Three educators seeking to become the next superintendent of Minneapolis schools say they want the job so they can turn the district around and close its vast achievement gap.
The school board publicly met and interviewed three of the six semifinalists Monday: Charles Foust, an administrator in the Houston school district; Kenneth Spells, the superintendent in Alton, Ill.; and Jesse Rodriguez, a regional superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools.
“I have a really good job in Milwaukee,” Rodriguez told the board. “I don’t need to leave the district I love. I am doing it because there is an opportunity to serve Minneapolis Public Schools.”
The other three candidates, including interim superintendent Michael Goar, will face the board Tuesday. Each candidate has an hour to answer questions.
All three of the candidates interviewed Monday have been teachers and principals. They drew on those experiences to tell the board how they intend to close reading and math achievement gaps, manage the district’s finances and lead a complex urban district.
Rodriguez, who oversees about 32 schools, said he wants to work in Minneapolis because he wants to help the city close the achievement gap.
He has been a finalist in at least two other school districts in the past year. In May 2014, he applied for and got the job in East Aurora, Ill. He accepted it but withdrew before he signed a contract, citing “a unique set of circumstances.” An Aurora newspaper quoted Rodriguez as saying that “there are only two districts that I was interested in working at: East Aurora and Milwaukee.”
In February, he was a top-three finalist for a school district in suburban Milwaukee but did not get the job.
Rodriguez did not take the Aurora job because he wanted to finish his doctorate before leaving Milwaukee, said Ted Blaesing, with the Minneapolis district’s search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. Rodriguez said he also wants to work in Minneapolis because his daughter is applying to college in the area.
Kenneth Spells was the only candidate interviewed Monday who has served as a superintendent, but the Alton school district is less than one-fifth the size of Minneapolis. The Illinois district has nine schools. The majority of students in Alton, as in Minneapolis, live in poverty.
Spells said he can “attack” education inequities.
“I have experience closing the achievement gap as a principal and a superintendent,” he said. “I feel this is the right place and the right time.”
Spells said that despite coming from a small district, he has dealt with issues facing large cities. Alton is less than 20 miles from St. Louis. “I have been battle-tested with Ferguson, with everything that can happen in a large urban district,” he said.
Of the three candidates, Charles Foust has the fewest years in an administrative role, but he comes from the country’s seventh-largest school district. Foust, 41, has been an administrator in the Houston district since 2013. His job is to support middle schools in the district, along with six other support officers.
Foust described himself as a “servant leader” who asks a lot of questions and holds himself and others accountable through concrete evidence.
“I would investigate the billboard outside that says 77 percent of black students are not reading at grade level,” Foust said. “That’s a serious issue.”
At the end of his interview, Foust asked the board how it knows that the district’s strategic plan is going to work. None of the board members answered his question.