MPS launches school improvement projects  

Some feel these decisions need more community involvement

Kerry Jo Felder (left) Kim Ellison (center) speaking to parents (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Several Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) capital projects totaling over $13 million could begin as early as next winter, officials say. Their announcement raised questions among some on the part parental involvement plays in making such decisions.

The MPS School Board on May 9 received the district’s “1+1+5-Year Planning” plan for consideration. If approved at  their June 13 meeting, a $13.3 million bonding process would begin for five key MPS capital projects: Sheridan Greening project ($300,000), Jefferson Middle School kitchen ($3.3M), science classrooms at Washburn High School ($4.5M), reopening the Franklin swimming pool ($1.9M) and installing rubber crumb mulch on nearly 50 school playgrounds ($3.3M).

The capital bonding process, described as “a contract between a borrower and a lender in which the borrower promises to pay a specified rate of interest for each period the bond is outstanding and repay the principal at the maturity date,” is regularly used for such district improvement projects.

“We have a pretty strong capital [funding],” stated MPS Chief Operations Officer Karen DeVet at the May 1 public meeting at Davis Center.

Parents in the past have expressed concern about the current tire mulch and/or crumb rubber on school playgrounds as a possible health impact on children. The district wants to remove and replace that material with “engineered wood fiber” at 47 school playgrounds.

“There is a lot of community interest” on the playground upgrades, continued DeVet.   “Things that are under $500,000 — small capital projects,” such as installing a classroom sink, scheduling painting outside the regular paint maintenance schedule, and so forth are included in the plan, said DeVet.

“My recommendation to the superintendent is to move forward” on the five main capital projects, which are high priorities, said DeVet, who joined the district last December. If the school board approves the plan next month, she pointed out that project planning could begin as soon as January 2018.

“Based on pre-design RFPs [requests for proposals], typically it’s a minimum of 10 months from when we start a project until a shovel goes into the ground,” noted DeVet to the MSR after the meeting. “It can be longer than that depending on the complexity of the [project]. Depending on the project, and not to be disruptive in the school, the earliest I would estimate would be November of 2018.”

Over $393 million already has been committed to MPS capital projects. Seven currently in progress are expected to be finished by the start of the new school year this fall, including new locker rooms and other interior improvements at Washburn ($5.7 million); a new handicapped entry at Sheridan ($500,000), and replacing and installing new CO2 sensors in classrooms at Nellie Stone Johnson, Lucy Craft Laney and South High ($192,000).

Last week’s one-hour informational meeting at MPS headquarters had more staff than parents in attendance. A district spokesperson later told the MSR via email that it was publicized throughout the month of April through emails, fliers in various languages sent to principals and family liaisons, posted on the district homepage, shared with Parent Advisory Councils, and through board members at various meetings.

“They did a great job getting the word out” in the view of Kimberly Caprini, a Henry High School parent, who said that the inclement weather and other activities might have been a reason for the low attendance. She said she used her Facebook account to inform people about the meeting.

“I truly believe a lot of people will get their information through social media,” said Caprini. “I am going to inform a lot of people of what I learned…on Facebook.”
During the question and answer period, Caprini told DeVet that she believed that building improvements seem to get more attention based on the number of parents who show up at such meetings to voice their concerns — the “squeaky wheel” approach — while other schools also in need seem to get pushed back on the priority list.  “We waited a long time in North Minneapolis for our [school] buildings to get attention.”

Several factors, including enrollment trends, are taken into account in deciding priorities, responded DeVet. “We are trying to do this in a measured [way]…to make sure we are investing proportionally across the district. Where we found declining enrollment, we did not move those projects forward.”

School Board Member Kerry Jo Felder asked if district officials would look at past capital projects decisions. “We do want to look at the last 10 years” on how decisions were made, said DeVet.

Afterwards Felder told the MSR, she had a particular interest in the review, especially in regards to Northside school buildings. She also expressed concern about the low parent turnout: “We need more of a site-based inviting approach. We’ve got to do a lot more around community engagement as far as hearing what they want in their schools. But it just isn’t happening.”

DeVet indicated that plans are in place to hold community engagement meetings in 2018 on the district capital planning efforts. Caprini said of this plan, “Let’s watch them to make sure they are honoring what they said they would do.”

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