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?

In June, the troika selected by HR&A spent two whirlwind days interviewing in Minneapolis. Providence Superintendent Cheryl King's conciliatory, uplifting style reminded many of outgoing Superintendent Carol Johnson. Like Jennings, Seattle Superintendent Joseph Olchefske had been his district's finance chief before ascending to the big chair.

Peebles, by contrast, was something completely new. She had never been a superintendent. Her candidacy rested on her success in turning around several tough schools in Cleveland, where she was an administrator. She had a reputation for bluntness; people involved in the search dubbed her a "pistol." The head of the Minneapolis teacher's union, Louise Sundin, told the Star Tribune that her counterpart in Cleveland had offered a warning: "Louise, I honestly don't know if Minneapolis is ready for Thandiwe Peebles. If you want sugar and spice, she ain't it."

The year before, Peebles had been one of two finalists for the superintendent's job in Charleston, South Carolina. She lost out there after board members visited Cleveland to learn more about her, former Charleston board member Gregg Meyers told City Pages shortly after Peebles was hired in Minnesota. "There was a stylistic difference. We thought Thandi's approach might not work so well in our schools," he said. "Thandi had more of a take-no-prisoners approach."

The Minneapolis board made no such outreach, apparently leaving it to their consultants to handle every aspect of vetting. The board was also willing to overlook some weak spots on Peebles's résumé. Her doctorate had not been conferred, and it was apparent that Minneapolis would have to ask the state to let Peebles finish qualifying for a Minnesota superintendent's license after she was on the job.

Peebles accepted the job before getting on the plane to go home. In the weeks that followed, she and the board negotiated a plump contract. In addition to a starting salary of some $168,000 plus guaranteed raises, Peebles would receive a $700-a-month car allowance, a health club membership, a benefits package including such rarities as long-term care insurance, and a clause requiring the board to pony up $250,000-$350,000 in the event she was fired without cause. (Hence Erickson's upbeat proclamation that Minneapolis taxpayers would "only" pay her $179,500 in severance.)

If Minneapolis School Board members are at all chastened by having their last two superintendent appointments blow up in their faces, they hide it well. After the January 27 meeting and press conference that rid them of Peebles, smaller groups of board members met with individual media outlets for more exclusive news-gathering. During the City Pages confab, board members Erickson and Judy Farmer weren't exactly in the mood for mea culpas or self-examination.

Erickson seems to put most of the blame for the David Jennings imbroglio on Jennings's (mostly African American) critics. "I think David and the board both thought he could do a good job—and I still think he could do a good job. But he was at a point in his life where he was looking at how much work it would have been to win over those people who were critics of his, and he felt like he couldn't do the job and fight that fight. I saw his leaving frankly as a selfless act on his part."

So how does he explain the Peebles problem? "Anything that happens for a superintendent is magnified to a tremendous degree," Erickson replies without the slightest ruffle. "I doubt that David Jennings would have left as CEO of any other organization in Minnesota under the circumstances—that is to say, the unique crucible of social and political forces here. That we have had two leaders who weren't able to complete their intended terms, I don't think it is so much an indictment even of the process—what is the average [tenure], nationally, of urban superintendents? It's less than three years."

"We actually have quite a reputation for not being a revolving door, the way some urban districts are," chimes in Farmer. "Richard Green was here for eight years. Bob Ferrera was here for five years. Carol Johnson was here for six." Neither Farmer nor Erickson professes the slightest pang of alarm over the fact that they've run through two superintendents in less than two years, one of whom just received a whopping six-figure settlement expressly framed to ensure that no one can learn why she "resigned."

For that matter, Erickson and Farmer still demur when asked what role, if any, the school district plays in exacerbating the gross racial and class disparities that prevail in Minneapolis public schools. From arrest records to imprisonment rates to math and reading test scores, the gap in outcomes between black and white in Minneapolis is larger, often substantially so, than in most metro areas around the country.

"First, we don't have to accept the supposition that it is a dysfunctional dynamic," Erickson replies. "I think I can say that this board has in its best efforts professionally and righteously attempted to do the best job that it can. You can't always guarantee results. We are talking about human beings here. We're not making widgets. That's what we can say to the public and that's what I will say to the public."

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