Class Dismissed

THE WAY EVERYBODY was talking last week, you'd have thought the Minneapolis School District had just let Stuart Smalley go. Phrases like "reinventing leadership," "matching tasks and strengths," even "abandonment issues" were flying as district officials explained how Superintendent Peter Hutchinson was more than good enough, plenty smart enough, how people liked him--and that yet, he was out of office with one day's notice.

Normally, under those circumstances, questions would be asked. Simple ones, like, what went wrong? But frank talk has never been a hallmark of Minneapolis's education debate. Unless you're an insider, the only way you'll get a sense of what's going on is by reading between the lines:

The departure wasn't Hutchinson's idea. Granted, the super and his company, Public Strategies Group, always saw their historic appointment--they were the first private firm ever to manage a large urban school district--as a temporary gig. They would "reinvent" Minneapolis schools, clean up the books, and move on. Yet when he left for a personal leave in early April, Hutchinson says, he expected to come back to stay. Instead, he barely made it back to clean out his desk.

Hutchinson's temporary absence helped speed his departure. The two-month leave, which the super says he needed to deal with exhaustion and family matters, came out of the blue: School board chairman Bill Green says he didn't find out about it until Hutchinson had already left. During the leave, it was school-district staff, not PSG's, who filled the super's shoes, prompting questions about what exactly the district needed PSG for in the first place. Those questions became louder when the super-less district faced a crucial debate at the Legislature and a hurricane of criticism over its test scores.

Day-to-day management wasn't PSG's strength. According to a report prepared by a local consultant, the company was always more interested in the vision thing--its notion of re-engineering the public sector--than on implementation. The firm has gotten near-universal praise for straightening out the district's books, streamlining hiring-and-firing procedures, and developing a district-wide curriculum. But its snafus, including large payments to outside consultants and a foul-up involving state funding based on test scores, got scant attention.

Race matters. When statewide basic-skill tests results for eighth-graders came out in April, officials accentuated the positive: Scores were up for kids who had been in Minneapolis schools for more than a year. But the gap between whites and students of color--a gap PSG was supposed to eliminate--was wide as ever. Grumbling from parents intensified, especially given that PSG's top "accomplishment" so far in effect resegregated many schools. Finally, Urban League President Gary Sudduth gave a "Show Us the Money" speech, demanding an accounting of state funds that were supposed to help disadvantaged students. Barely two weeks later, two of the district's top African American officials publicly blasted it for failing to serve children of color.

That outburst may have tipped the scales against Hutchinson. The Minneapolis school district is one of the more paranoid mini-universes around; officials are constantly fretting about press coverage and perceptions, especially those held by middle-class parents. And PSG's top mandate was to "restore public confidence" in the district.

The day the African American officials complained, Green had a previously scheduled lunch with Hutchinson. He told the super that in his absence, district and PSG officials had been talking about "capacity," which really meant figuring out whether PSG could do the job. He mentioned the officials' comments at the meeting and promised to send tapes. Hutchinson "took all that under advisement" and went home.

By the time he came back to the office three weeks later, on May 27, he and most everyone else already knew he was on his way out. The arrangements for his departure had "mostly been made in his absence," says Green. Katrina Reed, who'd run the district during Hutchinson's leave, took over as acting super. She doesn't want the permanent job.

Who will, at this point, is a tricky question. Former head of school and site services Carol Johnson, who many thought would have made an excellent super, is running the St. Louis Park schools. Likewise, none of the top district officials PSG assembled to "lead the district into the future" will be considered. That leaves outside candidates--in fact, from the noises board members are making, the further removed the future super is from current Minneapolis operations, the better. And that in itself, if you read between the lines, is an interesting statement.

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