Michael Goar, Minneapolis’ interim schools chief, on Saturday withdrew his bid for the permanent job, saying that he has become a distraction in the tumultuous process.
Goar’s decision brings new uncertainty to a protracted superintendent search that has gone on for nearly a year and pitched the district into crisis.
“Over the last few weeks, I have watched as our community and school board leaders have become increasingly fragmented and divided,” Goar wrote in a letter to the board and parents. “I never expected that we would agree on everything, but we must all be unified on why we are here and we must remain focused on children and not on the disagreements and disrespect that continue to divide and distract us.”
To ensure that focus, Goar said, he is stepping away from the process. He will remain interim superintendent until the board makes its new choice.
Goar had been the presumed front-runner since the board voted unanimously two weeks ago against the man who for a time was its preferred candidate, Sergio Paez. Board members said they did not believe the community could rally around Paez after allegations surfaced that staff members at a school in his former district in Massachusetts physically abused students.
But as the board was about to vote Jan. 12 on giving the job to Goar, protesters brought the meeting to a halt, demanding that the board restart its search.
As recently as Wednesday, Goar spent time talking to members of the media about his desire to take the job permanently, even though he wasn’t the board’s first choice and still faced opposition from some community members.
Supporters had argued that Goar would bring stability and ensure that a property tax referendum in November is approved by voters.
Others said appointing him would not bring the unity and community support that the board believes is key to improving student achievement. Restarting the superintendent search would be the only action that can ensure that board meetings are not disrupted by protesters, they said.
“Now is perhaps not the right time for Michael Goar,” Goar said in a phone interview Saturday. Although he still believes he is the right person for the job, he said he withdrew to enable the board to find someone who can bring the community together.
The board had planned to discuss its next steps at a public meeting Tuesday. That meeting will continue as planned but now focus on new options, including restarting the search, board chairwoman Jenny Arneson said Saturday.
“I respect his decision,” she said. “I imagine this was difficult … and he feels this is in the best interest of the district, the community and our children.
“Personally, what I’ve learned is that having an interim superintendent as a candidate for the permanent position poses some challenges,” she said. “There is a natural tendency to focus on the individuals and not the position, not the needs of the kids. It creates a little more of a political environment.”
Board member Don Samuels, who had supported Goar for the job, said he was shocked and disappointed by his decision.
“We’re always going to have opposition,” he said. “I have a feeling that’s just the way it’s going to be in this district. In the end, we’ll have to make a decision that’s best for our children and not be so preoccupied with our own emotions, reputations and images.”
Arneson said there are some things the board can do differently. For one, it plans to abandon its previous search firm, Hazard, Young and Attea, hired last year in a $85,000 contract.
Board and community members have voiced concerns that the search firm didn’t uncover the abuse investigation in Holyoke, Mass., that affected Paez’s candidacy. Arneson said the district will pursue a refund from HYA to help pay for a new search.
The board did not plan to have a new superintendent in place before the summer, so Arneson said she is confident it can still meet that deadline.
Year of turmoil
Since its search began, the board has said it wants to appoint a leader who can stay and be successful in Minneapolis for many years.
That would be unusual. The average tenure for urban school superintendents is about three years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. Minneapolis has had three superintendents in the past decade.
Goar began serving as interim superintendent Feb. 1, 2015, following the resignation of Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. Since then, he has been criticized for making major decisions, like reconfiguring middle-school sports or changing special education programs, without engaging a broad group of parents, teachers and community members. Graduation rates and student achievement on state tests also have not reached the levels called for in the district’s academic plan.
In his letter, Goar highlighted his successes, including negotiating a new teachers contract, launching Community Partnership Schools and downsizing the staff at the district’s central office.
The Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP sent a letter to the board last week citing concerns about Goar’s leadership. The group said “he has failed to adequately engage the black community” and “there has not been substantive academic growth for students of color.”
The organization asked the board to conduct a new local search or to re-evaluate previous applicants for the job, as well as evaluate Goar’s performance and make the findings public. The majority of board members voted those ideas down.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, the Minneapolis NAACP president, said Saturday that she supports Goar’s decision to withdraw, but still believes it’s necessary to carry out an evaluation of his work. Identifying new local talent should be the next priority, she said.
“There’s some fundamental challenges that need to be addressed,” she said. “We need leadership that will energize the district, take things in a new direction and work vigorously to close the gaps that exist.”
Some community leaders, like former school board members Pam Costain and Alberto Monseratte, former superintendent Johnson and former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, have said that the more vocal Goar opponents may not reflect broader community sentiment.
On Saturday, Rybak called Goar’s withdrawal a “huge setback” that could make November’s referendum even more challenging.
“It’s going to be increasingly difficult to attract someone to this job without the board sending a clear message that it’s ready to make decisions and work together,” he said. “Until then, it will be very difficult for anyone to succeed.”
Rybak described Goar’s efforts to keep the schools running as “near-heroic” and argued that the city should be grateful for what he’s accomplished in light of mixed messages from the board.
“This should continue to sound an alarm bell that’s been ringing for several months,” he said. “A board that is not making decisions and acting in disarray is not going to be able to lead.”
Goar said Saturday that for the next six months, his priority will be tackling the budget and expanding experiential learning, such as oral language programs.
After that, he may try to serve the community in a different capacity, he said.
“I’m deeply committed to this community. This is my home,” he said. “I’m a product of Minneapolis Public Schools and I have deep roots here.”