The man hired in June as deputy schools superintendent in Minneapolis was given a new title -- chief executive officer -- after the state informed the district he wasn't properly licensed for his original job.

Rick Mills was hired by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson to act as the district's second-in-command, with a salary of $175,000 a year, but shortly after his hiring, Stan Mack II, executive director of the Minnesota Board of School Administrators, told the district Mills could not supervise licensed administrators or serve as acting superintendent.

"He should not be the deputy superintendent," Mack said, later adding that, "I was very direct when they employed him."

In an interview Thursday, Johnson said the change in Mills' title still allows him to oversee day-to-day operations and bring about reforms to a change-resistant system. Mills is pursuing alternative licensure, which he is scheduled to complete next year. In the meantime, though Mills earns almost $45,000 per year more than the district's associate superintendents, Johnson said she appoints one of them to lead the district when she is on vacation or away on business.

"[Mills] has never been on record as a person in charge," Johnson said. "We want to be in compliance with the laws of Minnesota."

Two school board members contacted Thursday said the change in Mills' title and his lack of a license don't concern them.

"What matters to me is 'Can he do the job?'" said board member Lydia Lee.

Johnson hired Mills after an education consultant recommended hiring a deputy superintendent because she was "spread too thinly across her leadership and managerial responsibilities."

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Mills came to Minneapolis from the Chicago Public Schools, where he last worked as a chief area officer/area superintendent for 26 high schools that experienced marked academic growth under his leadership. He was not a licensed administrator in Illinois, Mack said.

Johnson said she conducted a search for the best candidate, not just the best licensed candidate. Mills' resume lists U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and two other former Chicago Public Schools CEOs as references.

"I wanted to find someone that can complement my style, so that I can further focus on the work of academics," she said.

In its announcement of Mills' hiring, the district said he would be "designated as acting superintendent in the superintendent's absence" and would "lead the supervision of schools through the associate superintendents." Mills started working at the district July 1.

That month, Mack alerted the district that those duties required a superintendent's license. Johnson said that soon thereafter, she gave Mills the new title of CEO. Lee said Johnson told board members that would satisfy licensing requirements.

Johnson disputes that account, saying Mills' duties were changed. Lee "may not remember, quite frankly," she said.

On the district's organizational chart, which remains under construction, the district's four associate superintendents will fall under Mills in the chain of command, Johnson said. But Johnson said that she completes the job evaluations of the associate superintendents.

Mills' hiring came three months after a Star Tribune investigation on teacher licensing revealed that Minneapolis associate superintendent Mark Bonine was working without a proper license. His application sat on a desk in the district's human resources department for months until a reporter inquired about his licensing status.

In response, Johnson sent a Sunday afternoon e-mail March 27 to several administrators.

"[Do] we reconcile our data with the data of the state Dept?" the message said in part. "Mark's variance not being submitted is a problem ... What assurances can I have that we have licensed individuals in positions? ... Who can help me with this?"

District spokesman Stan Alleyne said Mills' hiring was a different situation than what happened with Bonine, who is now fully licensed.

Johnson said that when she was looking for a deputy superintendent, she wasn't solely focused on whether the applicant was licensed.

"When you're concerned with that kind of stuff, you may get the person who has the license, but you may not get the best person," Johnson said.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491