A new name has emerged in the search for Minneapolis’ next superintendent: Michael Thomas.
In board meetings, Facebook forums and e-mails to the board, some community members say Thomas, a Minneapolis School District administrator, has the passion and experience to lead one of the state’s most troubled school districts.
Thomas did not apply in the last round and may not apply in the next one. In an interview this week, he said it is premature to decide before the school board determines its next steps.
Still, he does aspire to be a superintendent some day. Last year, Thomas applied for the superintendent job in Robbinsdale but came in third.
“If it were in Minneapolis, what a special and great opportunity that would be,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ name came up several times during a meeting in January when the board was preparing to determine the fate of its preferred candidate, Sergio Paez of Massachusetts. During the public comment period, some speakers praised Thomas, and board member Rebecca Gagnon mentioned him as a superintendent prospect.
Parent Corey Webster told the board that his daughter’s transcript had an error that caused a college to rescind her acceptance. Thomas immediately dealt with the issue after he learned of it, Webster said.
“She is now an A-honor-roll student and that is all because Michael Thomas made sure she got her higher education,” Webster said.
At that meeting, board members voted to discontinue negotiations with Paez and were interrupted by protesters when they tried to vote on the prospect of hiring interim superintendent Michael Goar. Goar has since withdrawn from consideration. The board is regrouping and still intends to have a superintendent in place by this summer.
Thomas said he is uncomfortable and humbled by hearing his name in conversations about who should lead the school district.
“I was really taken aback that night,” Thomas said. “I am a very private leader when it comes to [recognition]. You’ll see me get shy pretty quickly.”
‘I push people’
Thomas, 44, works with assistant superintendents and principals to carry out academic programs and initiatives.
The district has an academic plan that requires schools to increase student test scores by 5 percent every year. For students of color, schools must see an 8 percent gain each year. Schools must also increase graduation rates by 10 percent each year.
Last school year the district saw only a slight overall increase in its test scores. It also faces a persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color.
It’s Thomas’ job to track how well schools are meeting the district’s goals. If schools fall short, Thomas is the one to help principals and area superintendents rethink their achievement strategies.
“I push people but push them appropriately,” Thomas said. “I love conflict. I don’t like going to war but if I am comfortable, then I am going to fall into what I know. I don’t want to be known as being a status quo leader.”
Former Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who recruited Thomas in 2011, sees him an “authentic” leader and a man of deep faith who puts his wife and two daughters at the center of all he does.
“He believes in the potential and the redemption of people, especially young people, ” Johnson said.
With a background as a social worker, Thomas began working in schools in 1997 at Dayton’s Bluff Elementary in St. Paul, where he introduced a program aimed at keeping black boys from falling into special education programs.
“I did a lot of affirmation of who kids were as young black men,” Thomas said. “About 85 percent of my kids never went into special education.”
But Thomas felt limited by what he calls “structural deficits” in the schools.
“These kids were going get trapped somewhere else when they leave me,” Thomas said. “I was fighting the structure of the system of education, so how can I tear it down and rebuild it.”
He dedicated himself to education. From 2006 to 2011 he was a principal in Osseo Area Schools.
Susan Hintz, his former superintendent in Osseo, said Thomas is ready to be a superintendent. But neither she nor Johnson would limit his options to Minneapolis.
“He has the potential to be a superintendent in some district, some day,” Johnson said.
Whether or not he applies in Minneapolis, Thomas said one thing is clear: The district needs to focus on its purpose of educating all children, even in a time of turmoil.
“The political frame, or cloud, that is over Minneapolis is so great that to get a light of purpose to shine through is very challenging,” he said.
Both former superintendents say Minneapolis school officials, parents, teachers and community members need to find a leader they can all rally behind in this critical period. The district is poised to ask residents to approve a referendum in November that would increase financial support for schools.
Hintz said the board’s focus needs to be on finding a leader who can help all students become college- and career-ready.
“I pray their next leader is able to pull them together to make that happen,” Hintz said.