Educators Doomed to Repeat History

Peebles isn't the Minneapolis School Board's biggest problem

Here's hoping Minneapolis School Board members don't honestly believe they're off the hook, now that they've announced they're investigating charges Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles ordered district staff to walk her dog, do her university homework, and take care of her personal finances.

For starters, these allegations have been floating around since the first weeks of Peebles' tenure. Even before she came to work here, Peebles was described by colleagues in cities where she had worked in the past as brusque. Indeed, some of these exact charges have been known to school board members since before Peebles' probationary period, when she could have been shown the door without the taxpayers having to underwrite a hefty severance package. (How do we know? Interviews, on and off the record, with board members--plural--past and present, as well as with colleagues of the dog-walker, the driver, and so forth.) Certainly these allegations were in the ether earlier this summer when Peebles was told by board members to, er, grow as a manager.

So how is it that a year ago, when Minneapolis was in its second round of painful attempts to replace Carol Johnson, all kinds of people had heard numerous descriptions of Peebles as short-fused and sharp-tongued, but none of them sat on the school board? We hate to go all schoolmarm on you, but quite simply, the board didn't do its homework. Because its priority was keeping a lid on public information about the process, the board hired a search firm to screen candidates. By the time board members had heard so much as a name, the search firm had winnowed a stack of 100 resumes to three, and the candidates were here, participating in a whirlwind 24-hour group interview/meet-and-greet that was all smiles and every-child-can-succeed rhetoric.

(Oh yeah--also, some painful racial politics were being played out in the decision-making and, in true Minnesota liberal fashion, anything involving appeasement of the black community seemed best dealt with quietly, behind the scenes. But we digress.)

Anyhow, here's the kicker: Board members seem to have assumed that the search firm had done a thorough job. Had the board done a good, old-fashioned reference check, they might have learned what community members found out before the ink was dry on Peebles' hefty contract. We reported as much last fall:

After her hiring was announced, the head of Minneapolis's teachers union, Louise Sundin, told the Star Tribune that she was impressed with Peebles's skills. But she also said that her counterpart in Cleveland had warned her that Peebles could be blunt: "Louise, I honestly don't know if Minneapolis is ready for Thandiwe Peebles. If you want sugar and spice, she ain't it."

....Last year, Peebles was one of two finalists for the superintendent's job in Charleston, South Carolina. During the hiring process, board members there traveled to Cleveland to learn more about Peebles, according to former Charleston board chair Gregg Meyers. He says her colleagues had great things to say about her, but the board ultimately decided that the other candidate was a better fit with the city's "Southern culture." "There was a stylistic difference; we thought Tawndy's [Peebles's nickname] approach might not work so well in our schools," he says. "Tawndy had more of a take-no-prisoners approach."

It's important to note that there were several small factual errors in the story excerpted above; none that affected the information here, and none that, if reported correctly, would have cast Peebles in a much better light. The errors were misinformation passed along by terrified district employees who had tried and failed to get the board's attention. City Pages tried to get district administrators' attention to verify the information, but we were told that no one in the media relations office was allowed to speak to the media anymore, and the lone honcho who could ignored our messages. This is something we talked to board members about both before and after the story ran. Needless to say, they weren't interested in hearing it.

There's an old saying that the only thing worse than making a mistake is admitting it. My guess is that parents would flock to the voting booths to reward school board members courageous enough to take an unflinching look not just at the tale of the dog-walker but at how we got here.

One more bonus side note: Has anybody noticed that Pat Harvey, a plain-spoken African American woman with a proven track record of bringing good things to urban schools, is looking for a job? Yes, St. Paul is a bigger district and Minneapolis might represent a step back for her, but if we've been willing to sweeten the pot for Peebles with gym memberships, car allowances, and, quite possibly, overeducated serfs, couldn't we come up with an offer that would induce Harvey to cross the river?

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