White Meat

Last week's decision by David Jennings to renounce his appointment as superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools left no one connected to the fiasco unscathed. Jennings, the school board members who appointed him, and the coalition of predominantly African American organizations that opposed him all bear responsibility for an embarrassing situation that can't help but hinder the quality of education for the tens of thousands of students in the district.

When announcing the appointment of Jennings on September 23, school board members behaved as if he was an obvious choice. Indeed, board member Dennis Schapiro claimed that Jennings was such a strong internal candidate that qualified recruits from outside the district would feel they had a small chance of landing the job.

Yet there was a raft of reasons why the appointment of Jennings was bound to be controversial. In recent years, as the population of the school district has become increasingly nonwhite, there has also been a widening achievement gap in the test scores of all students. Jennings is a white suburban resident, a former Republican Speaker of the House, and a onetime Chamber of Commerce executive whose lack of academic credentials make him legally ineligible to become superintendent without a waiver from the state Legislature.

School board members either naively miscalculated or arrogantly discounted how these unconventional aspects of Jennings's résumé might be perceived. Instead of engaging the public over their potential options for superintendent, they made their decision suddenly, in a single evening, with a unanimity that felt more like the product of an impulsive bandwagon than a thorough deliberation. Less than a month before the board's decision, Jennings, then the interim superintendent, received a hostile reception at a community forum comprised mostly of African Americans. At that time, both outgoing superintendent Carol Johnson and school board president Sharon Henry-Blythe emphasized the short-term nature of Jennings's position, and Jennings himself claimed that he wasn't the best-qualified person to replace Johnson. No wonder people felt ambushed by his appointment.

Yet those who led the opposition to Jennings have not always behaved honorably and have been disingenuous about their motives. They have looked particularly foolish claiming that Jennings's race is not a factor. Then why did the Rev. Randy Staten, from the Coalition of Black Churches, call a press conference and raise the issue of Jennings's legislative votes against Martin Luther King Day and divestiture of state assets in apartheid South Africa? (It took chutzpah for Staten to besmirch Jennings on the basis of his decades-old political record, given that Staten was also in the Legislature at the time, and was censured for filing inaccurate campaign reports after pleading guilty to felony theft.)

Why did lawyers filing an injunction against Jennings's appointment claim that the school board didn't follow affirmative-action guidelines in making its decision? And note that Bill English, Staten's colleague on the church coalition, told MPS officials at the community forum where Jennings was roasted, "When you start looking for a permanent superintendent, you've got to look for an educator, preferably, and let me be very clear, a black educator."

Opponents are also vulnerable to the charge of political grandstanding. While they play the race card, file nuisance injunctions (the board's lack of public dialogue was unwise but not illegal), and clamor about Jennings's lack of academic qualifications, most who have worked alongside Jennings in the trenches--including black leaders such as Johnson, Henry-Blythe, and former board member Albert Gallmon--heartily support him. "I am concerned that there is this willingness to be so vocal about what is not liked, ... but when it comes time to get our hands dirty and get the work done, I don't see these same people at work," says Henry-Blythe. "I don't feel like my leadership is being accepted or respected by this constituency."

Finally there is the matter of Jennings's abrupt resignation. One of the reasons the board hired him was his political skill and willingness to fight for what he believes. This is belied by his letter of resignation, which claims that his opponents are a radical minority--but apparently strong enough to drive him from office. His attempt to cloak his departure in nobility is marred by some parting shots at his detractors. "I will not dwell on the events of recent days and the obvious speciousness and venality that underlie the charges and accusations made against the Board and toward me," he writes, adding that the ongoing enmity of his critics will give them an excuse to carp from the sidelines, which would "condemn us to failure in the long term."

Unfortunately, Jennings's martyrdom ensures that additional delays and expenses will be incurred by the district in a new search. And given the behavior of all concerned, the long-term health of the MPS remains, at best, an open question.

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