Tales out of School

While on the Minneapolis school board, Bill Green missed interacting with students one-on-one
Craig Lassig

After eight years of occasional triumphs, trying times, and tough decisions, Minneapolis school-board member Bill Green decided not to run for reelection. When Green was first elected to that most thankless of political positions in 1992, the district was reeling from a financial scandal wrought by former superintendent Bob Ferreira. In May of 1996, Green made headlines by assigning a failing grade for leadership to the Public Strategies Group, a private consulting firm led by Ferreira's successor, Peter Hutchinson. By contrast, he has always been an ardent supporter of current superintendent Carol Johnson, whom he helped to recruit.

While Green was chair of the board from 1996 to 1999, demonstrators in support of the Minneapolis NAACP's education desegregation suit against the State of Minnesota disrupted school-board meetings by shouting and banging on drums. The protesters also referred to Green and the two other African-American board members as Uncle Toms. Despite the passage of three school-funding referendums during the past eight years, the district is beset by a dropout rate of nearly 50 percent and a greater prevalence of low test scores among students of color. Just recently controversy broke out over the board's decision to grant a $30,000 raise to Superintendent Johnson, who last summer spurned a job offer in Nashville.

Green addressed these and other topics with typical candor last week over lunch at a small Middle Eastern restaurant near Augsburg College, where he is an associate professor of history and African-American studies. The interview occurred less than two weeks after his final school-board meeting.

City Pages: For four years you volunteered at Hall Elementary, where your son Nicholas [now a National Merit Scholar] went to school. Then you spent the next eight years on the school board. Which experience was more rewarding and where were you more effective?

Green: Apples and oranges. Those four years in an inner-city school, where 70 percent of the students were of color, were very gratifying because I was hands-on. For many of those kids, I was the only male nurturer in their lives. But the boardroom was where monies were being allocated and where the face of the school district was being created. It would dictate whether the district could be something people could trust. It was the place to do things like improve Barton [Open Elementary] School and get a number of new buildings completed. I felt I could contribute to a more commodious relationship with the teachers, and later make a smooth transition for Carol [Johnson]. Those are all things I am really proud of, and I couldn't have done them from the classroom. But it also becomes alienating to know as you sit around a table and talk about schools esoterically, you are not really improving the educational experience of a child at that moment. That's probably one reason why I realized it was time for me to step down.

CP: Was it particularly tough to be vilified by the NAACP?

Green: I was teaching a course in civil-rights history at the time we were being sued by the NAACP, so I knew the tactics had nothing to do with me personally. You demonize the cause by personalizing the enemy. And I was chair, so I was an easy target. But yeah, I was hung in effigy during one of the meetings and I still have the effigy hanging in my office as a reminder that sometimes in a political situation people and facts become dispensable. There was no empirical data showing that their solution was better--that putting a black kid from the city into a white school in the suburbs would lead to that black kid's achievement.

CP: As part of the state's settlement with the NAACP, $5 million was to be earmarked by the legislature for metro desegregation. But lawmakers pulled that money from the budget during the 2001 session. What has been the NAACP's response?

Green: They said nothing. That's another part of the tragedy of that whole experience; they never followed up on the money. But the data we looked at last Tuesday showed that African-American kids, in particular at certain elementary grade levels, are not improving. The mood in St. Paul is to tighten the budget for school districts. There is an assault on public education, and in the midst of all this, I haven't heard the NAACP say a damn thing.

CP: People have criticized the schools for dropout rates and disparate test scores. What can be done to address these problems, especially given current budget constraints?

Green: That's one of the reasons I am no longer on the board. Because I don't know the answers to those questions. We've looked at the curriculum, changed the curriculum, and probably have other aspects of the curriculum we still need to change. But even if we had the best curriculum, the best training for teachers, the best training for principals, we have got this problem with mobility. Kids are still moving around and, especially when they're from out of state, sometimes the record keeping doesn't come along. Anytime there is a hostile spot in the world, the child of the refugee is going to be in the Minneapolis public schools within 12 months. We don't even understand the depths of poverty in our own community. And it is hard for us to even recognize the presence of poverty because we don't talk about it.

When a child is ill and needs to see a doctor or a nurse, most parents take them to the hospital or the clinic. But kids of poverty go to school because that is the only nurse they have access to. Kids can get glasses, clothing, food--things that are not even thought about in many other school districts. But that, unfortunately, figures into education [in Minneapolis]. Kids can't think, can't focus if they're hungry. They can't read if they can't see the page. So it is hard.

CP: How much does the appeasement of non-poverty parents and students contribute to the test-score disparity? For instance, some critics say schools segregate kids according to their perceived abilities.

Green: Well, the call for ability grouping comes from parents in poverty, too. The complaint about students not being able to learn because other kids are acting up cuts across class lines. The problem is, how do we ensure that the kids who are having troubles and disrupt the class don't lose out on education, too? I believe most families just want a good education for their kid and want the kind of diversity we can offer. If a school that may have a higher degree of poverty is still showing achievement and stability, then a middle-class family will put their kid in that school.

CP: There's been a lot of criticism recently about the pay raise given to Carol Johnson.

Green: I knew it would be misconstrued to either look like she was conspiring to make more money or that the board was soft-headed. But I agreed that we needed to do it. Carol is world-class and worth the money. She has a national reputation and gets calls from [recruiters in other school systems] on a weekly basis. But Carol's not about the money and never has been. The reason why I ultimately supported the increase was in part to position ourselves for the future. We're going to lose her someday; when her contract is up, she'll be at that age where she can retire. And we need to have in place some way to attract top-level superintendents, and, unfortunately, money is the way to do that.

CP: What is one of the reasons you think she is so valuable?

Green: She still knows teachers and parents who have called her up two or three years ago, and she can pick up the discussion as if there had not been a span of time separating their conversations. There is that kind of personal connection she exudes. You get the feeling that despite her acclaim and high profile and intelligence she is just a regular person. And you don't find folks on her level that have that quality.

CP: If you could change one thing from your eight years, what would it be?

Green: I'm just tired of our kids not knowing how to count and not knowing how to read as well as they should. Not just more kids passing a test, but better achievement across the board. I pushed as hard as I could, but being a board member isn't like being in a classroom, where I know when a child understands this or that basic principle and when I need to intervene--go talk to a parent or a teacher. School-board stuff is abstract and political. I can only do it for so long. It's important, but the heart of it is going to the classroom.

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