Nearly three hours into a divisive deliberation over the Minneapolis Public Schools’ superintendent search, protesters took center stage.
As they filed to the front of the room, chants of “Restart the search” and “If our children don’t get it, shut it down” drowned out Board of Education Chair Jenny Arneson’s attempts to reinstate order.
The board’s decision to discontinue contract negotiations with top candidate Sergio Paez — which had been suspended while two board members completed a fact-finding visit to his former district — was well received.
But protesters refused to let the board vote on whether to move forward with its runner-up: interim superintendent Michael Goar.
Standing before the council, Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, demanded a new search.
“You’re benefiting your friend,” she said of the board’s expressed intent to hire Goar. “You are going with the second best choice. Our children deserve better.”
At an impasse, the board called for a 30-minute recess, then voted to table a motion to move forward with contract negotiations with Goar until a later date.
A 10-month search
The search for a new superintendent began after former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced her resignation in late 2014, citing family obligations and a lack of board support as two of her reasons for stepping down.
On Feb. 1, Goar began serving as the interim superintendent. His tenure, thus far, has been marred by the controversial purchase of a literacy curriculum that reinforced cultural and racial stereotypes. He also made news for drastically reducing central office staff, cutting dozens of employees.
Meanwhile, the board had begun a 10-month superintendent search. After narrowing the candidate pool to three finalists, on Dec. 7 the board voted 6-3 in favor of Paez, with Goar coming in second.
Despite having hired a search firm to help vet candidates, the board was thrown for a loop when just two days later an advocacy group in Massachusetts released a report alleging that, under Paez’s tenure, staff at a school in Holyoke, Mass., had physically abused special-education students. This prompted the board to suspend contract negotiations with Paez, who denies allegations of negligence even as a criminal investigation continues.
To be thorough, the board sent two of its members — Josh Reimnitz and Tracine Asberry — to Holyoke to further vet Paez’s credentials. They presented their findings at Tuesday’s meeting.
While they cited evidence that Paez helped his district make great strides toward goals such as increased graduation rates and creating a positive education climate, their visit brought his ability to navigate education politics and communicate effectively with minority families into question. Because of the legal nature of the abuse allegations at the Holyoke school, they were unable to ascertain clarity on Paez’s relationship to the matter.
Cutting ties with Paez
Regardless of Paez’s credentials, which checked out fairly well, the board decided he simply had too much politically charged baggage to be considered for the position.
“The division that the allegations and open investigation have caused is not something we can sustain at this time,” Asberry said, noting she had originally voted in favor of Paez.
Board member Rebecca Gagnon had come to the same conclusion.
“The deficit mindset and public mistrust has to be considered,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate, but widespread public discontent is not a way to start our next chapter.”
In a unanimous vote, the board terminated contract negotiations with Paez and declared that he’s no longer the preferred candidate.
“This may be a situation where the timing is not quite right,” Arneson told Paez, who was sitting at the front of the room. “I wish you well as you move forward in clearing up any confusion … and moving forward with your career.”
Paez then left the room.
He’s still grappling with the fact that questionably timed allegations raised against him had the ability to derail his future in Minneapolis.
“I think I needed to be more prepared for the political environment of Minneapolis,” he said in a followup phone interview. “I wasn’t really prepared for that. It’s something I need to learn for whatever setting I’m going into [next].”
He says he respects the board’s decision, even though he feels he was the right person for the job.
While he takes this next week to recover from the blow by spending time with his family, Paez adds the board is faced with a big challenge in filling the position.
“I think that there has to be consensus. Whoever [the next superintendent] is, they need to support them 100 percent because this is a very challenging job,” he said.
Looking for consensus
In the meeting, board members addressed the need for consensus as well.
Despite a clear divide between those in favor of holding an abbreviated search to attract new candidates and those in favor of moving forward with Goar, board members seemed to agree on what needs to come next: unanimous board support for whoever becomes the new superintendent.
As a starting point, board members participated in a retreat over the weekend in an effort to repair interpersonal relations.
“I think it went really well,” board member Kim Ellison said. “A lot of our stuff was called on the carpet [at retreat]. We talked about having to work closely with our superintendent, whoever that might be.”
Vows to unite and turn the attention back to students, however, may prove easier said than done.
With Paez no longer up for consideration, the board began discussing possible alternatives at its meeting Tuesday night.
“I think we need to have a vote around interim superintendent Goar and Mr. [Charles] Foust to determine if those finalists should continue or not,” board member Carla Bates said, prompting booing from the crowd.
Council member Nelson Inz reaffirmed his position on the need to open the candidate pool back up for an abbreviated period — a move that would still put them on track to meet their initial deadline of hiring a new superintendent before summer starts.
“I recognize that the instability is troubling to people and emotional, but we have to think long term,” he said. “Whoever we choose is hopefully going to be serving here for many years … not just next week.”
Gagnon challenged assertions that Goar should be the obvious next pick for the job, which were largely spearheaded by board members Siad Ali and Reimnitz.
“It’s interesting to have someone in a job and lose the vote 6-3. That’s not a good vote for a runner up,” she said.
With a number of unanswered questions still looming over the debate, Ali made a motion to enter into contract negotiations with Goar as the new preferred candidate.
In an attempt to put on the brakes, at least until Goar’s interview references to his administrative experiences in Boston and Memphis public schools could be vetted, Asberry proposed an amendment to add a site visit similar to the one she had just conducted on Paez. But the board voted it down, along with her subsequent request for an evaluation of Goar before moving forward in the hiring process. Inz suggested that the board’s familiarity with Goar was proof enough of his credentials.
“We’re talking about someone who’s worked in our district a long time,” Inz said. “It’s a totally different situation. So I don’t think we need to follow the same protocols.”
And in a matter of minutes, the board was setting itself up for a final vote to move forward with Goar. That’s when the protests erupted.
“Education is a pathway out of poverty. You are denying them [that] because you are choosing subpar leaders who you rub elbows with. You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” Levy-Pounds told the board during a pause in the chanting.
Cries for a homegrown candidate
Levy-Pounds had addressed the board with her concerns during the public comment period at the start of the meeting.
“I would urge you to definitely not go with Michael Goar. He hasn’t demonstrated the leadership needed to turn this district around. What we need is a paradigm shift,” she had cautioned, citing Goar’s misstep with the literacy curriculum as proof of his inadequacy.
Demands from the public to restart the search for a homegrown candidate — someone who’s already familiar with the culture and diversity of Minneapolis schools, as well as the size of the district — rang loud and clear during the initial comment period.
“We need you to look in our yard to find a superintendent,” community member Kimberly Caprini said at the podium. “And as soon as it’s done, get to work because we are tired of the dysfunction.”