School Board votes to rectify ‘wrongful firings’ of seven employees

Andersen United Community School teacher Eduardo Salgado Diaz speaks at Tuesday's Minneapolis School Board meeting. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Protesters called on the Minneapolis School Board to rectify the “wrongful firings” of seven employees of color at Tuesday’s meeting. The board responded by passing a resolution recommending the staff be rehired or have a formal letter recommending rehire in their files.

Another resolution called for the creation of a policy banning the use of food as a punishment, to be confirmed in May. The district’s wellness policy already says food cannot be used as punishment, Superintendent Ed Graff said, but one staff member told of being fired for speaking up against the practice of denying hot lunch to students who misbehaved.

The protesters brought forth the resolutions mid-meeting and asked for immediate action. Scores packed the School Board chambers in solidarity with the employees.

During public testimony, several said they were fired and others said they resigned or were pressured to do so. Privacy laws prevented the district from confirming whether or not the seven employees resigned, a spokeswoman said.

The resolutions brought forth by protestors.
The resolutions brought forth by protesters.

The food-as-punishment resolution passed on a voice vote. Board members appeared to have reservations about passing the resolution on the seven employees, however, calling for a deeper conversation on the issue.

“I think this is a symptom of a problem that’s much larger,” said at-large board member Kim Ellison, the board’s vice chair. She said she agreed with the people who testified but added, “I don’t know if I want to solve the problem (by) piecemealing it.”

Graff suggested the district have a conversation with the individuals directly before formal board action.

“I think that’s also going to inform the broader conversation around what we need to look at,” he said.

The motion passed, however, with support from most of the board. Board member Kerry Jo Felder recused herself because of her work in the labor movement but voiced support.

Board member Don Samuels did not vote yes. He said he was “totally uncomfortable” making a decision after an hour of testimony.

“We should take a deeper dive and really inquire on this,” he said.

Board member Nelson Inz said afterward that he wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the vote.

“If we were going to have the same outcome, we might as well do it immediately instead of wait a month,” Inz said.

He said he would have liked to have had more time to make a decision.

Several of the employees told the board of being fired for speaking out against practices they felt were wrong. Others said they were not recommended for rehire despite strong reviews.

Michelle Barnes, a special education assistant at River Bend Education Center, told of being fired after expressing concerns about punishing students who misbehaved with cold instead of hot lunch. Lor Vang, a social worker at Hmong International Academy, said he was forced to resign for refusing to expedite a special education evaluation.

May Yang, a language arts teacher at HIA, said she was let go in part because of her performance, despite no negative reviews. She said the school’s interim principal told her she would get a good recommendation if she resigned.

Graff said before the public comments that the district’s $28-million budget deficit is resulting in reductions to positions districtwide.

“We are being incredibly conscientious in our approach,” he said. He didn’t speak about specific employees but said equity has been part of the conversation and will continue to be.

“This is an especially challenging time, and we’re moving through it with the needs of our students at the forefront,” he said.

In a statement after the meeting, MPS Chief Communications Officer Tonya Tennessen said disciplinary decisions are “made based on facts and with due process.” The district is limited in what it can say on personnel issues, she said, but “the Superintendent believes it is critically important that our students have access to the best staff — including staff who reflect our student population and advocate for the needs of our students.”