It’s the first time in recent memory that all Minneapolis school district staffers have been invited together for the start of school, and it took a hockey arena to hold all of them.

Several thousand employees ranging from cooks to bus drivers to clerks to faculty gathered at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena last Tuesday for a back-to-school gathering. It served partly as a pep rally for the coming year and partly to lay out the administration’s agenda.

The tab?  Some $62,000, although the district said outside grants or donated services covered the costs of busing  teachers to the arena, renting the hall and equipping the event, producing some of the videos, and covering coffee and speakers.  No district operating money was used, according to Stan Alleyne, the district’s communication chief, except for money budgeted for video production as part of his office budget.

The mood was festive, with many workers sitting grouped by their school, but there were subtle signs of hot-button feelings among teachers too.

One example came when the district’s student government leaders presented their list of 10 ways for adults in the room to help students.  Among the more typical suggestions to smile, to be straight with students, to be a role model and so on, came this exhortation: “Be genuine. You can influence my education by caring about me as a person, not just as a test score.”

That line, read by Washburn’s Austin Johnson, drew some of the morning’s loudest applause, with teachers feeling increased pressure for accountability as measured by test scores that many feel are only a crude measure of student learning.

Superintendent Barnadeia Johnson also had a key message to deliver. She promised that the district’s central administration will be more supportive of the needs of schools. “’The district’ is not an evil entity bent on stomping the life and innovation out of schools,” she said.

At least that’s what her prepared text said.  MPLS had some trouble actually hearing her delivered remarks over the buzz of some district staffers chatting on the nearby concourse.  Hall monitors anyone?  Johnson also promised to listen more, to advocate fiercely for more money, and to be more transparent on district business.

For the record, Tuesday’s gathering was the largest since 2004, when then-Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles assembled a staff of more than 3,000 teachers for a back-to-school confab at the Minneapolis Convention Center. But Tuesday’s crowd was bigger, in part because the district intentionally also included support staff and told them their role was critical to serving students.