By announcing the choice of a new superintendent before fully vetting him, the Minneapolis school board now finds itself in an embarrassing spot — one that raises disturbing questions about the search and hiring process.
Without further delay, the board should cut its losses, break off contract talks with Sergio Paez for good and restart the selection process.
Early last week, the board announced that Paez, the former superintendent in Holyoke, Mass., would become the district’s next top administrator. He got the nod following a 10-month national search conducted by a consultant, as well as panel discussions, public interviews and community forums with three finalists.
But just 48 hours after the announcement, a report by the Disability Law Center alleged that students in a Holyoke special education program were abused by school staff members while Paez was superintendent. The nonprofit advocacy group described excessive use of restraints and said students were “thrown to the floor and slapped.”
Under Massachusetts law, physical restraint can be used as a last resort and only when a student’s behavior poses a serious threat to the student or someone else. The school did not report the restraints or their related injuries to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as required by statute, the report alleges.
Last week, Paez told the Star Tribune that he was aware of the allegations and that his office had investigated and found no student neglect. “The state was on top of it. I was on top of it, and that’s the end,” he said.
But that wasn’t the end. Now Massachusetts education officials are investigating the incidents. And Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni has launched a criminal investigation.
That series of events casts a shadow on Minneapolis school leaders, because they announced Paez as their pick and then said they’d do a site visit in Holyoke before finalizing his contract. Last week, the Star Tribune Editorial Board asked why that visit wasn’t done before the announcement.
“I am just thankful that we are doing our due diligence and doing a site visit,” said Carla Bates, one of three school board members who did not vote for Paez. Six members supported his hiring. Contract talks have been suspended until two board members return from their site visit to Holyoke and report back to the full board on Jan. 12.
No one should prejudge the outcome of the criminal investigation. It’s possible that nothing will come of the probe or the review by Massachusetts education officials. Nonetheless, the process that led to the selection of Paez is tainted. It’s especially troubling that neither Paez nor the search firm hired by the district — Hazard, Young Attea and Associates — informed Minneapolis officials about the abuse allegations.
The Minneapolis School District is struggling to address the achievement gap and enrollment challenges. It needs a strong and credible leader who can rally students, parents, teachers and administrators as well as rebuild faith in the city’s critically important public schools. And that leader must emerge from a hiring process that is above reproach.