Minneapolis Public Schools poised to make familiar face its new leader


When it came time to find its fifth superintendent in ten years, the Minneapolis School Board decided to forgo a nationwide search and shop locally instead.

On Tuesday, the board is expected to appoint to the post its only candidate and finalist, current Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. Bill Green, the district’s current superintendent, will retire June 31.

While the board’s decision to avoid a traditional search process has raised some eyebrows, Chair Tom Madden insists they made a sound choice. They consulted with nationwide experts, he said, and they also considered St. Paul’s recent nationwide search, a prolonged process that ultimately resulted in a local hire. 

“We can spend the next six months looking for someone, who will then come in and make their imprint, they’ll change the executive leadership, they’ll want to change the strategic plan,” he said. “And they won’t know the community, and then it will take a year to get them up to the speed that we’re at now, and then – at the tail end of the contract – they’ll start looking for a job because they’re not from here anyhow.”

The decision also saved the district the estimated $60,000 to $100,000 it would have cost to hire an outside search firm, Madden said. But, he added, this was a relatively small factor in the decision-making process, as local foundations would’ve likely chipped in to underwrite the cost.

Board member Chris Stewart said it just didn’t make sense to search outside the district when a candidate like Johnson, 50, was already living and working here.

“It’s really time to stop playing games and stop considering this as some sort of resume bingo,” Stewart said. “We need to go forward with good solid people who understand the district and understand the strategic plan.”

Unveiled to the public

The board got to see Johnson handle the spotlight at three question-and-answer sessions held across the city last week.

Wednesday’s meeting, held at the Field Community School in South Minneapolis, drew close to 100 people. There Johnson talked about her childhood in the segregated south, her 1991 decision to transition from banking to education, and her time spent as a fifth-grade teacher in St. Paul and as principal of Hall Community School in Minneapolis.

Looking toward the future, she pledged to place children first, build relationships with the community and work to close the achievement gap.

“We want all students to achieve at high levels,” she said.

She said she believed in the district’s goal of having every child be college-ready, and she promised to post online a 100-day “entry plan” detailing her accomplishments, tasks and goals.

There was no shortage of audience questions, which broached topics like creating a standardized sex ed curriculum for middle schoolers and engaging students in district decisions.

Graphic designer Lori Gleason asked Johnson to name the top three things schools need to succeed.

That’s an easy question to answer, Johnson said: What’s essential are high-quality teachers, great principals, and a “standards-driven” curriculum and assessments.

Gleason later reflected that while she felt Johnson was “eloquent” and had performed well under the night’s pressure, she still felt Johnson fell a bit short.

“I have confidence in her skills, but what I’m missing is that little bit of out-of-the-box thinking,” Gleason said. “The one thing I didn’t hear tonight that I was hoping I would hear was about innovation, that we were going to look for some new things and really get creative. That’s where I was waiting.”

But community member Virginia Clark, who retired after working as a member of the district’s support staff, said she didn’t necessarily expect to hear any visionary rhetoric from Johnson that night.

“My opinion is that it’s her advisers and the board that are giving the direction,” Clark said. “She can only do so much.”

Indeed, board member Pam Costain – a self-dubbed “big fan” of Johnson – said they picked her in large part because she can keep steering the district down a strategic path the board already supports.

“I have a lot of confidence in her,” Costain said, “and I think we’re on the upswing in the Minneapolis Public Schools with this decision.”