Tales out of School

An exit interview with former Minneapolis school-board member Bill Green

After eight years of occasional triumphs, trying times, and tough decisions, Minneapolis school-board member Bill Green decided not to run for reelection. When Green was first elected to that most thankless of political positions in 1992, the district was reeling from a financial scandal wrought by former superintendent Bob Ferreira. In May of 1996, Green made headlines by assigning a failing grade for leadership to the Public Strategies Group, a private consulting firm led by Ferreira's successor, Peter Hutchinson. By contrast, he has always been an ardent supporter of current superintendent Carol Johnson, whom he helped to recruit.

While Green was chair of the board from 1996 to 1999, demonstrators in support of the Minneapolis NAACP's education desegregation suit against the State of Minnesota disrupted school-board meetings by shouting and banging on drums. The protesters also referred to Green and the two other African-American board members as Uncle Toms. Despite the passage of three school-funding referendums during the past eight years, the district is beset by a dropout rate of nearly 50 percent and a greater prevalence of low test scores among students of color. Just recently controversy broke out over the board's decision to grant a $30,000 raise to Superintendent Johnson, who last summer spurned a job offer in Nashville.

Green addressed these and other topics with typical candor last week over lunch at a small Middle Eastern restaurant near Augsburg College, where he is an associate professor of history and African-American studies. The interview occurred less than two weeks after his final school-board meeting.

While on the Minneapolis school board, Bill Green missed interacting with students one-on-one
Craig Lassig
While on the Minneapolis school board, Bill Green missed interacting with students one-on-one

City Pages: For four years you volunteered at Hall Elementary, where your son Nicholas [now a National Merit Scholar] went to school. Then you spent the next eight years on the school board. Which experience was more rewarding and where were you more effective?

Green: Apples and oranges. Those four years in an inner-city school, where 70 percent of the students were of color, were very gratifying because I was hands-on. For many of those kids, I was the only male nurturer in their lives. But the boardroom was where monies were being allocated and where the face of the school district was being created. It would dictate whether the district could be something people could trust. It was the place to do things like improve Barton [Open Elementary] School and get a number of new buildings completed. I felt I could contribute to a more commodious relationship with the teachers, and later make a smooth transition for Carol [Johnson]. Those are all things I am really proud of, and I couldn't have done them from the classroom. But it also becomes alienating to know as you sit around a table and talk about schools esoterically, you are not really improving the educational experience of a child at that moment. That's probably one reason why I realized it was time for me to step down.

CP: Was it particularly tough to be vilified by the NAACP?

Green: I was teaching a course in civil-rights history at the time we were being sued by the NAACP, so I knew the tactics had nothing to do with me personally. You demonize the cause by personalizing the enemy. And I was chair, so I was an easy target. But yeah, I was hung in effigy during one of the meetings and I still have the effigy hanging in my office as a reminder that sometimes in a political situation people and facts become dispensable. There was no empirical data showing that their solution was better--that putting a black kid from the city into a white school in the suburbs would lead to that black kid's achievement.

CP: As part of the state's settlement with the NAACP, $5 million was to be earmarked by the legislature for metro desegregation. But lawmakers pulled that money from the budget during the 2001 session. What has been the NAACP's response?

Green: They said nothing. That's another part of the tragedy of that whole experience; they never followed up on the money. But the data we looked at last Tuesday showed that African-American kids, in particular at certain elementary grade levels, are not improving. The mood in St. Paul is to tighten the budget for school districts. There is an assault on public education, and in the midst of all this, I haven't heard the NAACP say a damn thing.

CP: People have criticized the schools for dropout rates and disparate test scores. What can be done to address these problems, especially given current budget constraints?

Green: That's one of the reasons I am no longer on the board. Because I don't know the answers to those questions. We've looked at the curriculum, changed the curriculum, and probably have other aspects of the curriculum we still need to change. But even if we had the best curriculum, the best training for teachers, the best training for principals, we have got this problem with mobility. Kids are still moving around and, especially when they're from out of state, sometimes the record keeping doesn't come along. Anytime there is a hostile spot in the world, the child of the refugee is going to be in the Minneapolis public schools within 12 months. We don't even understand the depths of poverty in our own community. And it is hard for us to even recognize the presence of poverty because we don't talk about it.

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