Less than a month before he was appointed superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools, David Jennings sat at a Lucille's Kitchen public forum alongside school board chair Sharon Henry-Blythe and outgoing superintendent Carol Johnson. He was blistered by a room full of predominantly black city residents gathered at the north side diner.
Already irate over the paltry graduation rate of African American students and the layoffs of dozens of black teachers because of budget cuts, those gathered wanted to know why Jennings, a white man with no academic credentials, had been named the interim superintendent. "Mr. Jennings, you are in a tough place," said one audience member. "If you have any kind of respect for public education, you will step aside as soon as possible to bring somebody in that can do the job."
Jennings would fend for himself, but not before Henry-Blythe and Johnson, two black women, rushed to his defense: Both emphasized that he was filling the position for the short term. Then it was Jennings's turn to speak. "First of all, let me be clear that I don't put myself forward as the best qualified man in America to lead the Minneapolis public schools," he said. "The fact is, we are in a transition mode as a result of Carol's decision."
But for all the talk of Jennings simply warming a vacant seat, the school board surprised everyone last week by naming him as Johnson's permanent replacement. The district has been one of the last remaining bastions of liberal politics in the state, but the Jennings hire indicates that those days are numbered. Before becoming the school system's chief operating officer two years ago, Jennings, who lives in Burnsville, had been a corporate executive at Schwan's, president of the Greater Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, and a Republican Speaker of the House in the Minnesota Legislature. In short, he doesn't exactly fit the traditional mold of an MPS superintendent.
Despite this conservative track record, school board members were unanimously enthusiastic about their decision, and former board members Catherine Shreves and Albert Gallmon (the latter the head of the local NAACP), along with the Star Tribune editorial board, all heartily endorsed the appointment.
So what gives?
Those aboard the Jennings bandwagon believe his corporate and legislative experience make him a formidable opponent of so-called "reformers" who are laying siege to public education at the state and federal levels. It's not far-fetched to regard the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" as an agenda for discrediting and ultimately dismantling public school systems nationwide. Because of this, board members like Audrey Johnson and Dennis Schapiro happily explain the political motives behind their support for the new superintendent. "I think David Jennings has the guts enough to stand up and say this is not right," Johnson says, expressing dismay with new state education standards. "He is on good terms with a lot of people who are power brokers at the legislature and I don't see how that would hurt us."
Jennings is shrewd enough not to paint the picture in such stark terms. Yet it's clear that he relishes taking up the cause of public education. "My point of view isn't going to change the minds of those ideologues determined to privatize the system," he admits, after emphasizing that he did not consider himself a candidate for superintendent at the time of the Lucille's Kitchen forum. "To the extent we get everyone to put their cards on the table and say what they are up to, it is a good thing. If my participation can help that, great."
How this fits internal politics of the MPS operation, and in a district overwhelmingly made up of students of color, remains to be seen. As a long-standing admirer of Carol Johnson, Jennings claims that the biggest difference between him and his predecessor will be one of style. Jennings has cultivated a reputation as a straight shooter, a stark contrast to Johnson's touchy-feely consensus building. His supporters believe Jennings will bring substantial policy concerns to a head more rapidly.
With the criticism from Lucille's Kitchen no doubt echoing in his ears, and a host of black leaders decrying the hiring at a news conference last Friday, Jennings knows he needs to prove himself on minority relations. "It is clear to me that the common thread in the obstacles we face is related to the [achievement] gap that exists for poor kids and kids of color," Jennings claims, adding that the system needs to hire more minority teachers and stabilize staffs at problem schools.
Both remedies would roll back rights--seniority privilege for predominantly white instructors, and choice of schools for teachers--bargained for by the teachers' union. But the achievement gap has been chronic and glaring enough that the school board members--who depend on union support come election time--might not mind letting Jennings take the lead. Hiring someone who can be a savior at the Capitol and a heavy within the MPS administration is a win-win situation for the board.