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.

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.)

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."

Erickson can get away with such empty, canting phrases in part because the DFL Party's stranglehold on Minneapolis School Board elections provides its endorsed candidates with a virtual sinecure. Two years ago, Lydia Lee and Peggy Flanagan were total political neophytes with little name recognition outside their own extended families. But after earning the DFL nomination, each woman swamped the field as the leading vote-getters in both the 2004 primary and general election.

Although Erickson and other DFL partisans heatedly deny it, one effect of this single-party control is to buttress the political and fiscal standing of the predominantly white "enclave" schools in the well-to-do DFL strongholds of southwest Minneapolis. While the aftershocks from the Peebles debacle were garnering most of the attention last week, the school board unanimously approved a new teacher contract that will continue to award senior teachers preferential placements, a dynamic that inevitably winds up stocking the poorest and most troubled schools with the most inexperienced teachers.

To the extent that they turn out at the polls in pathetically low numbers, the city's African American residents are willing pawns in this disenfranchisement. In the words of former school board member Louis King, who is black, "This isn't just about Superintendent Peebles. Look at the board's performance around school closings." (Last year when falling enrollment necessitated the closure of several schools, the board saved all of the threatened schools in the upper-class southwest, instead closing a number of predominantly minority schools on the North Side and in South Central.)

"We can change superintendents all we want," adds King, "but we need to make some changes on the board. I'm done running for office myself, but I'm seeking out candidates. If you want us to help raise money, we can do that. If you want help on the issues, we can do that. We can't be intimidated by the DFL machine. The DFL has to make room within the party, for the sake of the community. But that won't happen unless we force the issue. One way or another, we have to start carrying our own water." 

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