Two decades.

That's how long it's been since the Minneapolis School District was last led by a white superintendent.

But Tuesday that changed when Ed Graff, superintendent of Anchorage, was named the district's next leader.

Some community members immediately raised concerns about selecting a white superintendent at a time when the district is struggling with a huge achievement gap between white and black students, little diversity in the teaching ranks and complaints of institutional racism.

Two school board members visited Anchorage before Graff's selection and said they were surprised by how diverse and similar that district is to Minneapolis. But some say the diversity is totally different in Anchorage, where only 6 percent of the students are black, compared with 37 percent in Minneapolis.

Others say they think it will not be an issue, so long as Graff does not try to speak for the community but spends time listening and implementing strategies that will quickly close gaps between white and minority students.

They also say Graff's track record with students of color in Anchorage proves he is culturally competent.

A white superintendent in a large urban school district has an extra responsibility to ensure there is an aggressive and transparent outreach to minority communities, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. He said many white superintendents have succeeded.

"There is an onus on a white male superintendent to be aggressive and relentless in community outreach, in all sections of the community, to make sure that everybody feels valued and engaged," Casserly said.

1994: Last white leader

In a 6-3 vote, the school board chose Graff over Brenda Cassellius, a black woman who grew up in the Twin Cities and worked in the district under superintendents Bernadeia Johnson and Carol Johnson before becoming the state education commissioner.

Peter Hutchinson was the last white superintendent of Minneapolis back in 1994.

In 2004, David Jennings, the interim leader after Carol Johnson left, was about to get voted in as superintendent until a group of black community members opposed him. Jennings eventually withdrew his name from consideration.

Debra Douglas, a Minneapolis resident and former school counselor, said she was concerned that Graff does not have a lot of experience working with black students.

"We bring the guy who only has 6 percent [black students], and he is supposed to make a mass difference? That child in Anchorage is not necessarily the type of child that we have here," Douglas said.

Before voting for Graff on Tuesday, school board member Don Samuels spoke of his concern that Graff was just "a white guy," and wanted to ensure he was not insensitive or presumptuous. Samuels said Graff spoke about his experience growing up on a reservation and learning about the experience of American Indians. Graff also chose to teach on a reservation when he was starting off as an educator.

Samuels said he believes there is a close relationship with the struggles of the American Indian students, from the largest minority group in Anchorage, and black students, from the largest minority group in Minneapolis.

"He immersed himself into it. He respects it. He listens to it," Samuels said. "This is all very important and speaks to his character."

Leslie Redmond, the education chair of the Minneapolis NAACP, said she spoke to several community members who were impressed with Graff. While he will face some obstacles in getting people to rally behind him, Redmond said it is evident that equity is at the forefront of his work.

"A good person can see all the oppression that the African-American community has endured and they can push their voices forward," Redmond said.

Steve Belton, the director of the Minneapolis Urban League, said the school district has been led by black superintendents for 22 years and that has not eliminated inequalities in how the district hires teachers and addresses achievement for students of color.

Belton said he is looking for a superintendent who has the "courage to confront and challenge racism," who believes all students can learn and who will have a plan to address equity issues in the district.

"That package does not have to be black, it does not need to be wrapped in someone with black skin," Belton said. "It needs to be wrapped in someone who has those commitments."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028