Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has taken a different tack in its latest big decision, the naming of Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson as the sole candidate and all-but-certain successor to outgoing Superintendent Bill Green. For this critical decision, the board of education has dispensed with its usual pretense of public input and moved directly to a unilateral and hasty conclusion regarding the future of MPS. Given that MPS officials have been talking about a national search, this comes as something of a surprise.
The board has its reasons, and they make some sense. According to chair Tom Madden, these include a need for continuity – that is, for somebody who is well positioned to implement the MPS restructuring plan, and for saving money that would be spent on a search process. Of course, what the board is selling as a virtue, continuity, also contains a whiff of convenience in that the board also dispenses with the need to convince a knowledgeable, authoritative outsider of the wisdom of its actions.
There is no doubt that Johnson is experienced, and she has qualifications for the job. The board obviously believes she’s a good fit to take MPS where it wants MPS to go.
However, the board’s reasoning, and its bold conclusion, might be more persuasive if there weren’t also a number of potential drawbacks to this continuity. By virtue of her tenure as the second-highest official in MPS, Johnson has been intimately involved with some of the less appealing aspects of MPS in recent years.
An insular, small circle of decision-makers
First, Johnson is part of the insular, small circle of MPS decision-makers who have played a part in creating a chilly climate, one sometimes bordering on disrespect, toward other MPS stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, parents, and the wider public. Granted, other MPS stakeholders have at times contributed to this negative situation. But in this MPS there is little tolerance for dissent or constructive criticism. There is no allowance for loyal opposition. You are either with us or against us.
Second, Johnson has been the lead enforcer of an MPS bureaucracy that strikes fear into the hearts of MPS employees, and into the hearts of many parents as well. If one falls from MPS grace, for whatever reason, one can expect retaliation in some form. The MPS campaign to destroy Burroughs Principal Tim Cadotte is but an extreme example. Many people are afraid to speak up about any number of issues, from educational policy to organizational management. MPS chooses to interpret this as consent, or general satisfaction, or at the very least, as a positive state of affairs in that it makes their decision-making easier.
In reality, many MPS stakeholders, and MPS employees in particular, decline to engage with MPS because they know either from experience or from simple observation that they will only be the worse off for their efforts. This is an unhealthy environment for any organization, let alone one in the education business.
Third, Johnson is invested in all of the big policy battles of recent years, from the formulation of the MPS Strategic Plan to the spending of referendum dollars to the redesign of high schools to the latest restructuring of MPS in the form of the “Changing Schools Options” plan.
Hopes dashed for better relations
In light of her role at MPS, it’s hard to see how Johnson can be the one to help heal some of the still-open wounds, and the one to reform the MPS climate of fear and retribution. Elevating Johnson to the top spot dashes hopes that relations within MPS the organization, and relations between MPS insiders and those on the outside, might soon take a turn for the better.
To top it all off, by failing to conduct a wider search, MPS has in fact undermined Johnson. The tag “insider” will, at least initially, be more applicable than “best.” Perhaps Johnson would emerge as the best candidate in an open, competitive process. But we’ll never know, because MPS never looked.
In light of the scale of other MPS expenditures, the claim that MPS is foregoing a standard search in order to save money rings a bit hollow. The cost of a search would seem to be a relatively small price to pay to ensure that MPS carefully considered the circumstances and came up with the best available candidate.
However, even if MPS were to now reconsider and open the search to include other candidates, it’s unlikely that other serious, attractive candidates would emerge, for they would be suspecting that the fix is already in for Johnson.
Johnson might well be the right person at the right time to serve well as superintendent of another school district. I don’t believe Johnson is the right person at this time to lead MPS.
Kip Wennerlund is a parent of three MPS students, at two MPS schools. He is a former member of Burroughs Site Council (2007-09), and co-chair (2008-09).