The Minnesota Department of Education may place Pillsbury United Communities into corrective action following low scores on a five-year review of charter school authorizers. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Pillsbury United Communities, a nonprofit organization that provides oversight to 21 charter schools in Minnesota, faces possible corrective action from the state Department of Education. That prospect follows low performance ratings for its processes and decision-making, as revealed in Pillsbury’s routine five-year authorizer review with the state. 

That corrective action—a broad bureaucratic term for a plan to fix organizational deficiencies–could create challenges for charter schools that serve students of color and immigrant communities. 

The Minnesota Department of Education held an informal hearing with Pillsbury on April 2 to determine whether to place the authorizer on a corrective action plan, said Paula Higgins, the charter center supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Education.

The Minnesota Authorizer Performance Evaluation System (MAPES) report, compiled by a third-party contractor for the Minnesota Department of Education, gave Pillsbury an overall rating of “approaching satisfactory.” 

The review cited inconsistencies in accountability and oversight processes.

“The authorizer does not consistently hold charter schools accountable to academic, financial and operational performance outcomes and standards defined in the contract,” the report stated. It also observed that Pillsbury “does not have clear processes for oversight and monitoring.”

In a statement, Pillsbury United Communities responded, “We are still in the process of undergoing our normal MAPES evaluation that all authorizers participate in every five years….While we await the final determination from Commissioner [Heather] Mueller”—the head of the Minnesota Department of Education—“we remain committed to ensuring that the children and families whose needs are not being met by traditional public schools have access to relevant education that supports each student’s personal, social, and academic achievement.”

A charter school authorizer’s primary role is to provide oversight and hold schools accountable for the terms of their contract, or charter. In Minnesota, authorizers can be public schools, nonprofit organizations, or universities. Charter schools operate independently as their own school districts to allow for greater autonomy and flexibility. 

Authorizers contract with charter schools to monitor and evaluate them. They have limited power over day-to-day school operations, but ultimately decide whether to approve or close a school.

Most of the schools in Pillsbury’s portfolio serve predominantly students of color, including Cedar Riverside Community School (CRCS). Last week, Pillsbury announced its plans to close the landmark Cedar Riverside charter school with a largely East African student population, citing academic, operational, and governance concerns. 

The school, located inside Riverside Plaza, opened in 1993 as the fifth charter school in the country and currently serves just over 100 students in grades pre-K through 8. In its letter announcing its intent to close the school, Pillsbury pointed to leadership problems at CRCS. But the leadership at CRCS claims it’s Pillsbury that failed.

Bert Strassburg, the executive director of Cedar Riverside Community School, said the authorizer review highlighted problems he had encountered with Pillsbury United Communities.

“The report reflects many of the concerns CRCS has had with PUC during my tenure as executive director, including unpredictable support and lack of ongoing oversight for charter schools within its portfolio,” Strassburg said in an emailed statement to Sahan Journal. 

Strassburg also criticized the authorizer for “inconsistent and ambiguous information” in its renewal process for schools.  “Given the many issues the report highlights with PUC in its role as an authorizer, I am particularly disappointed in PUC’s stated intent to non-renew its authorizer agreement with CRCS at this time,” Strassburg said. “We will continue to advocate for our students and families.”

Pillsbury’s intent to “non-renew” the authorizer contract means the nonprofit plans to close the school as soon as June 30. Cedar Riverside Community School plans to appeal by requesting an informal hearing with Pillsbury. Pillsbury will make a final determination about closing the school in May.

Meanwhile, Pillsbury itself requested and attended an informal hearing with the Minnesota Department of Education to review its status. 

‘Approaching satisfactory’

As a charter school authorizer, Pillsbury United Communities is the state-approved oversight entity over the schools in its portfolio. The Minnesota Department of Education, in turn, oversees the authorizers.

With 20 current schools under its umbrella and another slated to open soon, Pillsbury is one of the largest charter authorizers in the state. Besides Cedar Riverside Community School, Pillsbury’s portfolio includes El Colegio Charter School, Midway Star Academy (formerly Dugsi Academy), Twin Cities International Schools, and Ubah Medical Academy. 

More than 11,000 students attend Pillsbury’s schools statewide.

While an authorizer is under corrective action, it may not add any schools to its portfolio. Similarly, the schools in its portfolio cannot expand or transfer to a new authorizer, Higgins said. 

For example, Ubah Medical Academy, a charter high school in Hopkins under Pillsbury’s portfolio that serves a large Somali student population, plans to expand to add middle school grades. If the state places Pillsbury in a corrective action plan, Ubah Medical Academy would not be able to carry out its expansion plans until the corrective action plan is complete. This wait could take up to a year. 

If Pillsbury doesn’t fulfill the plan, the state could terminate its status as an authorizer. 

Should Pillsbury land in a corrective action plan, Higgins said, “We’re looking for them to address measures that received less than satisfactory.” To satisfy the corrective action plan, an authorizer typically may produce a written plan and offer documentation for how it plans to meet state standards.

While corrective action may sound intimidating, it has a range of meanings, said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. “Corrective action” may mean an authorizer needs “to go back and fix some of their procedures and processes,” Piccolo said. ”At the extreme if they have not been doing their job, they can be put out of business as an authorizer.” 

For example, he observed, the Minnesota Department of Education recently revoked the charter authorizer status from the Winona Area Public Schools. “I don’t think Pillsbury is in this stage or near that stage.”

Unless it gets to that extreme level, Piccolo said, “it really should not be a worry to parents.”

Typically, corrective action plans can be satisfied in a few weeks or months, he said.

The state currently oversees 14 charter school authorizers. Five years ago, during the first authorizer review process under the current system, nine authorizers scored low enough to require corrective action plans. Of those nine, six completed corrective action, two voluntarily withdrew from authorizing charter schools, and one was terminated as an authorizer, Higgins said.

The second review process, completed in December, saw fewer authorizers scoring low enough for corrective action. Of the 10 that have so far gone through the process, only Pillsbury and Northfield Public School District scored below satisfactory on a rubric of measures including new charter school decisions, performance outcomes and standards, and accountability decisions. 

One of the measures where Pillsbury scored “approaching satisfactory” is in its process for charter school renewal and termination decisions.

“PUC does not apply its renewal process consistently across its portfolio of schools,” the state review noted.

‘School closure was in the best interest of students and families’

The poor scores in the authorizer review and the plans to close the school coincide with a staffing change at Pillsbury. The letter announcing the decision not to renew Cedar Riverside’s charter came from Samantha Diaz, Pillsbury’s new director in the office of public charter schools. Antonio Cardona, a longtime Pillsbury staff member, left the organization in February.

The director of the office of public charter schools monitors and evaluates conditions at Pillsbury’s schools, receives parent complaints, and serves as a primary point of contact for families and school staff. The director also sends the school formal notices of practices that need correction if necessary. 

Cardona took a job as the vice president of career readiness at Project for Pride and Living. He told Sahan Journal his departure from Pillsbury was unrelated to the state review.

“The short story is there was an executive search firm that reached out and presented two opportunities for me, and one ended up giving me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Cardona said. His new position at PPL, he said, is “just a really great extension of work I’ve been doing for the last 15 years.” 

His exit was a “pretty intentional transitional process,” he said. 

Adair Mosley, Pillsbury United’s president and CEO, also characterized Cardona’s departure as a straightforward career move. “Antonio had served with the organization over 15 years and was really looking for his next leadership opportunity,” he said.

Higgins said she was not aware of a connection between Pillsbury’s low ratings and its decision to close Cedar Riverside Community School, which for years has been declining academically and facing parent complaints.

“The decision not to renew our contract with Cedar Riverside Community School was the result of the regular Quality School Review process and unrelated to the MAPES evaluation,” Pillsbury said in a statement. “Both Pillsbury United staff and external experts unanimously agreed that school closure was in the best interest of students and families of the CRCS community.”

Mosley noted that Pillsbury had been engaged in ongoing conversations with Cedar Riverside Community School well before the state review. These conversations have been documented in a series of letters over the course of years, including formal notices of concern and deficiency and plans for remediation, which Sahan Journal has reviewed.

Closing the school, Mosley said, was a last resort. On its current trajectory, Cedar Riverside Community school will stop serving students in June, at the end of the school year. 

It remains to be seen whether Pillsbury United Communities will have fixed its own accountability issues with the state by that date.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.