After a very arduous round of interviews in which I was clearly able to demonstrate my commitment to urban education, and to the very imminent threat to public education from privatization of our tradition of education as the biggest equalizer, I found myself defending a claim that had already been reviewed and closed by the Massachusetts Department of Education. These types of cases are dealt with internally and without media bias or in the absence of verified facts.
The case presented here was extremely different, with the very public airing of sensationalized allegations being published less than 48 hours from my selection as the new superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. My hope was that based on the special education complaints that Minneapolis or any district gets, the evidence provided to the board would have shown, in fact, that the case was investigated and closed by Oct. 1, 2015. There is no way that [the search group] HYA or I would have known that a press release would be used to reissue the complaint plus a whole new set of allegations.
I’m disappointed that the school board moved away so quickly and almost incomprehensibly from the original commitment to do what was best for kids. During the selection process, I was able to show how one moves from rhetorical discussions about equity, access and social justice to the evident work that reversed the trends in graduation rates and literacy in a district that was facing inequality and lack of access to students that historically have been left behind. Unfortunately, the whole process of my selection was compromised when perception became more prevalent than facts.
My desire more than anything at this point for Minneapolis Public Schools is that they find a way to pull things together to refocus on what is best for kids.
Important to validate input from all groups
It is essential to keep in mind that the board represents thousands of parents, not just the ones that showed up at meetings. However, it is important to validate the input from all the groups and people that come to the meetings. These groups should become an advisory group or a separate committee to be able to explain directly the work of the district. I am sure they all come from a place of caring and, more importantly, a place of frustration from the district’s inability to improve.
It is important that the board work closely with NAACP to use and channel the tremendous amount of energy and power they have in the city. Their commitment to make things better for the historically underserved students is an amazing opportunity to create an education agenda that will embrace all families that have been disengaged from the district. Furthermore, a progressive relationship with them will accelerate the important initiatives the district has to undertake to make things happen, increase graduation rates, lower suspension/expulsions, increase literacy rates, etc.
Keep the eyes on the prize. To make a difference in education, the discussion must be on what is best for kids, not adults. Instead of talking about the threat of charter schools, which is serious and imminent, concentrate on improving the quality of education in the district. Create innovative programs and improve the support to teachers to make sure the quality of education increases.
Eyes on the prize
Be clear about supporting the purpose of the organization. In particular, the support to the superintendent. It is concerning to see how anyone can just come in and say anything they want about the leader of the schools and no one stands up for the person in charge of leading the district. Allowing open disrespect to the superintendent weakens his/her position as a leader and consequently compromises his/her ability to do the work. This chaotic environment sends the signal to the community that the only thing people (one or hundreds) need to do is to just make a claim that then becomes the agenda of the board. Keep the eyes on the prize!
The board members represent their districts. They should work with all groups when issues come out to avoid making a public spectacle of every board meeting. This ability to manage different interest groups will allow the district to be focused on improving the quality of teaching and learning in the schools. Their ability to manage these messages should represent how effective they are and how they protect the purpose of the organization.
Leave the management of the district to the professionals who have been hired to do so. Policy-setting and finance issues are very different from managing the day-to-day operation of the district. The chain of command and the support to the superintendent are essential to make the district work. It is complicated enough to make it work as is, but it is even more difficult when the direct involvement of individual members is prevalent.
The future of thousands of students is in front of us, and the business of education is becoming educational business. As I have said many times, public education writes the check of insufficient funds for our students. I wish the very best to Minneapolis and best of luck writing checks with funds that could be cashed by our future generation of Americans.
Sergio Paez, Ed.D., is the former head of the Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts. He was named superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools on Dec. 7; on Jan. 12 the board decided to end its contract negotions with him.
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