The Grinch Who Stole Recess

All work and no play? Powderhorn
Jane Sherman

Among local reporters, the Minneapolis Public Schools PR staff is notorious for acting more like palace guards than bearers of the good word. Never mind that such gate-keeping by, say, a police department or a mayor's office invariably backfires--it's been common practice for district flacks to listen to a reporter's request for access to a principal or to a set of statistics, and declare they're not so keen on the story that would result.

The henchmen appear to have left the building, however. Last week, press calls were being referred to Steven Belton, MPS chief of staff and, according to the pained-sounding folks answering MPS media relations' phones, the person now responsible for fielding "all requests for communications." Three of the district's four communications staffers are reported to have emptied their desks and joined what current and former district employees describe as an exodus of people who would rather quit than adjust to new superintendent Thandiwe Peebles's management style.

In the weeks since she assumed the helm, Peebles has garnered a reputation among district employees--whose ranks are normally gossipy but closed to outsiders--for "shaming and blaming" the people who work for her. "Principals go to these meetings and they come back chilled," complains one employee who works in the district administration building and fears for her job. "The superintendent has publicly shamed professional staff for talking in the halls there, and despite her denials, for the way they dress. They must also ask permission to do the routine activities of their jobs or risk being paraded before the board for public shaming."

Distraught by the number of co-workers she's lost, the employee recently adopted the pseudonym "James Anderson" and began forwarding horror stories and staff-wide e-mails to school board members and candidates. Attached to James's missives were copies of memos announcing that Peebles wanted to screen and approve even routine communications between individual teachers and instructional support staff.

At the same time, says James, district staff perceive Peebles as withdrawn. Two weeks ago, the Star Tribune reported that Peebles planned to move her office to a safer, more private location. "One of her first acts was to frost all the windows that open from the main hallway into her office suite on the first floor," notes James. "It was apparently not privacy enough."

Other MPS employees say James's fear of divulging her identity is well-founded, especially given the recent layoff of 600 teachers, the "realignment" of veterans into special-ed jobs, declining enrollment, and the likelihood that the district will soon announce the closing of a number of schools. The people most scared for their jobs are principals, administrators, and other ranking district employees who lack some of the contractual protections afforded teachers.

"People are so afraid," says James. "The suburbs are getting very well-trained teachers as a result." She implored the board to act before Peebles's probationary period ends on October 20. If board members later decided they had made a mistake, she noted, they would have to buy out Peebles's contract at considerable cost. To date, James has received no reply.

Kay Gregory contacted the board, too. Gregory, who retired as MPS's assistant director of curriculum and instruction last June, says she's heard the stories from former colleagues and, more troubling, from parents who live in her neighborhood. "I have been a resident of Minneapolis for 35 years, and I worked in the system for 31 years," she says. "I have three children who went through Minneapolis schools all the way. And never once did I hear or experience anything that caused me to feel the need to call board members. But this time, I did call.

"There's a feeling that it's not safe to speak your mind, to voice your thoughts, to raise alternate points of view," Gregory continues. "The thing that upsets me the most is that it will trickle down to the classroom.... You don't get people's best work by shaming and blaming. [You] don't want teachers shaming and blaming kids into doing work."

James claims that ramifications are already being felt in the classroom. "[Peebles] has told principals that she likes to drop in and those kids better not be coloring," she says, particularly at schools where test scores are low. At one school possibly slated for closing, Powderhorn, the principal has asked teachers to forego recess in favor of more instructional time, she says. Another source at a different school has said that a coded announcement is made over the PA system whenever Peebles is in the building.

Lydia Lee is a DFL-endorsed front-runner in the upcoming school board election. She says she has heard from a number of district employees who feel intimidated, and that the complaints are coming from a number of different departments and from educators of different races and ethnicities.

"There are serious control issues, and a lack of input from people who have been around a long time who are experts at what they do and who are no longer listened to. And it's followed up by the blaming and shaming," says Lee. "People feel like they can't do their jobs, their ordinary jobs, without going through a bureaucratic process. And that process is burdened with increasing layers of bureaucracy that have just been created."

The stories concerned Lee enough that she wrote her own letter to board members, which also has gone unanswered. "If we have highly skilled, highly qualified people who are leaving in droves, you've got to ask questions," she says. "We're talking about adults who are dealing with young people. They'll either quit or just go through the motions. And we can't afford that."

When Peebles was hired in June, board members and others involved in the final rounds of candidate interviews described her as a straight talker known for frankness and for her history of joining teachers at failing schools in the trenches. She is credited with achieving dramatic turnarounds as a principal in the Bronx and in Cleveland, where she was most recently the administrator in charge of overhauling the city's 11 lowest-scoring schools.

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."

For her part, Lee, a former teacher and MPS's current middle grades coordinator, believes the board was too quick to assume that the search firm that winnowed down more than 100 superintendent applicants had found the best three for Minneapolis. "We were not looking for sugar and spice, we were looking for someone who could get things done, who can make changes quickly," says Lee. "She's got the skills, she's got the expertise, that's why she was hired. But we didn't realize there was this added issue."

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."

The district's lone communications conduit, Steven Belton, did not return City Pages' calls for comment from Peebles for this story. But board chair Sharon Henry-Blythe says that MPS leaders expected Peebles's arrival would spark some discomfort for several reasons: Things are always tense under brand new leaders; Peebles is from a different part of the country with different cultural norms; and, most significant, because the board wanted someone who would make rapid changes.

Moreover, Henry-Blythe reads some of the complaints as the natural result of uncomfortable but positive steps taken by the new superintendent. "We want this superintendent to be in our schools. This superintendent in 90 days has been in more schools than other staff at [headquarters] have been in in a year," she says. "It's not uncommon for a new leader to come in and ask to have things go past her. [She's] learning the organization."

Nonetheless, board members have talked to Peebles about morale, she says, and are "listening very carefully." "Style is an issue," says Henry-Blythe. "She is a fast talker, she spits it out. And there are very few flowers hanging on it. But I would rather talk about the substance.... Positive change for kids--that's what I'm most concerned about."

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