Mission: Impossible

A radically retooled Minneapolis School Board tries to stop the bleeding and start over

"With four people leaving, there would be this ability to inspire change," he says. And the field of potential replacements didn't do much for him. "One of the things that compelled me to run was the fear that the candidates would be the usual suspects. I did not see a diverse selection of black candidates. There was no one who could challenge the black leadership. There was no conservative.

"Win or lose, I decided to run an as outsider candidate who was going to say what I saw, whether it was palatable or not."

WHEN PEOPLE START FILTERING IN for the board's final public interview of Interim Superintendent Bill Green, there's a microphone set up near the front of the room. An administrator hurries to find someone from audio-visual to take it down. The public will get to question Green, she explains, but they'll have to write down questions to be read by Pam Costain and board member T. Williams.

Kris Drake

As it happened, she had nothing to fear. The crowd that routinely shouted down the old board is not in attendance. Instead, the people at this meeting lob softballs at Green, an Augsburg professor and former school board member. Chances are they're representative of the middle-class parents who have been lobbying the board since New Year's to hire Green and get on with it. "If they don't do this, it's gonna be Jennings all over again," a man in a suit and overcoat says to the woman at his side as they push into the room.

He means David Jennings, of course. When Superintendent Carol Johnson announced her resignation in the summer of 2003, the single most pressing issue facing the district 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, which in 1995 sued over the state of the district's poorest schools, families of all classes were decamping for private schools, charter schools, and suburban schools. The board needed someone who could stop the outflux. With virtually no public discussion, it tapped David Jennings, the school system's chief operating officer.

A former Republican speaker of the House in the Minnesota Legislature, Jennings had impeccable political ties to the Capitol at a time when state support for public education was flagging; he also outlined bold plans for revamping the district financially, including the closure of a large number of schools. But Jennings wasn't an academic, and he was white.

And 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 and three other organizations filed for an injunction barring the district from negotiating a contract with Jennings. Less than a month into the job, Jennings 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."

Which is exactly what MPS got in Peebles, except that it handed most of the hiring process over to a search firm so it could be conducted in private. Following two days of discussion, the board chose Peebles from among the search firm's three finalists without so much as a cursory reference check.

This time around, many of the African American leaders aren't so much absent as they are biding their time, not hostile to Green per se, but unwilling to endorse him before seeing tangible results. Which will come only when and if Green and the new board succeed in turning the Titanic.

The agenda at a business meeting before the public session illustrates just how much housekeeping needs to be done, including the closing of schools, the disposal of buildings, and other unpleasantries first brought up by Jennings. But the details keep threatening to swamp the vision portion of the talk.

For instance, Costain and incoming member Tom Madden want staff to change the board agendas so that it's more clear to the public just what's being voted on during what's called the consent agenda, the portion of the meeting where the board traditionally has given an up-or-down vote to recommendations prepared by staff on contracts with vendors and other routine business. Mauri Melander, the superintendent's seemingly omniscient liaison to the board, offers a number of ways in which this can happen, and Costain has an idea of her own.

Stewart jumps in. He wants to know why board members don't read the contracts; he's curious whether there's any fat in them. He's literally asking for reams of documents, Melander warns. Surely he doesn't want staff to copy those and leave them on his porch? After some back and forth, discussion shifts to keeping the contracts in a place where board members can review them before meetings. Most likely this can happen in conjunction with another change the board wants, namely the routing of every bit of spending through the office of newly hired Chief Financial Officer Peggy Ingison, a highly regarded budget hawk who until recently was Gov. Tim Pawlenty's finance commissioner.

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