We're All Bozos on This Board

After watching the last two superintendents it tabbed go up in smoke, what will the Minneapolis School Board do for an encore?

When Thandiwe Peebles's tenure as superintendent of Minneapolis schools ended a couple of weeks ago, she

blew out of town in much the same manner she had arrived in August 2004: abruptly, and amid secrecy and controversy over the workings— not to mention the judgment—of the MPS Board of Education that hired her. In all, it took board members a grand total of 66 seconds to call their January 27 meeting to order, accept a much-negotiated letter of resignation from Peebles, who did not attend, and gavel the proceedings to a close.

The resignation, for which Peebles received a roughly $180,000 buyout, brought an end to 17 months of rancor and infighting at the troubled district. Shortly after she arrived, district employees had begun complaining that Peebles routinely ordered staff to perform personal tasks for her, such as driving her to McDonald's and walking her dog. Teachers and administrators complained that her style amounted to "shaming and blaming," and accused the new super of terrorizing staff by calling them out at meetings and conducting surprise inspections. Before long district staffers were complaining directly to school board members. "All of us have heard different things," board member Sharon Henry-Blythe told City Pages in October 2004. "We are listening very carefully."

Even Peebles's seeming success at lowering the achievement gap between white and black students in the Minneapolis system did little to quell her critics. In the summer of 2005, spurred on by continuing staff discontent and leaks to Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt, the board hired an investigator named Dennis O'Brien to look into the matter. After receiving his report in mid-January, the board began negotiating with Peebles over the terms of her departure.

Following the one-minute meeting at which they accepted Peebles's resignation, the board held a press conference. A passel of Minneapolis DFL leaders, including Mayor R.T. Rybak and then-City Council Chair Paul Ostrow, filed in and formed a crescent flanking school board Chair Joseph Erickson at the podium. It was a difficult day, Erickson intoned. He then introduced former school board member Bill Green (who is also a colleague of Erickson's on the faculty of Augsburg College) as the interim superintendent, extolling Green's credentials and calling him "part of our family." It was time to "heal" and "stabilize" the district, Erickson announced. He boasted that the termination of Peebles's contract had "only" cost the district $179,500, a figure substantially less than her contract called for in the event of her termination without cause. No, he told questioners, he could not discuss the reasons for Peebles's departure. According to the terms of the severance agreement passed out to reporters, both sides agreed not to disparage the other. The MPS will even keep a letter of recommendation for Peebles on file for her next job search. "We respect her right to confidentiality," Erickson told the crowd, which consisted of numerous African American parents as well as assembled reporters. "It is of no interest to us to see her reputation sullied."

At this, many of the black parents and advocates in the room erupted in derisive hoots.

Many of these people had been insisting for months that Peebles was the subject of a witch hunt at the hands of a board that lacked the spine to deal with the racial achievement gap that Peebles had specifically been hired to bridge. The most eloquent advocates on behalf of Peebles had education credentials of their own.

W. Harry Davis—the first African American member of the Minneapolis School Board, who served there for 21 years—was among the Peebles supporters in the audience. Three days earlier, Davis had proclaimed himself "shocked, disappointed, and discouraged" at what he termed the "personal vendetta" launched against Peebles, and called upon the board members responsible for the anti-Peebles campaign to resign. Another Peebles supporter on hand was Kelley Green-Hardwick. As the daughter of the legendary former Minneapolis superintendent Richard Green (1980-'88), Green-Hardwick was in a unique position to challenge the allegation that Peebles used district resources to tend to her personal affairs. Before Peebles's resignation, Green-Hardwick told the press that her father "had his secretary do the mundane things" like make doctor's appointments and update his personal calendar. "His focus was running the system, like any other superintendent, any other CEO, any other leader. And just so you know, he never came under the frivolous scrutiny that this superintendent has come under."

Put bluntly, most of the African Americans in the room weren't buying one bit of Erickson's conciliatory, forward-looking shtick. And if the board chair had expected the interim appointment of Bill Green, an African American and respected scholar of the civil rights movement, to calm things down, he was sorely mistaken.

"Can Dr. Green respond to how he is being used by the Democratic Party and this board?" cried community activist Alfred Flowers at one point. "They are talking about not sullying Dr. Peebles's reputation, but they already did it. And they have destabilized the African American community with this. Now they put you forward to keep us quiet because we have a majority of the kids in the district and our concerns were not met when our leadership tried to talk to the school board about Dr. Peebles. What do you say to that?" Flowers demanded, to hearty applause.

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