Ed Graff had heard it all.
During a virtual school board meeting last month, parents lit into the Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent and board members for pushing his major redistricting plan forward during the pandemic. “A slap in the face to this community,” one parent said of the scheduled May 12 school board vote on Graff’s Comprehensive District Design proposal. “You are taking advantage of this virus to do whatever you want,” added another.
After three hours of voice mail testimony, Graff calmly briefed board members on a plan he believes will pull the district out of a yearslong cycle of budget deficits and help narrow an achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates. Not once did he acknowledge the stinging criticism.
“It’s eliminating historical inequitable policies and practices that traditionally have disadvantaged students of color and students from low-income neighborhoods,” Graff said of his plan. “And it’s positioning MPS to be structurally sustainable and able to serve students for years to come.”
It’s the type of response Graff has become known for. His colleagues say he is a reserved and thoughtful leader who is not rattled by backlash. His critics say he is charging forward amid a health crisis with a controversial plan that lacks widespread support.
“People feel like they’re talking until they’re blue in the face,” said Amy Gustafson, who has daughters in third and fifth grade at Windom School, which would lose its Spanish dual immersion magnet under Graff’s plan. “There’s never any acknowledgment that any of that input has actually been taken in, and that’s why families are so frustrated.”
Nearly four years into his tenure as chief of Minnesota’s third-largest school district, Graff is making perhaps the biggest gamble of his career on a sweeping plan that would redraw attendance boundaries and reduce and relocate magnet schools to the center of the city. The plan is meant to distribute resources more equitably and address a potential $20 million budget shortfall. It would also cut some of the district’s most popular programs and uproot thousands of students from their schools.
The district’s existing structure has led to more segregated schools and worse outcomes for North Side students, district leaders say. They say the redesign would help achieve better racial balance and avoid the potential shuttering of under-enrolled schools.
Graff has spent more than two years refining his vision for the future of Minneapolis Public Schools. On Tuesday, the school board will issue a verdict.
“We do need structural change,” said Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone. “It’s [Graff’s] leadership that has gotten us to where we are to have such a radical process on the table.”
Minneapolis Public Schools declined to make Graff or any of his staff available for interviews.
‘His desire to forge ahead’
Graff was born in Bemidji, Minn., but crisscrossed the country in family moves growing up, spending time at American Indian reservations in South Dakota and Native villages in Alaska.
The son of educator parents, Graff became a teacher and landed in Anchorage, Alaska, where he worked his way up to superintendent. He led the implementation of the Anchorage School District’s strategic plan and increased preschool and literacy efforts.
His intentions for Minneapolis schools were clear from the time he took the helm in 2016, said Danielle Grant, president and CEO of Achieve Minneapolis. She recalled her first conversation with Graff, in which he told her he would not have taken the job if he did not think he could turn the struggling district around.
Graff’s desire to improve student outcomes is the impetus behind the dramatic changes he’s proposed in his design, Grant said.
“I see him personally upset that we’re not doing a better job for those kids,” she said.
Former school board member Rebecca Gagnon traveled to Anchorage four years ago to vet Graff’s track record. In conversations with his then-colleagues, Gagnon said Graff earned high marks as a “listener” who “processes things and comes back with a thoughtful response.”
Gagnon’s opinion of Graff has changed since he rolled out his comprehensive design. She questions whether he has listened to those who challenge his plan, citing the countless parents and teachers who have pleaded for a more collaborative process.
“I think his desire … to forge ahead and be right is stronger than I would have anticipated,” Gagnon said.
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers repeatedly sought to be a partner in designing the comprehensive plan but was left out, said President Michelle Wiese. The union opposes the final plan.
“Here we have a few district leaders who are ... going to push through a CDD plan when there’s an overwhelming cry for, ‘let’s put on the brakes,’ ” Wiese said. A petition asking the district to delay the Tuesday school board vote has garnered 3,200 signatures.
Wiese is concerned about the price tag of Graff’s comprehensive plan. Ongoing operating costs would total about $11 million per year, and the district anticipates it would have to spend more than $560 million on capital projects over the next five years.
In an e-mailed statement, district spokeswoman Julie Schultz Brown said leaders are “not planning on additional budget deficits” if the comprehensive plan is approved. She noted the operating costs will be covered by roughly $7 million in yearly transportation savings and $4.5 million in integration funds.
School board Chair Kim Ellison praised Graff for doing what he believes is best for students. Though Graff does not always react publicly, Ellison said he made some key changes to satisfy concerns.
Graff kept two K-8 schools after families worried the grade configuration would be eliminated, as was initially proposed. He made sure there would be enough seats for students who would be displaced by the proposed relocation of some dual-language immersion programs. And current high school students would not be required to change schools.
Challenges compounded by COVID
Such flexibility will be needed in the implementation phase of Graff’s plan, Ellison said. She’s already spoken with him about the possibility that these changes could be delayed because of the pandemic. The plan now is for them to take effect in the 2021-2022 school year, if approved.
“Maybe it takes 18 months, 24 months to implement during a pandemic,” she said.
Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director of Generation Next, said implementing a comprehensive plan poses many challenges. Walker-Davis, a former St. Paul Public Schools administrator, said Graff will need to thoroughly engage the communities and families who would be most affected. He’ll also need to ensure resources are allocated to align with the mission of the plan.
Like many parents and teachers, North High School Principal Mauri Friestleben wishes she would have had a say in the creation of the comprehensive plan. Still, she commended Graff for charting a new path instead of clinging to the status quo.
“He is continuing to stand at the front of the ship and say, ‘This is the way we’re going.’ And I continue to stay on it,” she said.
Graff is taking plenty of risk in proposing such sweeping change, said Grant, of Achieve Minneapolis. The upheaval could cause more families to flee the district, putting Minneapolis schools in a more dire financial position.
“If this can provide the spark to really change the school district for the better … this bold leadership will be very, very appreciated,” Grant said.