In its attempt to find a new superintendent, the Minneapolis school board interviewed two finalists vying to lead the state’s third largest school district.
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and outgoing Anchorage Superintendent Ed Graff each faced the nine-member school board Tuesday and were asked about equity, school budgets and discipline.
Cassellius and Graff are the district’s second set of superintendent finalists, after the school board voted to give the job to a former Massachusetts superintendent in December. The board rescinded its offer after allegations surfaced of abuse at a school in his previous district.
Both candidates drew from their decades of experience in the classroom, leading schools and large education systems.
Graff said he would focus on students in making decisions on budgets and curriculum.
After spending the past few days in Minneapolis, Graff said he feels a sense of urgency across the city to bring change to the district.
But, he said, “everyone wants something different.” Graff said his job will be to put board members, teachers, staff and community members on the same page.
“We can make significant change if people are willing to commit to it,” Graff said.
Graff spent the majority of his career as an educator in Alaska. He began as a teacher in 1991 at an elementary school in Anchorage.
He then went on to become a school principal, the district’s executive director of elementary education and its chief academic officer. He became superintendent in 2013.
“The Anchorage school district is very similar to Minneapolis in that we are very diverse,” Graff said.
The school board in Anchorage decided last year not to renew his contract, citing a need to meet aggressive academic goals, according to local media reports.
Board member Carla Bates pressed Graff on why the board opted not to renew his contract.
Graff said little more than the board wanted “a different direction, and I respect that decision.”
Drawing on work at state
Cassellius, who has served as commissioner for five years, highlighted her work as an administrator in Memphis, Minneapolis and as the state’s stop education leader.
Her presentation to the board was filled with data points and lists of strategies that she has used to try and close academic gaps in the state and the districts where she worked.
But her main focus is on becoming the next superintendent of Minneapolis, saying she wants to retire from the district.
“I hope to still be here after 10 years,” Cassellius said.
She said she wants to help the district increase its enrollment, close achievement gaps and become a place where teachers are happy to go to work and “where parents are confident they can send their kids to neighborhood school because it’s great.”
During her first months as superintendent she will host listening sessions around the city, analyzing the way the district allocates its dollars and preparing to pass a new referendum in November.
Cassellius was a teacher, principal and administrator in the Twin Cities, including Minneapolis, before following former Minneapolis Superintendent Carol Johnson in 2004 to Memphis, where she served as the academic superintendent of middle schools.
She had a short stint as an administrator in Oklahoma City before returning to Minneapolis in 2007 to work as an assistant superintendent under Bernadeia Johnson. In 2011, she became the education commissioner.
Board member Tracine Asberry asked Cassellius why the state has not made significant progress in closing gaps for students of color.
Cassellius said when she became commissioner, she made this her top priority.
“A large part of the work is changing the conversation,” Cassellius said. “I have never seen the kind of urgency we are seeing in last three years.”
Site visit to come
Board members Jenny Arneson and Rebecca Gagnon will visit Anchorage before Monday to gather more information about Graff, and Josh Reimnitz and Siad Ali will vet Cassellius locally.
The board is expected to select its preferred candidate by May 24 after a public comment meeting Monday evening.