Once a contract is finalized, students in the Minneapolis Public Schools will have a new superintendent — an East Coast educator who could be on the job in just a few weeks. Given the challenges facing the district, sooner is better.
Sergio Paez, 48, the former superintendent in Holyoke, Mass., was selected by the Minneapolis school board to run the 35,000-student district. He won the job following panel discussions, public interviews and community forums that included two other finalists — interim superintendent Michael Goar and Houston school administrator Charles Foust.
For the first time in about a decade, the board conducted a national search. The last three superintendents for the state’s third-largest school system were hired from within.
One unusual twist in the selection process is worth noting. It’s typical for a newly selected superintendent and a hiring board to iron out some contract terms after a hire is announced. But in this case, two board members plan to visit Paez’s former school district sometime this month.
School board Chairwoman Jenny Arneson told the Star Tribune that the board and the consulting firm it used in the hiring process have completed reference and background checks. So what’s the purpose of the trip? If it’s to complete a final check on Paez, why wasn’t it done before he was selected? Arneson said the visit will show the public that the district is doing its due diligence, but it’s unclear if the district would back out of the hire if it doesn’t like what it sees or hears in Holyoke.
The hiring process aside, there is much to like about the potential that Paez offers Minneapolis. Those who supported him in a 6-3 vote on Monday believe he has the experience, leadership and communications skills to help unite the staff around a shared vision.
Similar to his counterpart in St. Paul, superintendent Valeria Silva, Paez’s life story is American-dream material. A native of Colombia, Paez immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. Like Silva, he taught and led English language learners programs before becoming superintendent in Holyoke. Those kinds of stories can be inspirational for all students and families faced with language and other obstacles to learning.
Like many urban school CEOs, Paez will face many challenges. First, as an outsider, he’ll need to learn more about Minneapolis and the region. It’s admirable that he reached out to a number of local leaders while going through the interview process. What he no doubt heard repeatedly is that his primary focus must be the persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color. On that score, he had success with English language learners while working as an assistant superintendent with the 20,000-student Worcester (Mass.) School District.
Paez was superintendent of Holyoke public schools for two years before a receiver took over the school system in July. However, during his short time in that job, he was credited with helping to increase graduation rates by 9 percent. A city leader there said that the underperforming district was under state scrutiny for several years and that the takeover wasn’t a reflection of Paez’s leadership.
During the candidate interviews, the school board said a new superintendent likely would start in July. But on Tuesday, the district’s attorney said that timetable had been moved up and that the Paez could be on the job sometime in January.
Minneapolis residents — along with other Minnesotans who recognize the importance of strong central-city schools — should wish him well as he works to build trust in the district and improve student learning.