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Can–or should–the Minneapolis School Board Be Saved?



(photo credit: Jerry Holt, Star-Tribune)

The Strib has a piece up about the Minneapolis School Board, currently in the spotlight for botching the search for the next superintendent.

With its national search in shambles, national and local educators say it won’t matter who the board chooses to be the next superintendent if its nine board members do not make major changes to how they conduct themselves.

In the past year, the board has been accused of micromanaging the superintendent and allowing more than a few meetings to get out of control, with protesters forcing board members to stop conducting business. Other times, the board has seesawed on controversial issues, like budgets and curriculum materials…..

It might be tempting to vilify this board as particularly incompetent. But I don’t think that’s fair or even helpful. The Minneapolis School Board has been mostly a dysfunctional form of governance for decades. Its levels of crazy wax and wane as board members come and go, delivering drama and long speeches, but very little change in how the district delivers education—even as it systematically fails children of color who now make up two-thirds of the district’s enrollment. 

So maybe it’s time to ask this crucial and often over-looked question: Should nine political activists be overseeing a $783 million annual operation with 7,000 employees, …essentially during their spare time in the evening? 

I mean, just try to imagine any large-scale scenario where this might end well….You can’t. Because it doesn’t. And no, I’m not arguing we should start paying school board members full-time salaries because we have two bigger governance problems.

First, our school board is too big. In 2012, the board went from seven members elected at-large to its current nine members— with six members elected from the park board districts and three elected at-large.  Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis) pushed this change through the state legislature, saying it would make it easier for local activists to run and represent their specific part of the city, which would lead to more board diversity, etc.

Unfortunately, the change seems to have made the board even more parochial and chaotic. Seven members were already a lot. But so far when nine people are in charge….honey, ain’t nobody in charge.

Second, the board does not attract board members with the skills needed to lead a giant operation tasked with educating 38,000 children. With the district’s $783 million budget and lucrative contracts beckoning like a Powerball lottery, Minneapolis school board elections are far more overtly political than those in surrounding suburbs and smaller cities.

In order to get elected to the Minneapolis board, you usually need to get the DFL endorsement, a truly tortuous process dominated by long-time party hacks and I write this as a DFLer and hack who regularly goes to the notorious, all-day DFL school board endorsing conventions. The teachers’ union dominates the process; their goal is protect their contracts; and potential candidates are carefully screened to make sure they toe the party/union line.

Nothing in this endorsement process attracts or rewards smart, experienced, gutsy or creative education leaders. In fact, it’s mostly hard-wired to produce the exact opposite.

Yes, it’s possible to run outside of DFL endorsement. But it’s expensive and the party and union tend to ferociously attack anyone who tries to go around them.

In short, the way we govern Minneapolis Public Schools guarantees its continual dysfunction and bad results. And as the board gets weaker and the education wars get more toxic, it’s probably going to get worse.

So what should we do? There are no perfect governing solutions. The state legislature would have to approve any governing changes. But here are a few options:

1) Downsize the board to five members and make it mayoral-appointed. A smart mayor would appoint a demographically diverse board with a mix of skills and experience in finance, management, teaching, strategic planning and communications. Board members would serve two or three-year terms. Under this method, I think we could attract more high-caliber leaders and give them more political protection to make tough decisions.

Does this deprive voters of having a direct say? Yes, but most voters have no idea who to vote for in school board elections anyway, which is why lots of them skip it on the ballot, blindly guess or just follow the endorsement.

Another variation would be to downsize the board to seven;  have the mayor appoint four members and the voters elect three.

2) Downsize the district into four separate new districts—North, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Minneapolis–and have each governed by a five-member elected board. Under this plan, each new district would have one or two high schools, a few middle schools and a handful of elementary schools. This would make them closer in size to a lot of suburban districts, more attuned to the specific needs of families in those neighborhoods and perhaps—hope springs eternal- easier to manage.

——Lynnell Mickelsen,  January 18. 2016
















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Congrats, Dr. Paez: Welcome to the impossible job of running Minneapolis Public Schools

Sergio Paez

(photo credit, Rene Jones Schnedier, Star-Tribune)

Last night, in a 6-3 vote, the Minneapolis School Board chose Dr. Sergio Paez to be its next superintendent.

Paez is an immigrant from Colombia, with a Ph.D in education from Boston College and a master’s degree from Harvard. He spent the last two years heading the public schools in Holyoke, MA, before the state put the struggling district of 5,600 students into receivership for poor academic results. No one says all this was Paez’ fault–he had just started trying to turn the district around before the state concluded it was too far gone.

Holyoke schools are 80 percent Latino and 15 percent white. Before leading that district, Paez spent six years heading ELL services in Worcester, MA , a district of 24,000 that was also mostly Latino and white.

All of this is a longish way of saying Paez has never run a district as large as Minneapolis nor one where the largest demographic of students (38 percent) are African-American. According to various sources, Paez is a nice, smart guy with his heart in the right place who may not be super-savvy when it comes to politics (and as I type this, I keep weirdly hearing Judy Garland’s voice yelling “Run, Toto, Run!” with the scary-hour-glass-running music playing behind.)

So why did the board pick Paez over the other two finalists, i.e. Michael Goar, the interim superintendent or Charles Foust, an assistant superintendent from Houston?

I can only speculate, but it appears Goar made some bold moves (laying off over 100 staff in the central office) as well a couple of enemies on the school board during his year as an interim. There were also murmurings, especially on the North side, that he didn’t really identify as African-American. (Goar is half-Korean, half-black and grew up in Korea before being adopted by a white American family at age 12.) Frankly, all of this comes with the territory. To be a superintendent (interim or otherwise) is to walk around with a target on one’s back.

Foust, meanwhile, apparently struck some board members as too black, too brash, too Texan, too liable to shake things up.

So Paez was the board’s consensus candidate. I mean, does this sound like Minneapolis or what?

Don’t get me wrong.  I wish Dr. Paez the best. My main fear is that he’ll spend a year or two to trying to get the lay of the land and assemble his staff….only to get eaten alive by local politics, toxic education debates and the wildly different needs of families of color and white families, all of which will be shrouded in the passive-aggressive fog of Minnesota Nice.

I mean, God help anyone who lands in this impossible job.

These competing agendas were already visible less than 24 hours after he was chosen when Paez took questions during 11 a.m. call-in show on Minnesota Public Radio. Let’s set this up. Paez is about to take over a district where middle-class white kids, who make up one-third of the enrollment, are thriving and scoring above state averages on tests.

Meanwhile, low-income children of color, who make up the other two-thirds, are systematically failing: only 25 percent can read or do math at grade level and their academic growth rates are either flat or negative, which means the longer they sit in district classrooms, the further they fall behind. Click on the link to see the latest Academic Progress Report. It’s the academic version of global warming, a huge, slow-motion disaster. 

Yet all of the call-in questions this morning appeared to come from white parents, who asked about how to help high-achieving kids; whether Paez would be willing hire adults to ride on every school bus to prevent their children from bullying each other and what Paez would do about misbehaving students who were disrupting classrooms (which is nearly always code for black kids.).

Welcome to our Not-So-Twin-Two-Very-Different-Realities-in-The-Same City, Dr. Paez!

Look, the most reliable way to be a beloved superintendent in this town is to be nice, approachable, talk about social justice and equity at various luncheons and civic gatherings and then—and this next part is key—don’t change much at all.  Just tinker around the edges a bit, give good speeches and lunch on. If you really want to last awhile, it’s how the game is played.

Meanwhile, the disaster keeps quietly rolling on. As with climate change, “there are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot.” But frankly, I don’t see how we really turn this around without giving our schools the autonomy to hire the best people they can find and the ability to dismiss ineffective ones. I’d also want to pay teachers more to work in challenging schools or in hard-to-fill subjects, hire more teachers of color, and break up the traditional three-month summer vacation into smaller chunks, so students don’t fall so far back in the summers., etc. Almost every school that is successful with children of color is using some combination of these tools and more.

But currently, there appears to be no way of even discussing these kind of changes without be labeled “divisive” or “polarizing” which is the kiss of death in a culture as conflict-averse as Minnesota.

I wish Dr. Paez all the best. I really hope he proves me wrong.  I won’t blame him (or at least not much) because it won’t be completely his fault. But at this point, I give him three years.

——Lynnell Mickelsen

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