Days before their vote on a new superintendent, the nine Minneapolis school board members took a pop quiz: Write down three words that describe the kind of environment you want teachers to create for students, consultant Airick West said.
Fun. Peaceful. High-achieving. Safe. Rigorous. Inclusive. Nurturing. Loving.
"If you want something for your teachers, it will never occur if you don't create that for your superintendent," West said.
Minneapolis public school officials struggled to display these qualities in recent months, one of the most tumultuous and uncertain times in recent history for the district. The discord was on painful display Tuesday when board members rejected their preferred superintendent candidate, Sergio Paez, but could not consider a runner-up candidate, interim superintendent Michael Goar, before protesters shut down the meeting.
Turmoil and disarray have consumed the Minneapolis district in recent months, as a relatively new and inexperienced school board has faced some of the biggest challenges in recent years. Residents have criticized the board for a lack of vision, for being out of touch with the community and failing to hold its leaders — and its own members — accountable.
Jenny Arneson, the board's chairwoman, said board members have come to the realization that they need to change in order to improve student outcomes.
"We have to keep all of our attention on kids. It's been hard to focus and there are many many distractions," Arneson said. "But if you can't keep coming back to our central goals, ultimately we aren't going to succeed."
With its national search in shambles, national and local educators say it won't matter who the board chooses to be the next superintendent if its nine board members do not make major changes to how they conduct themselves.
In the past year, the board has been accused of micromanaging the superintendent and allowing more than a few meetings to get out of control, with protesters forcing board members to stop conducting business. Other times, the board has seesawed on controversial issues, like budgets and curriculum materials.
Districts that have been unable to close achievement gaps are often led by school boards that are disorganized, unfocused and fractured, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council on Great City Schools, a group that advocates for better inner-city schools.
"When you are off-task, off-priority, you can actually damage kids' lives," Casserly told the board at its retreat in Chaska earlier in January. "That's what's at stake here."
'How they treated me'
The nine board members began working together in January 2015. Nelson Inz, Don Samuels and Siad Ali were the newcomers.
Immediately, the board was tasked with finding a new school chief as then-Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson abruptly announced she was stepping down.
Johnson said that before she stepped down, she increasingly found herself trying to manage the board's intrusion into everyday school business. She said the board sometimes undermined and micromanaged her decisions.
"At some point every leader has to draw a line," Johnson said. "I think they get what they get because of how they treated me."
A series of crises
The board selected Johnson's top deputy, Michael Goar, as interim chief, and he made it clear he wanted the job permanently. But the board quickly found themselves careening from one crisis to the next.
A principal at Richard Green Central Park School was abruptly fired and a group of parents began pressuring the board for answers. Then Roosevelt High School parents, teachers and students crammed a board meeting demanding more funding after other schools were given large amounts of extra money.
Parents were further outraged after district officials abruptly announced fewer students would be offered access to a citywide autism program.
And just as the school year was about to begin, the district handed out books written by Reading Horizons as part of a new reading curriculum. Some of the books had images that many considered racist: a picture of a black girl on the cover titled "Lazy Lucy" and an American Indian girl on a book called "Nieko, the Hunting Girl."
Teachers and parents filled the boardroom demanding the school officials cancel the contract with the publisher.
Initially, the board said it did not have the authority to sever the contract, and Goar said he was sticking by the publisher because the district needed a solid reading curriculum for struggling students.
Pressure mounted and eventually the board forced Goar to cancel the contract by saying he violated two of the board policies when he authorized the agreement.
That situation was still reverberating months later during the board's January retreat.
But board member Carla Bates said she is still unsettled by the way the board used a policy to undermine Goar's decision.
"I have never been on a board when we said that our superintendent was in violation of policy," Bates said. "In my eight years, I have never done that."
Promise to change
The school board sat through hours of training where they discussed policies they plan to monitor, how to better the board's relationship with the superintendent and how to better engage community members so they feel their voices are being heard and don't have to resort to shutting down board meetings.
In the coming months, the board said it will be narrowing a set of priorities, or policies, that it will monitor in order to hold the district's administration accountable. The priorities will revolve mainly around community engagement, finance, board governance and student achievement.
The board's goal is to move away from micromanaging and delving into decisions made by district administrators.
Arneson said there will be times that the board will still need to address crises but if the board is effectively holding itself and the district's staff accountable, then that might quell community outrage.
Still, given the unknown outcome of its superintendent search, focusing on radically changing how the board operates will not be easy, Arneson said.
"It will require immense commitment of this board and huge amounts of time and dedication," Arneson said.
First, though, they have to find a new superintendent.