Minneapolis school board members and community members are looking for a new superintendent who is keenly focused on improving achievement and who will not settle for the stagnation the district has seen in recent years.
“This district has a long history of very good intentions, very high aspirations and then marginal to no growth,” Board Member Don Samuels said. “We need someone that is so discontented with that kind of combination that they would not be able to live with themselves if the same was repeated.”
School board members are beginning their search for a new leader, the most important decision the new board will make in a deeply uncertain time. The district is faced with one of the largest achievement gaps in the country and has been at the center of several federal inquiries that allege discrimination in the schools. So many parents have opted for other districts or charters that the loss of state aid has blown a $5 million hole in the district budget.
The board voted Tuesday to move forward with hiring a search firm to find the district’s next top executive. Already, a favorite is emerging among the teachers union president and some principals — interim Superintendent Michael Goar, the former second-in-command.
He is seen by many as the quiet and organized enforcer who put many of the past superintendent’s ideas into practice.
“We feel [Goar] is going to move us in the right direction,” Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Lynn Nordgren said. “He seems to have a strong belief in the teachers and knows how important they are. He seems to have a lot of common sense about what’s needed for students.”
Donna Andrews, the president of the Minneapolis Principals Forum, said she has been impressed with Goar’s openness and transparency.
“Principals are pleasantly surprised and happy that Goar took the position for now, and a lot of them would be really happy to have him stay in that position, because it’s nice to have someone who knows our district,” Andrews said.
In the past, a fresh leader would come in and bring new plans before the current initiatives had a chance to be fairly critiqued, Andrews said. Former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson left behind a new academic plan that schools are just now implementing. The plan will require schools to make big gains in test scores and graduation rates. She also began shifting resources and major decisions from the central office to individual schools through her Community Partnership Schools initiative. The first five schools in that program were named this year and will being functioning with more autonomy in the fall.
No starting over
While some board members haven’t honed in on a specific candidate, they have made it clear that they don’t want someone to throw away Johnson’s initiatives.
“We can’t come in and start all of this over. Someone can’t come in and say we know you voted on an academic plan, but now it needs to look like this,” said Board Vice Chairwoman Kim Ellison. “We haven’t given our schools enough time to put our current plan in place.”
Board Members Samuels, Siad Ali, Josh Reimnitz and Carla Bates also do not want to see some of Johnson’s most significant plans dismantled. Board Members Tracine Asberry and Nelson Inz say they’re more inclined to change.
“The most important thing is that we have someone that can come in and continue the things that are working and have the courage to say what is not working and that we will not continue those things,” Asberry said.
Board Member and Treasurer Rebecca Gagnon did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Chairwoman Jenny Arneson said in a written statement that her top priority was to hire a superintendent who “has the skills to create a system where all students achieve.”
The new superintendent will have to bridge a divide within the city’s schools. Some face extreme poverty and low academic results, while others are excelling academically.
Jennifer Hahs, a south Minneapolis parent, said she wants a greater commitment to rigorous academics. She feels there isn’t a strong investment in challenging children who are already high academic achievers.
“I want a superintendent to create a culture of high expectations for students, parents and teacher,” Hahs said.
Sondra Samuels, president of the Northside Achievement Zone, wants a superintendent that will not be content with allowing failure for children of color.
“I need a superintendent that people are going to hate because they are not politically correct,” said Samuels, who is married to Don Samuels. “We need a superintendent who looks at the failure of black and brown students as if they were dying.”
State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, said the next leader of Minneapolis schools needs a strong support network. He said Johnson sometimes lacked a group of close allies she could turn to for support.
“One of [Johnson’s] issues was that she might have been isolated and feeling alone, and you can’t do this work, any kind of leadership, unless you have a network around you,” Mariani said. “So the question will be, ‘What’s your ability to form powerful alliances with folks that support you?’”