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Minneapolis superintendent search: With Paez out and Goar vote tabled, what are the board’s options?

Here are five directions the Minneapolis Public Schools board could take at this point.

Board Chair Jenny Arneson: “We want to make a decision with kids at the center and recognize that we will need to unite behind a candidate to do so.”
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

During a break in protest clamor at the Jan. 12 Minneapolis Public Schools board meeting, board member Don Samuels posed a logistical solution for bringing the superintendent search to an end that evening: voting by a show of hands.

After rejecting earlier that night top candidate Sergio Paez — who lost board support following allegations that staff abused special-education children during his tenure as superintendent in Holyoke, Mass. — the school board had punted a number of possible next steps before gaining traction around a motion to appoint Interim Superintendent Michael Goar.

Before the board could take a vote on Goar, however, protesters filed to the front of the room and shut down the meeting, interrupting all verbal attempts by the board to regain order. The turmoil was enough to undermine the board’s confidence to push through. They ended up tabling the decision for a later date, which has yet to be announced.

While some options at this point seem more likely than others, it seems plausible that anything could happen at the board’s next meeting. So what, exactly, are the options left on the table? Based on a number of interviews with key stakeholders this week, here’s a look at the possible next steps.  

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Appoint runner-up Michael Goar. Goar began serving as interim superintendent Feb. 1, 2015, after former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s resignation. The promotion seemed to be a natural transition, as he had worked alongside Johnson as the district’s chief executive director for more than a year and a half. His professional history with the MPS district dates back even further, to his nearly five-year tour of duty as executive director of labor relations and human resources.

In terms of related school leadership roles, he left the district to gain experience as the deputy superintendent for Boston Public Schools from 2007 to 2012. Before that he served four years as an associate superintendent for Memphis City Schools.

He’s well aware that there’s a segment of the community that objects to his candidacy. Their concerns were largely voiced by protesters at the last board meeting who demanded the board restart the search. Recapping the incident, Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds says protesters still have a number of concerns about Goar’s leadership abilities. Chief among them, the community is still hurt over the literacy curriculum deemed to contain racist material that was purchased under Goar’s watch.

Interim Superintendent Michael Goar
Minneapolis Public Schools
Interim Superintendent Michael Goar

“It’s important for us to understand how something like that could have happened,” she said, noting people are still looking for reassurance that a lapse in judgment like that won’t happen again.

The more pervasive issue, she says, is a lack of confidence in Goar’s ability to connect with the African-American community and create real change.

“People feel Goar has not been responsive when they have grave concerns about how the district functions, how fiscally responsible the district has been. … We need to know what has changed under Goar’s leadership as far as the academic proficiency ratings, particularly for children of color,” Levy-Pounds said.

If a performance evaluation were to show that Goar is, in fact, performing at an optimum level and he were to smooth out relations with community members who feel their concerns are not being heard, Levy-Pounds says there’s still a chance Goar could win broader support.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but those are two hurdles that would have to be overcome,” she said.  

Controversy aside, Goar says he’s still interested in the job, so long as it comes with the support of a unified board.

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“They have not offered me the job,” he said this week, noting nothing is official yet. “I would certainly have to look at the landscape [if they offered me the job]. But I am deeply committed to this community.”

He’s not ashamed to admit he’s made mistakes while serving in an interim capacity, adding he’s always open to constructive feedback so he can improve.

It’s this display of grit and humility that could very well propel him into the position.

Board Chair Jenny Arneson isn’t the only stakeholder who’s voiced support for Goar as of late. In a MinnPost interview, Johnson also named Goar her top pick after Paez was rejected. Likewise, former MPS board member Pam Costain, who retired last week from her leadership position with AchieveMpls, has gone public with her support of Goar in favor of avoiding any further delays in the search that has sparked a great deal of instability in the community.

“I feel strongly they should offer this position to Interim Superintendent Michael Goar,” she said. “I think the longer they take, the more damaging it is for our district and for our city.”

She also pointed out that board support for Goar, early on, was actually quite strong. In November, when board members completed a matrix sheet exercise to determine their top three finalists prior to the official vote, Goar emerged as the favorite for five board members.

“He had very decisive support from the board at that point,” Costain said, noting that fact seems to have been lost in the discussion at this point.

R.T. Rybak
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
R.T. Rybak

While Next Generation leader and former mayor R.T. Rybak says he is more concerned with the need for the board members to find some common ground, in order for the next superintendent to be successful, he’s ready to get behind Goar as well.

“I am very confident that Michael could be a very successful superintendent,” he said. “I’ve told the board I would support their decision. I did that with Paez. I’m going to help whoever they pick be successful.”

If the board were to offer the position to Goar, he’d be well-positioned to keep school business moving forward. He’s already taken care of renewing his superintendent’s licensure through an alternative licensing program. His initial license, which expired Dec. 31, 2015, was granted through a variance approved by the state Board of School Administrators.

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And although board member Tracine Asberry’s proposals to further vet Goar’s out-of-state experiences prior to offering him the position were largely shot down by the rest of the board, Goar says he’s not opposed to any such actions.

In the meantime, as much as he’d like to get the job, he’s doing his best to not get distracted from his current duties as interim superintendent. With a referendum on the horizon and a number of initiatives he’s been working on for the past few years poised for execution, he’s not discouraged by his interim status.

“Until that decision by the board, whatever that is, I have to serve as superintendent. And I will serve as superintendent to make sure our district is moving forward,” he said. “We aren’t leaderless. We have a leader and it’s me.”

Look again at both remaining finalists. At the Jan. 12 meeting, board member Carla Bates initially spoke in favor of revisiting the remaining finalists — Goar and Charles Foust — before taking any further actions. While she later put her support behind the motion to move ahead and appoint Goar, Foust’s potential remains a question mark.

When he applied for the position, he was working in his third year as assistant superintendent in the Houston Independent School District. The bulk of Foust’s student experience can be traced back to North Carolina. He then moved to Houston, where he pursued a degree in professional leadership and started out as a middle school principal.

After being named one of three finalists, he came in third place, failing to get a single vote with the board voting 6-3 in favor of Paez.

While attempts to reach Foust were unsuccessful, his colleagues confirmed he is still working for the Houston Independent School District.

Reopen the search. Board member Nelson Inz first suggested re-opening the search for an abbreviated period, to explore qualified candidates who may not have applied initially.

Board member Nelson Inz
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Board member Nelson Inz

It’s the sort of alternative that seems to align well with the community’s demands to consider a homegrown candidate —  someone who’s already familiar with the culture and diversity of Minneapolis schools, as well as the size of the district.

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Some speculate there must be a number of untapped candidates already working in the district who might rise to the challenge. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 17 principals and assistant principals in the Minneapolis Public Schools district currently hold a
superintendent’s license. Counting those currently licensed in the St. Paul Public Schools district would add another 15 to the candidate pool. But that’s not to say all of them would be willing to enter such a volatile search process.

Samuels spoke to this possibility at the Jan. 12 meeting, where he pointed out many candidates in the initial search pulled their names early on, not wanting to jeopardize relations with their current employer. Also, he pointed out that MPS is not the top-paying district.

“Thirdly, we had a painful process with a painful outcome for our top choice,” he said. “We’re going to lose candidates because of that. The benefits of a new search are diminished.”

If the board were to reopen the search, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be using HYA, the national search firm they hired to conduct the failed initial search. 

Turning back to Goar, it’s worth noting that he identifies strongly as a homegrown candidate. It’s the thing that’s kept him grounded in his commitment to the district.

Born in South Korea, he was adopted by a couple in south Minneapolis when he was 12. He learned English in the very district he’s now serving and he’s a proud graduate of Washburn High School.

“I have a great affinity for this community and this school district that gave me this remarkable opportunity,” he said.

What about Michael Thomas? A number of community members said they’d throw their support behind the district’s chief of schools, Michael Thomas, when they addressed the board at its last meeting.

Michael Thomas
Minneapolis Public Schools
Michael Thomas

Thomas says rumblings of support for him to serve as superintendent are nothing new, but it’s the first time they’ve become so public.

“It was quite the surprise to hear it out in public at our board meeting like that. That, I was not prepared for,” he said.

He’s open about his intentions to become a superintendent one day, but he chose not to run initially because he felt the timing wasn’t quite right.

“I have not committed anything around a specific district,” he said of his future aspirations. “If it were Minneapolis, what a special opportunity that would be.”

That being said,  he doesn’t seem too keen on jumping into the arena at this point, stating he’s respectful of the board’s process and focused on serving the students in the midst of this distraction.

Further delay. Perhaps the most pressing question right now, is: What sort of timeline is the board working on? The next regular Committee of the Whole meeting is scheduled for Jan. 26. Here, the board could discuss next steps, but no votes will be taken. The next scheduled business meeting lands on Feb. 9.

“The chair has the ability to call a special meeting, and while we may decide to address this issue outside the regular business meeting, it would not be before our Committee of the Whole meeting,” Arneson said.

Their original timeline was to have a superintendent in place by June, for the new school year, she adds, noting they’re still on track to meet that deadline. In the meantime, Goar’s contract states he will continue serving in an interim capacity until the next superintendent is selected.

Nekima Levy-Pounds
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Nekima Levy-Pounds

Well aware of the sense of urgency many have expressed in the need for the board to make a decision and move on to other business, Levy-Pounds welcomes a delay.

The board’s rush to conclude the search immediately after its rejection of Paez indicated a lack of due diligence and commitment to developing community buy-in, she says. The fact that the majority of the board members are resistant to the idea of further vetting Goar before entering contract negotiations with him makes her question their leadership even more.

“Why wouldn’t they want to evaluate [Goar]?” she said. “To me, that makes leadership good, to want to exercise due diligence. It’s not like they have to go to another state to determine how well Goar has already performed in this interim position. For them to not be willing to do that raises a lot of red flags.”

Asked if the board might reconsider conducting a performance evaluation on Goar, Arneson holds the board is, and has been, doing its best to move forward in a responsible manner.

“Our board hasn’t taken action on additional vetting for any candidates at this time,” she said. “While no one wants to be where we are at today, we did initially set up a careful process that was based on best practice and  included many opportunities for public feedback, public interviews with the board, and reference checks. We want to make a decision with kids at the center and recognize that we will need to unite behind a candidate to do so.”