community.

“I did not accept this assignment to oversee the demise of the Minneapolis Urban League. This is a legacy organization, and it is essential that the Urban League continues to operate.”

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.