Minneapolis interim Superintendent Michael Goar is plowing ahead with significant changes to the school district like no other temporary chief in recent history.
In just a few months, he has hired a new chief financial officer and cut more than 100 central office employees, the largest staff reduction in at least two decades. Goar and central office staff already have dropped the term “interim,” even though school board members say they are a year away from naming a new superintendent.
“There are things we have to get done,” said Goar, who wants the job permanently. “I have nothing to lose.”
Goar finds himself in a precarious position, leading the state’s most troubled school district as it faces a multimillion-dollar shortfall and as he searches for a breakthrough on a persistent and dramatic achievement gap between white and minority students. Already, he has clashed with school board members over the cost of a new swimming pool, hired outside public relations consultants and embarked on a plan to dramatically trim the administrative ranks to increase classroom spending.
When Goar served as the top deputy to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, he was the behind-the-scenes administrator in the shadow of her big-picture and gregarious leadership style. Now, for the first time, he is front and center.
Some community members and current and former staffers say privately that Goar is aggressive, dives deep into details and has a very guarded persona. He doggedly tracks each department and insists on reviewing every presentation before it goes to the school board. He is quick to push back when he believes his staff is wrong.
Community leaders already are noticing a difference at the district headquarters.
“This is a town that often likes leadership that makes us feel comfortable,” said former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak is leading Generation Next, a nonprofit that works closely with the school district to close the achievement gap. “I don’t think we should always love our leaders. We should seek out people we respect, that can make tough calls.”
Rybak, who meets with Goar monthly, said he has left meetings with Goar feeling uncomfortable with his style. “I certainly don’t leave feeling comfortable with everything he said,” Rybak said.
Goar’s willingness to implement significant changes is a departure from previous interim school leaders. Since 1980, the district has had eight temporary superintendents who mostly acted as caretakers of the district until the new leader took over.
Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said school boards generally decide how much latitude to give an interim leader. He met with the Minneapolis board as they were beginning their search process.
“There is no rule that the interim has to just sit and have the trains running on time,” Casserly said.
Whether the board will pick Goar as the next superintendent remains a question. Mitch Trockman, the district’s board liaison, who works closely with the board and the superintendent’s office, said the board is serious about its nationwide search.
Boards have appointed internal candidates in the past without conducting a search, Trockman said. The hiring of a search firm signals the board is serious about finding the best candidate and not just considering Goar as its de-facto leader.
“The board is really having an opportunity to watch him,” said Trockman, who has served as interim superintendent in the past.
Goar has worked as a top administrative officer in Boston, Memphis and Minneapolis. He said he is learning to adjust to the superintendent role, but he admits he is sometimes too easily drawn into the intricate details of the district’s business.
At the end of each day, his secretary gives him about seven folders with copies of e-mails he needs to respond to, appointment requests, his calendar and other pending matters. He said he takes them home, makes dinner, watches some basketball and goes through each task.
At a recent meeting with top district leaders, Goar heard a presentation set to go before the board about a new internal operations improvement plan. Along the way, he would stop to ask questions and recommend different language.
“Not to say that I somehow know best, but I need to help you to frame it to give it more depth,” Goar said in an interview afterward.
He acknowledges what some current and former staffers have said privately, that his micromanaging can discourage top leadership from publicly disagreeing with him.
“I’m reflecting on this. Maybe it’s something wrong with me,” Goar said. “They should feel comfortable to push back. I want to create that dialogue with my Cabinet members.”
He often finds himself seeking advice from Carol Johnson, his mentor and former superintendent of Minneapolis schools. He said he doesn’t feel he has anyone internally who can be a sounding board and will give him honest feedback.
“I need someone who can criticize and critique me so I can be a better leader,” Goar said.
Outside of the central office, Goar is trying to build stronger relationships with a community that has at times grown weary of the district. Along with district staff, he recently visited People Serving People, a homeless shelter in Minneapolis, to serve food to residents. They served nearly 250 meals to families whose children mostly attend Minneapolis Public Schools.
“It’s very humbling,” he said.
Goar is rethinking other long-held practices. He instructed staff to meet with various branches of the military who want to be able to recruit in Minneapolis and offer students scholarships and job opportunities.
Terry Henry, who heads the district’s college and career readiness department, said these groups have been excluded from the district because of a policy passed several years ago. But Goar said the district should not “limit a student’s opportunities.”
There have been some setbacks in gaining the community’s trust. The Roosevelt High School community was angry about the way their budget had been allocated, forcing Goar to publicly admit that the district needs to be more transparent.
Most recently, some parents have been critical about changes in the district’s autism program and accuse Goar and his leadership team of being dishonest about what they will be doing with the program.
“There are always going to be people who will still be unhappy,” he said. “This is not a popularity contest.”