With his reputation under attack and his career on the line, the kid who grew up in the streets of Bogota, Colombia, took on his biggest career crisis by going into the belly of the beast last week, where he faced angry citizens, tough questions and harsh assessments of the public school system.

At least there was pumpkin pie.

Sergio Paez, the guy who was the favorite to lead the Minneapolis school system until he wasn’t, probably had nothing to lose as he waited for the Minneapolis school board to determine his fate. Considering all the bad news about public schools — just as the legislative session is about to begin — board members probably just wished Paez would disappear.

Crisis managers I spoke with, however, said Paez’s rogue visits with city leaders and average citizens in small cafes was a bold stroke. It might not save his current job offer, they said, but it’s the kind of honesty and leadership potential that employers might like to see when they Google his name.

Paez’s job has been on ice since allegations arose — suspiciously, two days after he won the nod — that staff at a school in his former district in Massachusetts abused special education students. A criminal investigation is now underway, and Paez has repeatedly said that the state closed the issue months ago and he had already ordered reforms due to the abuse. Paez carried the state report with him last week, offering to send it to dozens of people who gave him their contacts.

At Avenue Eatery in north Minneapolis, a man asked to meet with Paez before his public appearance the next morning. As he promised, Paez arrived 15 minutes early to talk with the man, a signal he was willing to win the job, one resident at a time.

While the media grilled Paez at Avenue Eatery over the situation in Holyoke, Mass., and the critical report from the Massachusetts Disability Law Center, none of the dozen people gathered to meet him did. They were clearly less interested in the past than in how Paez was going to narrow the achievement gap between black and white students.

There, Paez stressed his successes in turning around his former district, increasing graduation rates dramatically in just two years. He made sure to credit teachers for their thankless jobs, and acknowledged he understood the deep dysfunction in the Minneapolis system. “I have to say, there is not a more difficult job in this country than to be a teacher in an urban area,” he said.

It was a different story at the Fireroast Cafe in south Minneapolis, where several parents with special-needs kids criticized his response to reports of abuse in his former district.

One woman said Paez’s decision to not reveal the investigation to the board here was a “failure ethically and politically. Right now you have lost my support, and I’m sorry to say that,” she said.

Of the report that criticized the handling of incidents at the Massachusetts school, Paez said, “I was totally shocked.” He said that he responded and was “very decisive, very aggressive.”

Annie Mason spoke up at Fireroast. “I think it’s simplistic to say you could have and should have been able to shut that down,” said Mason, a faculty member at the University of Minnesota and a parent of two Minneapolis Public Schools students with special needs. She thinks “situations like this should be seen as the canary in the coal mine” in weighing someone’s leadership abilities. “I would like to see school leadership to be transparent so you don’t have to wonder what is going on.”

During a phone interview after his visit, Paez said he wasn’t trying to pressure the board by coming back to Minnesota, but rather, to offer that transparency parents like Mason desire. He said he was relying on “fairness, logic and common sense” to determine his fate. Good luck with that.

Paez said his visits gave him more perspective on the job. One parent called the district “a pig in a poke,” while another called it “a hot mess.” Still others referred to the district as “top-down, driven by politics” and “dismissive of parents.”

“We have a culture that is very, very sick,” said one woman.

One of the takeaways from the meetings was that most decisions that have been made “were for the adults, not the children,” Paez told parents.

Paez is refreshingly candid and likable, but his missteps in Massachusetts, real or perceived, may well disqualify him. That would be a shame because he has an inspiring story.

His family left Bogota in the early 1980s, when the drug war was heating up and the government was fighting guerrillas. I lived in Bogota at the time and know it was a period of turmoil and violence. Paez said his family was lower- to middle-class, and he arrived in the U.S. speaking no English. He said it was the biggest challenge of his life.

“I grew up confident, but I became somebody else [after immigrating],” he said. “I was less than myself for the first time in my life.”

He learned English, graduated from Harvard and got a Ph.D in education. He closed his own achievement gap.

That may not be enough for the board, however. Its lack of due diligence has put it in a horrible spot. It can’t keep Michael Goar as interim superintendent after passing him over. Rumors have mentioned board members could bring in a temporary local “savior” from the ranks, or even former superintendent Carol Johnson, now retired. But given the chaos, what qualified future candidate would want to come to Minneapolis?

The board could choose to see the investigation in Massachusetts as an outlier in Paez’s otherwise admirable career and give him a shot, but Paez would be eaten alive by the political wranglings in the city without the board’s unquestioning support.

Knowing more than ever about the situation after his meetings, Paez still wants the job.

“I still have to fight for my professional life,” Paez said. “I wanted to show I wouldn’t shy away from anything. Being silent was the worst thing I could do.

“I will keep working for children,” he said. “Life has been good to me. I’m living the American dream every day.”

 

jtevlin@startribune.com

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