Sergio Paez was chosen to lead the Minneapolis School District nearly a month ago, but when he flew into the Twin Cities this week he was not shopping for a house or meeting his new staff.
Paez is here fighting to keep the job.
His selection has been on hold since days after he was named, when allegations surfaced that staff at a school in his former district in Massachusetts physically hit and abused special education students. Since then, a criminal investigation has begun and Paez has been on the defensive, asserting he instructed his staff to investigate every allegation and train staff and teachers.
This week, he has launched a three-day offensive to win over school board members, district staff and the community at large. He arrived with no entourage, few firm appointments and little official support from the Minneapolis school administration. He confessed on Monday evening that he had no idea how many people would show up at the “coffee hour” he planned at the Avenue Eatery cafe the next day.
“It is a bold move on his part,” said Mitch Trockman, a retired employee who once was an interim superintendent for the district. “It’s difficult for a person who is not from within the district to take it over,” Trockman said.
Trockman said he wants to hear Paez’s side of the allegations. He said if Paez is selected here, he and others are willing to help him succeed.
Paez doesn’t know what families, teachers and the community in Minneapolis have heard or what they believe to be true, which is why he said he came to Minneapolis. “As a leader, you have to be transparent,” Paez said. “I need to talk to the community directly. For me to do it by e-mail, it’s very impersonal and very vague.”
The board is expected to review the results of its recent visit to Holyoke and determine if they’ll continue contract negotiations with Paez or restart their search.
Paez said he is not here to “persuade or put pressure on the board to make a decision.”
But he is making his case everywhere he can think of. On Monday, he met with the Star Tribune editorial board, which wrote an editorial urging the nine-member school board to restart their search after the allegations became public.
On Tuesday, Paez met with board members, district staff and union leaders. He also met with R.T. Rybak, executive director of Generation Next, an education nonprofit, and the former mayor of the city, and Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP.
Levy-Pounds said she is reserving judgment about the allegations until the after the investigation in Holyoke.
Levy-Pounds said she was impressed that Paez is willing to tackle the big issues in schools.
“The proof will be in the pudding in terms of his leadership and his ability to navigate all the politics that have played a role in hindering progress, particularly when it comes to academic outcomes for children of color,” she said.
About a dozen people showed up Tuesday evening to meet Paez at Avenue Eatery in north Minneapolis.
In the small coffee shop, Paez answered media questions about the allegations. Community members asked him about parent involvement, early childhood education and charter schools. There were also questions about the state’s takeover of his former district.
James Everett, with the Youth Coordinating Board, asked how Paez plans to make “school hip” and how he will navigate city politics.
Paez then stopped by the NAACP member meeting, a few doors down. He again answered questions about what he knew and what he did to address the allegations in Massachusetts.
Paez plans to hold a similar coffee hour in south Minneapolis on Wednesday morning.
Staff writer Beena Raghavendran contributed to this story.