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?

But that is the least of the school board's worries. Because when Thandiwe Peebles is off plying her trade in some other city, the Minneapolis school board will still have to grapple with its miserable track record of recent superintendent hires. "It would be almost humorous if the consequences weren't so bad," says Alberto Monserrate, president of the Latino Communications Network in Minneapolis and publisher of the Spanish-language Gente Minnesota newspaper. "I have talked to so many people who have given up on our schools and here was Peebles, a person who maybe was abrasive but who obviously wasn't giving up. It doesn't matter what the board says. They either hired the right person and they didn't like what she was doing, or they hired the wrong person. Either way, the school board has failed."

And it's not the first time.

When Superintendent Carol Johnson announced her resignation in the summer of 2003, the single most pressing issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools was the racial achievement gap. A number of the city's schools were failing under the then-brand-new No Child Left Behind law. Propelled in part by a settlement with the Minneapolis NAACP, families of all classes were decamping for private schools, charter schools, and suburban schools. The board needed someone who could stanch the hemorrhaging of students out of the district. With virtually no public discussion, it tapped David Jennings.

For two years, Jennings had been the school system's chief operating officer. No one was surprised when he was appointed interim superintendent following Johnson's departure. But during a public retreat session two months later, the board caught the community off guard by deciding, more or less on the spot, to enter into long-term contract negotiations with Jennings. (It was not, in fact, the first time the board had made a snap decision. When it terminated the contract of Peter Hutchinson's Private Strategies Group, the for-profit company that won a contract to run the district in 1993, the board had chosen longtime local educator Carol Johnson without any public discussion.)

Choosing Jennings was an unconventional decision, to say the least. Before coming to the schools, Jennings 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 the plus column, Jennings had impeccable political ties to the Capitol set at a time when state support for public education was flagging; he also outlined bold plans for revamping the district financially. Plus, board members cheerfully noted, skipping a superintendent search would save time, and tens of thousands of dollars.

On the other side of the ledger, Jennings had never been a teacher, he lacked the requisite academic credentials, and he was white. Not just white: During his days in the Legislature, Jennings had voted against making Martin Luther King Day a state holiday, and against divestiture of state assets in apartheid South Africa, as Rev. Randy Staten of the Coalition of Black Churches hastened to point out. Staten's group was one of four organizations that filed for an injunction barring the district from negotiating a contract with Jennings. A few weeks before his surprise appointment, Jennings had told a room composed mostly of African Americans hostile to his leadership that he was simply an interim appointment and not the best qualified person for the job. Less than a month after being tabbed for the top job, Jennings up and quit.

"When you start looking for a permanent superintendent, you've got to look for an educator, preferably," Bill English, another Coalition of Black Churches member, told district officials at a community forum where Jennings was roasted. "And let me be very clear: a black educator."

The district did hold a series of community forums at which people were invited to hold forth on the values and priorities they hoped a new superintendent would possess. But when the formal hiring process commenced in January 2004, it was turned over to a Los Angeles-based search firm, Hamilton Rabinovitz & Alschuler. If the board had handled the search itself, the process by law would have been open to public scrutiny. A consultant, however, need not disclose the identities of candidates under consideration.

Hamilton Rabinovitz & Alschuler reps were quick to defend the need for secrecy. If applicants weren't assured confidentiality, they said, the best candidates wouldn't come forward. (Never mind that both Minneapolis's and St. Paul's superintendents had publicly interviewed for jobs in other cities: Carol Johnson's interviews elsewhere had won her raises back home; St. Paul superintendent Pat Harvey ultimately left her job here after being a finalist for the job in Denver.)

Minneapolis's consultants collected about a hundred résumés and set about winnowing the stack to three, two African American women and one white man. (According to City Pages interviews with people involved with searches in other cities, many of the candidates touted by the search firm were, like these three, graduates of an urban superintendents' training program sponsored by a think tank with ties to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who authored No Child Left Behind.)

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