Two Minneapolis school board members pack bags for finalist-vetting mission to Alaska

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Finalist Ed Graff, right, speaking with members of the Minneapolis Public School Board.

Down to two finalists for the Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent position, the school board conducted interviews Tuesday evening with both Ed Graff, outgoing superintendent of the Anchorage School District, and Brenda Cassellius, the Minnesota commissioner of education.

After nearly 90 minutes of face time with each candidate, the board reconvened to discuss the logistics of conducting site visits before they vote on a finalist next Tuesday. Based on their availability, Board Chair Jenny Arneson and Board Member Rebecca Gagnon will be heading to Anchorage to further vet Graff’s track record, while Board Members Siad Ali and Josh Reimnitz will be doing the same for Cassellius here in Minnesota. They will present their findings to the public at Tuesday’s meeting, prior to discussing and voting on a finalist.

Worth the miles?

With last-minute round-trip flights to Anchorage hovering around $1,400, plus additional travel expenses, does Graff’s candidacy warrant a site visit? It’s a question the board spent some time deliberating. But, ultimately, members decided there was enough at stake — community trust, an upcoming referendum, chronic achievement gaps — to justify investing a bit more in investigating the out-of-state candidate before choosing the district’s next leader. One question sure to be on their minds is why the board in Anchorage chose not to renew Graff’s contract last fall.

The rebooted search has already racked up a number of unforeseen expenses, including the need to hire a new search firm, DHR International, and a community engagement consultant, Radious Guess.

The initial 10-month search came to a halt in January when the board rescinded its offer to its top candidate, Sergio Paez from Massachusetts, following allegations that staff had abused special-education students at the Peck School in his prior district. Since these allegations had evaded the background check performed by a paid consultant, HYA (Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates), the board voted to suspend contract negotiations while two board members flew out east to visit the Holyoke district to consult with 12 of Paez’s former colleagues.

While the allegations remained just that — allegations — Paez’s public image had already been tarnished and the board chose to move forward without him.

The board nearly appointed the runner-up, Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, but that attempt was thwarted at the Jan. 12 board meeting when protesters demanded a new search.

In the interest of rebuilding community trust and being more transparent, the board approved a modified search process on an expedited timeline. This included holding a handful of community listening sessions and forming a volunteer superintendent search committee — made up of three board members, two students and five community members — to select and interview five semi-finalists from a slate of seven candidates approved by DHR. This group selected the two finalists on Friday.

Background checks galore

In addition to recruiting candidates, combing through an initial batch of applicants, and conducting lengthy reference checks, DHR outsourced two rounds of background checks. One entailed the basics: verification of employment and educational background, along with a criminal record check. The other, called a “social media check,” went a layer deeper, digging up any number of insights from candidates’ Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well any other information that lives online, like court records.

The service doesn’t come cheap, Natalie Brooks, DHR representative, told the board. But the firm felt it was a necessary layer of precaution.

“We get very in-depth records. It’s expensive to do these social media checks,” she said. “But when it’s something at this level, with kids and schools, we want every level of detail we can.”

She then assured the board there were no surprises that might derail the search at this point.

Finalist Brenda Cassellius speaking with board member Tracine Asberry
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Finalist Brenda Cassellius speaking with Board Member Tracine Asberry and members of the community.

For some, a renewed confidence in the outsourced background check process may have been enough. For instance, Board Member Carla Bates suggested they only do a site visit for Graff since he’s not a known entity. And the visit, she proposed, could come after the vote — if they decided to hire him, that is.

After some deliberation, the board decided to stick with its original plan to conduct site visits for both finalists prior to making its final selection.

“I do believe that we should go in person, and there’s a certain kind of political aspect to all of this,” Board Member Don Samuels said. “People are very sensitive to the failures of the last go around and we want to honor that. It may not be something we do in the future, but I think it’s something we have to do this time.”

The big question mark

Despite all of the vision statements and examples of past success that both finalists presented to the board Tuesday evening, one fairly significant question still hasn’t been thoroughly addressed: Why did the Anchorage district decide not to renew Graff’s superintendent contract this past fall?

After having served the district in various capacities for 25 years, the last three of which were as superintendent, Graff — who was loved by many in the district — lost the backing of the board. According to local media reports, the board has kept mum on its reasons for choosing to move in a different direction. Graff has remained equally evasive.

When pressed for more detail Tuesday evening, Graff stuck to his standard reply.

“That’s the board’s decision. Through a lot of discussion and conversations, board members decided they wanted to [go in a] different direction,” he said. “From my lens, I came in at a time that was very similar to the transitions that were happening here and I was able to provide a great deal of stability.”

He then cited a list of accomplishments that took place under his leadership, including increased graduation rates, increased attendance rates, and improved teacher morale.

Yet Graff’s current employers chose to hire a new superintendent to help the district achieve its “very aggressive goals,” outlined in its Destination 2020 strategic plan.

The disconnect leaves room for speculation — the very thing, it would seem, this search process has been geared toward eliminating.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 05/18/2016 - 11:07 am.

    What most folks want is a change not more travel

    To Alaska. All I hear is the problems facing MPS, I never hear solutions that will truly change an agreed apon broken school agenda. If graduation rates are down, drop out rates up, more children not at grade level in math, reading, writing, problem solving and parents upset that their 18 year old is not prepared for work force or college after 13 years of public schools, shouldn’t we hear about drastic change? Putting our heads in the sand or touching up the edges will not help the poor kids stuck in a broken system.

    One positive is folks agree that MPS is a failing system, the next step is to fix it. Usually identifying the cause of the problem leads to a fix. Why is the MPS failing so many? What has changed the past few decades? Hopefully, for the kids sake, folks will look to make changes that help the kids not put another bandiaid on a gushing wound.

    I for one, am tired about hearing more nutritious foods for the breakfast, lunch and after school meals is more important than what the kids are learning, how they are being taught, what rules ensure ALL children can learn in the classroom setting, how to advance the best teachers, how to eliminate the poor teachers and finally is the public school system set up to prepare kids for college or work force. Right now a child who is not up to grade level math doesn’t get special tuttering in math he gets a class on European culture, it is happening to my grandson. Ridiculous priorities!

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/18/2016 - 01:09 pm.

    Forgive me

    …for being so bold as to suggest that an 18-year-old who’s not ready for either a job or further education because s/he lacks the academic and/or social skills to do so is an 18-year-old who has not been paying attention for a major portion of a dozen years in her/his K-12 tenure.

    A genuinely drastic change would have to include not only – perhaps – some different approaches and/or materials in the classroom, but would absolutely require drastic change in both student and community attitudes. It’s certainly true that some school districts, and some individual schools within some school districts, are given more resources with which to work than others. That’s a basic inequity over which those schools and districts have no direct control. The state legislature is the entity that’s failing its responsibilities in those cases.

    Schools, it should be noted, do not fail. Much of the emphasis on “failing schools” is pure propaganda from the right wing, which would like to do away with public schools altogether and revert to the 19th-century system of private and parochial schools that served a few narrow segments of the population rather well, and ignored the rest of the nation’s children. Public education remains one of the depressingly few institutions that supports, through example and action, the notion of democracy and a democratic society. The last thing oligarchs and corporate boards want is a genuinely educated population. What they want are taxpayer-trained employees who do what they’re told, which is not the same thing as an educated citizenry at all.

    Schools do not fail, but speaking as a former practitioner, it seems obvious that teachers sometimes fail, and for a multitude of reasons. Some teachers were poor students themselves, and don’t know their subject matter. We all know what should be done with them, and in many – though not all – cases, that’s precisely what happens, sometimes with the school district’s initiative, and sometimes when the teacher her/himself realizes it’s a job they’re not cut out for. Some teachers don’t much like children, or for some other reason are unable to genuinely connect with students. There are interpersonal skills that can be learned to increase the chances of success on that front, but really good teaching, I maintain, is an art, not a science, and the connection between human beings is one of those things that doesn’t lend itself to being quantified.

    That there are any good teachers at all remaining in a profession that’s been under constant attack from the right (and sometimes from the left, as well) for at least the past couple of decades is one of the great and continuing surprises in this society. One of the eye-opening transformations that has taken place since I first stood in front of a class of high school students half a century ago is that an “F” on a student’s report card, which used to be regarded as an indication of inadequate academic performance on the part of the student is now, all too frequently, regarded as a failure on the part of the teacher.

    That’s not just astonishing, it’s a illustration of the stupidity of ideology. There’s no national crisis of teacher preparation of which I’m aware. Many a critical article and book has pointed fingers at teachers as the parties responsible for massive numbers of student failures, as if illiterates by the thousands are being graduated from colleges and universities all over the country, and put in front of a classroom without any sort of technical or academic training at all. That notion is a lie in its purest form. Many states now require a Master’s degree just to teach high school, and in some cases, elementary school.

    Massive numbers of failures in schools are not because teachers are unprepared, or don’t present academic concepts and examples to their students. All that any teacher, or school, or school district, can do is OFFER an education to a student. It’s not within the teacher’s power to somehow force a student to accept what’s being offered, much less do the necessary intellectual work to learn the material and concepts being presented, whether in class or individually. If students, for whatever reason(s) – most of which are totally out of the control of both the teacher and the school – do not accept the offer of education being made, the responsibility for that choice falls, first and foremost, on the student.

  3. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 05/18/2016 - 03:05 pm.

    Alaska is a nice place to visit, but I’m not sure that anyone is served by anyone on the Board going there in an official capacity. What they need to know is probably available from the third estate through a web search:

    If they don’t know enough about Mr. Graff, his job, and his employers through the search firm, they have wasted money on that front again, so assuming they know what they should to hire anyone, this is a public relations stunt to show how much more scrupulous they have become about the process.

    The Anchorage school board seems to have similar problems to those of many across the nation (they need to show they have some kind of sense in the face of some nonsensical decisions) and particular local problems related to the oil glut.

    Of course I would have less of a problem with any of them going to Anchorage in the dead of winter.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 05/18/2016 - 04:39 pm.

      Oops. Got my estates mixed up. Make that through the fourth estate, although sifting through all the the third offers on the web could be amusing if not beneficial, i.e., look at this member of the third estate who apparently can’t distinguish between the press and the other proles or riffraff like me.

    • Submitted by Michael Hess on 05/20/2016 - 09:37 am.

      Small Investment

      Beyond the inconvenience of days away for the people traveling the cost to send a couple board members to check out the candidates home district makes perfect sense. You can bet 100% that if they did not do this, they hired him, and something came to light later, there would be a deafening chorus of “How could you have not even visited his prior district before hiring him?! Incompetence!!”

      If his prior district was in the midwest and people had to go there to check him out no one would bat an eye. It’s hypocritical to suggest it’s only worth checking the local experience first hand if it’s free or super low cost.

  4. Submitted by Tracy Miller on 05/19/2016 - 10:31 am.

    Save $ – No Supt. License for Graff

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