In a multicultural and urban city like Minneapolis, the role of a superintendent to oversee the needs of 36,000 ethnically diverse students throughout 72 schools is paramount–and it’s been over a year since the whirlwind search to fill this role was initiated.
Finding a replacement for the school district’s previous superintendent, Bernadeia Johnson, has been in the hands of the Minneapolis Board of Education’s nine members since Johnson’s resignation last January, where Chief Executive Michael Goar stepped in as interim and applied as a superintendent candidate.
Goar’s candidacy became a piece to a puzzling and problematic search process. A process that in the eyes of the community contained poor vetting, a disappointing search firm and devalued community engagement.
The above is an interactive timeline showing the many steps the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education has taken in its search for a permanent superintendent. Use “prev” and “next” to scroll through the events, and click on the triangles to read them.
According to the school district’s job description, the desired superintendent candidate is instrumental to the business functions of the school and the academic success of the students. While the board makes the final decisions on policies for the district, the superintendent makes policy recommendations to the board, and then carries out the board’s decisions. The superintendent’s vision on issues like how to allocate money to certain programs, schools or staffing needs directly impacts who, how and what goes on in the classroom. For the MPS board, that vision needs to include maintaining programming, implementing student-based allocation budget processes, staffing and maintenance development, being a visionary in leading curriculum to accelerate student learning and closing the achievement gap.
After initially electing Sergio Paez for the job in December, the board dropped him after allegations surfaced of abuse to special education students at one of his former district schools in Holyoke, Mass. Runner-up finalist Goar was nearly elected in his place, until protesters forced the board to table that vote. By Jan. 23, Goar withdrew his candidacy.
With their top two candidates out of the running and the community in uproar, the School Board presented a tweaked search plan at its Jan. 26 committee meeting that still aims to find a superintendent by May, potentially revealing that the broken Minneapolis Public School superintendent search process isn’t beyond repair.
“I truly believed that the board was well-intentioned with the first search,” said Elisabeth Campbell, a Minneapolis parent of two children. “They wanted to appear to be transparent and responsive but they made two mistakes that I think doomed the process.”
According to Campbell, the first mistake was hiring national executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA), screened and chosen by the board.
“[HYA] candidates have a tendency to be passionate about data, not educating the whole child,“ Campbell said. “They also have a history of helping supply candidates who are poorly vetted.”
Last July, HYA selected director candidates for Nashville public schools, one of which they claimed was credible but in fact had finance and educational leadership criticisms, and was later disqualified by the district.
“In Minneapolis, we continue to make this mistake, looking for outsiders to come in and make these huge changes to the district. And I don’t think that’s what we need,” said Minneapolis mother of three, Ahndi Fridell. “When these search firms find these people, you can tell as they were being interviewed the candidates didn’t have a grasp on the community, and who the factions were and what sort of interests come into play.”
HYA conducted their search by creating a leadership profile based off input gathered from community members through public comment at committee meetings, open discussions with HYA representative, Ted Blaesing and issuing a comprehensive survey. But despite those efforts, community members were not fulfilled with the engagement.
“I almost didn’t complete the parent survey because I thought it was such a poorly designed and useless tool,” said Campbell. “It appeared to be their boilerplate survey with little or no personalization for Minneapolis.”
The online survey took place Aug. 31 – Sept. 17. With additional hand-written and translated surveys, a total of 1,123 stakeholders partook in profile analyses. The turnout of community members who engaged in the various discussion groups was 238.
Participating in one of the discussion sessions last fall, Ira Jourdain, a parent since 2003 with his youngest children currently in elementary level education, felt that when it came to outreach the board had done their part.
“The meeting I attended was well diverse in terms of socio-economic background and racial background,” said Jourdain, who noted parents from different areas such as Seward, Lake Harriet and Marcy. “I thought that showed that the district really did get out there.”
But during the session, Jourdain said the representative “spent a lot of time looking at the clock, looking around … I just got the feeling, as well as others in the group that he really didn’t listen to us or wasn’t really engaged.”
Sarah Lahm, Minneapolis-based parent, education blogger of Bright Light Small City and Twin Cities Daily Planet contributor in 2013-14, also attended a fall session that she recalls was led by Blaesing.
Not only did she find the midday session inconveniently held during common work hours with no childcare option, “It was a very small group to begin with, and that seemed problematic,” Lahm said. “Then he didn’t seem to be listening very closely. He was sitting with his eyes on his laptop and he contradicted some of the things people were saying.”
Parents weren’t the only ones who noticed that HYA wasn’t listening. At the Jan. 26 committee meeting, Directors Tracine Asberry and Siad Ali were a few among those agreeing that the community’s voices weren’t emphasized enough.
Director Ali expressed the urgency of board members to “go where the community is” and further their personal outreach to schools, churches and organizations.
“We have to unite for the sake of the children, and we have to do a good job this time, “ Ali said at the meeting. “And I want the community members to be a part of this decision.”
In the same vein, Director Asberry stated the importance of extensively documenting evaluations to better inform the community, and addressed the responsibility of the board holding itself accountable. For starters, she suggested taking the job description HYA and the board compiled for the superintendent position and bringing it back to the community, to see if the school district had gotten the description right.
Acknowledging the public’s expectations and feedback, Asberry said the community wants the board to “hear it, confirm it, get to work, then come back and say ‘we heard you’. I think it’s very possible to use community engagement that way.”
“What [the board] did the first round, I think, was a big dog and pony show that did not serve the public, and it was using community engagement as a shield,” said 20 year board watchdog Lynnell Mickelson, also a mother and blogger of Put Kids First. “The search really went off the rails when they announced Paez as their pick before they apparently did any background checks on him.”
“If they had really done their due diligence with Paez they would have at least caught wind of that situation,” said Jourdain. “I think it would have really changed the dynamics of this whole process.”
Yet, before the allegations were confirmed or denied, the board decided to end their contract negotiations with Paez on the Jan. 12 committee meeting, and quickly shifted to electing Goar. Director Asberry proposed an amendment to better evaluate Goar’s performance as interim before setting a vote, but the board denied it.
“There was a lack of due diligence concerns that were being raised,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, Minneapolis NAACP president. “From my perspective, it would only make good sense to evaluate the second choice in the process as opposed to rushing.”
According to Campbell, when Goar entered his candidacy as interim, it was the second big mistake that hurt the search process. Not only had Goar turned the Minneapolis Public Schools Communication office into what felt like a PR firm, but it also limited the candidate pool.
“Having an interim candidate discourages other people from applying because it’s someone sitting there who is a known entity and is familiar with the job. It’s understandably a good chance they’re going to get it,” said Lahm. “I think that was a factor that prevented as much transparency or true engagement that could have taken place.”
As heavy as the task was to find a superintendent, many community members advocated for a restart rather than handing the position to Goar. Criticisms in Goar’s leadership involving the financial health of the district and the poor oversight of the racially controversial Reading Horizons literacy curriculum were significant.
Efforts to restart the search for new candidates was even primary to Paez’s election. When third finalist Charles Foust was still in the race, two public petitions declaring a refund from HYA and prompting the board to seek superintendents locally gathered over 1000 signatures.
“The comments that came with the signatures were incredibly moving, profound and meaningful,” said Campbell, who was part of the petition efforts. “It was clear that our community was deeply unhappy with Goar’s performance as interim superintendent and disappointed with the lackluster roster of candidates. Simply, Minneapolis’ kids deserve better.”
It wasn’t until the end of that Jan. 12 meeting where restart advocates felt their voices heard.
“Rather than take those concerns seriously, the board was ready to make haste and begin contract negotiation with Michael Goar,” said Levy-Pounds. “I believe that would have been the outcome had a group of community members not stepped forward and disrupted the school board meeting.”
Following the protest, the education committee at the Minneapolis NAACP sent a letter to Chair Jenny Arneson and members of the school board, laying out their concerns and recommended means of moving forward.
Now leaving HYA behind, the board’s tentative new process includes hiring a different executive search firm and a select hiring committee of four board members, with three possible community representatives outside of the district to serve. The names of the semi-finalists would be kept anonymous until the hiring committee presents the final three.
“I think they’re planning to do this time what they should have done last time,” said Mickelsen.
“I think that most of the Board, from what I’ve seen, is very engaged and they have a very difficult job,” said Fridell. “I think we need to get someone who is familiar with our community, who really understands what parents want for their children and how to make sure kids are getting a good education, and not being influenced by testing companies and the reform movements.”
For Jourdain, a candidate that had been a teacher, who can understand budgeting, has experience in a large, urban setting and that can improve community relations with different social and ethnic backgrounds are ideal and fitting characteristics.
The current profile created from the initial search will remain, but a separate meeting for public dialogue is also planned to take place before the next Feb. 16 committee session, where the details of moving forward will be voted on.
Toward the end of the Jan. 26 committee meeting, encouragements from Arneson urged constituents, stakeholders and community members to call, email and connect with board members to share their feedback and voice their opinion on the search, to make sure all voices are heard this time.