Just 24 hours before the Minneapolis school board votes on who will be the next leader of the state’s third-largest school district, about three dozen people showed up to a public comment session at district headquarters.
The two finalists — Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, and Ed Graff, outgoing superintendent in Anchorage, Alaska — were not there and the nine members of the board said little. But those who spoke had plenty to say.
Each person had three minutes to speak before the buzzer blared.
Gary Marvin Davison was firmly in Cassellius’ corner. He said he called her after she gave out her cellphone number at a community reception last week, and “we are already working to help a student at Edison [High School]. Already. That’s a person who cares.”
Cassellius “is transformative,” Davison said. “You’ve made some grave mistakes. Don’t pass this one up.”
Elizabeth Campbell told the board that she views Cassellius as a protégé of former Minneapolis superintendent Carol Johnson, and that Graff would be her choice.
“He builds bridges,” she said. “It’s time for a change.”
Bill English disagreed, saying that Graff is a “a proven failure” who has been “frequently fired.”
Picking a new superintendent to lead the 37,000-student district has been arduous. Last December, after a lengthy process, the board voted to hire Sergio Paez of Massachusetts, then rescinded its offer after allegations surfaced of abuse at a school in his former district.
Then as the board was about to offer the job to Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, a group of protesters stopped the vote. Goar eventually withdrew his name. He will run Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities after he leaves the school district this summer.
Graff, who is originally from Minnesota, has not worked here as an educator. He has been Anchorage superintendent since 2013 but the board there did not renew his contract.
Cassellius has served as education commissioner for five years and, before that, was a teacher and administrator in the Minneapolis district.
Leslie Redmond, education chair for the Minneapolis NAACP, had some questions — which went unanswered — and some advice for the board after the NAACP held two community meetings on the superintendent search.
Why were only two candidates selected? Did everyone on the search committee vote? Was there a majority vote or was it unanimous?
Redmond said the new superintendent must focus on “increasing teachers of color” and “not focus on behavioral issues but be ready to address the deeper-rooted issues students face.” And above all, “Stay away from politics.”
Teto Wilson echoed Campbell’s comments when he said, “We’ve been selecting superintendents from the same group of politically connected friends and … they’ve been failing our students. We need a complete paradigm shift.”
Wilson said the two candidates offer different approaches.
“It doesn’t matter whom you choose if the board can’t start to work together,” he said.
“Please work hard to get over your own personal feeling toward each other. Let your first, second and third priorities be on the students.”
Shoshana Davis, a special-education assistant at Riverbend School, talked about the shortage of paraprofessionals in the schools.
“It may seem like a smaller issue but it affects our most vulnerable students,” she said.
Kyheim Abdul, 16, a student at South High School, and his grandmother were some of the first ones at Monday’s session.
He urged the board to pick someone who is “fearless and not afraid to tackle racism” and someone who not only cares about the students of color, but the teachers of color, too.
Next up, his grandmother: “My name is Chiffon Williams and I do care. I really do. I raised 10 children in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Minneapolis used to be on top. Now that I’m a grandmother, my children … sent their children to charter schools. Minneapolis Public Schools are failing.
“I just hope and pray that [the next superintendent is] hands-on,” she said. “I just want it to get better.”
As the hourlong session wrapped up, board chairwoman Jenny Arneson reminded the audience that the board will be back at 6 p.m. Tuesday to vote on the next superintendent.