The Minneapolis Public Schools board voted in favor of starting a new chapter in district leadership Tuesday evening by selecting Ed Graff, outgoing superintendent of the Anchorage School District, to serve as the next superintendent.
The other finalist who was up for consideration — Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius — had worked under Carol Johnson, who served as the district’s superintendent from 1997 to 2003, as did former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and Interim Superintendent Michael Goar.
While many of the board members offered praise for Cassellius’ passion and commitment to Minneapolis students, the preference for Graff came through loud and clear as board members reflected on his dedication to social-emotional learning — the complement to academic learning that encompasses things like building healthy relationsihps, developing empathy for others and learning to manage emotions — and his proven ability to cultivate a positive culture in a large, diverse district.
During an initial roll call, the board voted 6-3 in favor of Graff, with board members Siad Ali, Kim Ellison and Nelson Inz dissenting.
Reached for comment after the vote, Cassellius said, “I wish only the best for Mr. Graff. I look forward to serving the children of Minneapolis and Mr. Ed Graff in the future as commissioner.”
Unity on moving toward contract
When it came time to pass the motion to enter into contract negotiations with Graff, however, the board cast a unanimous vote — a good sign of everyone’s willingness to unify in support of the next superintendent from the get-go.
The board had intended to finalize Graff’s contract this Friday, but Board Chair Jenny Arneson noted this deadline may be a bit ambitious if the board intends to rework its performance-based contract to include measures for things like student well-being.
In a brief Skype session with the press after the meeting, Graff indicated he’s already house hunting and working with the board to apply for a variance while he works toward securing a Minnesota superintendent’s license.
The Minnesota Board of School Administrators denied Graff’s initial application, but the school board’s attorney, Amy Moore, assured everyone they’re “well-poised” to secure a variance, with the board reviewing applications again on June 13.
Graff’s current contract with the Anchorage School District goes through June, but he hopes to move to Minnesota sometime next month to start building relationships before he officially starts in July.
“I’m very excited to be chosen as the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. A huge thank you to the board and the community for their support,” he said.
During the transition period, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas will serve as interim superintendent beginning June 1, when Goar leaves to assume his new post as president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities.
Returning to Minnesota
Graff, 47, was born in Bemidji and attended school in different parts of northern Minnesota. After attending Bemidji State University for a year, he moved to Anchorage in 1987 to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
He stayed and got a job as an elementary teacher in 1991, eventually working his way up the ranks in the district, serving as a school principal, executive director of elementary education, and chief academic officer before being appointed superintendent in 2013.
Graff — husband to an elementary school principal and father to one son — also holds a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Sharing findings from a recent site visit to Anchorage, Arneson assured her colleagues that in speaking to about 25 people who had worked with Graff they felt confident that Graff had accurately portrayed his leadership qualities and priorities throughout the interview process.
Positive environment, work culture
“There was a lot of talk about the work culture that he created and the very positive environment, even in a time of difficulty when morale maybe shouldn’t be high, morale seemed extraordinarily high,” Arneson said, noting his district was in a period of budget cuts due to a drop in the price of oil.
Addressing the seemingly contradictory fact that Graff’s contract wasn’t renewed in Anchorage, Arneson said everything they heard in Anchorage reaffirmed he’s a “really well-respected leader.”
“To clarify, Mr. Graff’s contract was not renewed. That is not the same as being fired,” she said, adding there seemed to be general surprise and confusion among those they spoke with. “We did not find any evidence of a smoking gun, or why that would be.”
Pressed to address the matter again, she said there were months of testimony in favor of Graff at board meetings, where people expressed their outrage, frustration and disappointment.
“We spoke to one school board member. She started the interview by being clear that his character is impeccable and they thought highly of him,” Arneson added. “They didn’t go into a lot of detail and I believe there is a gag order in place.”
This didn’t seem to give Minneapolis board members much pause. They were more so concerned with the impressions of Graff they had acquired through interacting with him last week during his visit. On this front, he earned the trust and respect of many.
Board Member Josh Reimnitz drew attention to a small, but telling, detail: He hadn’t heard Graff use a single acronym — proof of Graff’s commitment to “make sure people know where he’s coming from,” he said.
Board Member Nelson Inz commended Graff’s focus on connecting students to their learning and pointed out his mastery of a classic teacher skill: If you lower your voice, the students will lower their voices too.
“He seemed to be a great listener and brought his voice down. I would imagine that would change the culture of this room, which is something we might want to have happen,” Inz said.
Focus on student and teacher well-being noted
A number of board members commended Graff’s focus on student and teacher well-being, in addition to academic performance. Given the fact that the Anchorage district, while roughly 10,000 students larger, is quite similar to the Minneapolis district in terms of having a lot of student diversity, many expressed confidence in his ability to connect with the Minneapolis community. The caveat, of course, is that Minneapolis has a far larger African-American population than Anchorage.
Board Member Don Samuels said Graff’s communication style, willingness to put himself in vulnerable situations, and experience living and teaching on Native American reservations put many of his initial concerns to rest.
“I think if he has a relationship with the Native American community, it will translate effectively to the African-American community,” he said. “I think I can go out on a limb and say, to some degree, he is quite an evolved human being.”
Board member Rebecca Gagnon echoed Samuel’s sentiments. “I think we have someone with unique ability and integrity and student focus. He says it a million times because he lives it to his core.”
A brief recap
The initial 10-month search came to a halt at the Jan. 12 board meeting, when the board rescinded its offer to Sergio Paez, following allegations that staff had abused special-education students in his prior district in Massachusetts.
That same evening the board nearly appointed the runner-up, Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, but that attempt was thwarted when protesters demanded a new search.
From there, the board approved a modified search process on an expedited timeline that included a handful of community listening sessions and the formation of an 11-member superintendent search committee that included community members. The board also hired a new search firm, DHR International, along with a community engagement consultant, Radious Guess, to help facilitate the search process and conduct background checks.
Overall, the rebooted process seemed to go over well in the community and the board appeared rather humbled by the process, taking ownership for the failures of the initial search and acknowledging the need to rally behind Graff in order to create real change in the district.
“I know this has been a long process and we learned a few things the first time. And we’re really pleased by the amount of patience and support and interest we have in Minneapolis Public Schools,” Arneson said at the start of the Skype session. “We’re thrilled. We think this is a critical juncture and are anxious to serve our students moving forward.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Minnesota Board of School Administrators.