The candidates hail from Minneapolis, Houston and Massachusetts. They’ve been teachers, principals and district administrators. They believe education is the key to overcoming hurdles presented by race and poverty, and they all want to be the next superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.
Michael Goar, Charles Foust and Sergio Paez, the three finalists for the job, say their backgrounds and experiences equip them to transform one of the state’s most underperforming school districts. They want to give students in Minneapolis, many of whom are minorities like them, the opportunity to succeed.
But school board members acknowledge that none of the candidates meets all the criteria they’d set forth, including a proven ability to work in a large urban district, build relationships in the community and help all students succeed academically.
“There is no perfect candidate,” said board member Tracine Asberry. “But we need to make sure that if we sacrifice anything, we are able to defend that and say this is going to help our students.”
It’s the first time in over a decade that Minneapolis has undertaken a national search for a schools leader. It comes at a time when the district is trying to repair its relationship with the community after several decisions in the past year left parents and teachers feeling as if the board and administrators were not addressing their concerns.
Since the district began its search in February, the board members have tried to reassure the community that they are committed to a genuine search — not just a process that will lead to hiring Goar because he has served as the district’s interim leader.
“This is one of the most important decisions this board will make,” Asberry said. “This decision will reflect who we are and what we want for this district.”
This week, candidates will meet with the board, parents, students and teachers. The board will name a finalist Dec. 7.
Goar said his dedication to Minneapolis comes from being a product of the school district — unlike Foust and Paez. Some board members have said they value the continuity he would bring to the job.
“This is my home,” said Goar, who was adopted from an orphanage in South Korea by a Minneapolis couple when he was 12.
“I’m sure [the candidates] are great people, but what sets me apart is that I have a depth and breadth of experience, and I understand Minneapolis a lot more than ever before.”
His vision for the district is to remain “persistent” with its initiatives, mainly to give more control to individual schools and hold them accountable to the district’s academic plan. That plan calls for a 5 percent improvement each year on state exams, an 8 percent improvement each year for minority students and a 10 percent increase in graduation rates. This year, the district saw less than a 1 percent gain on state exams.
Foust, the candidate from Houston, said the academic plan needs concrete steps to meet those goals. When he met with several teachers and staff members, Foust said many could not articulate what they needed to do to meet the district’s academic goals.
“Keep the goals, but every person needs to know what role they play in this huge plan,” Foust said.
Goar has never been a teacher or principal, something the board says it values in a superintendent.
“Even though I don’t have that background, I know what it means to have great teachers, and I will create a set of conditions for teachers to be successful,” Goar said, noting he would rely on others in the district to develop teaching strategies.
Foust said that approach “would be an insult to me as a teacher.”
“If a teacher asks you for advice, how do you coach that teacher?” Foust said.
Paez and Foust were both teachers and principals before becoming administrators. Both have focused much of their careers on turning around struggling schools.
Paez, a Colombian immigrant, became the superintendent in Holyoke, Mass., the most underperforming district in the state, in 2013. In one year, the district saw a 9 percentage point increase in graduation rates, a triumph for a district that had fewer students graduating each year. But at the end of Paez’s second year, the state took over the district and put the schools under the control of a receiver.
Devin Sheehan, a Holyoke City Council member and vice chairman of the school committee, said the district was under state scrutiny for several years and the takeover isn’t a reflection of Paez’s leadership.
“With all of the challenges that Holyoke had, it was not fair to push out an individual who was only here a year,” Sheehan said. “We would still have him here today. There are no qualms about his ability to lead.”
But Minneapolis board members have raised concerns about Paez’s relationship with the teachers union in Holyoke.
The Holyoke union president, Agustin Morales, who publicly spoke out against Paez and his policies, received a negative evaluation and was fired from his teaching job twice. Earlier this year, a state investigator found probable cause of retaliation.
Paez defends his relationship with teachers and the union, saying Morales was not representing the needs of all the teachers. Paez said he worked closely with other teachers to settle disputes. “I’ve always had a great relationship with the union and teachers,” he said.
Morales could not be reached for comment.
The Minneapolis board also noted concerns about Paez leading a district with 35,000 students when Holyoke had less than 6,000.
They have similar concerns about Foust, who has had little experience as a top administrator. Even though Houston has more than 200,000 students, Foust oversees fewer than a dozen middle schools.
Still, the Minneapolis board was impressed with his energy and said he exuded a charisma not seen in the other candidates. As the administrator tasked with turning struggling middle schools around in Houston, Foust said he constantly meets with principals to discuss strategies to improve student outcomes.
Terry Grier, the superintendent in Houston, said he is not concerned with Foust’s ability to guide a large urban district because he is a strong leader.
“It basically comes down to what your board wants,” Grier said. “Do they want status quo? Do they want what they’ve always had, or do they want to up their game and become one of the better districts in the country?”