As promised, the new superintendent of Minneapolis Public School, Ed Graff, immersed himself in the orientation process as soon as he made the move to Minnesota from Alaska. Since July, he’s been touring schools, hosting numerous public meet-and-greet events — even one for the media, where he pledged to be as transparent and accessible as possible — and digging into district data, as well as the strategic plan, Acceleration 2020.
To get a read on current staff morale, he reviewed a staff survey that the district’s research, evaluation, assessment and accountability team conducted in June. He also reached out to the Council of the Great City Schools, asking it to evaluate the district’s organizational structure and recommend changes that could help improve overall efficiency and effectiveness.
Emboldened with a more nuanced sense of his bearings and the tasks that lie before him, Graff presented his findings at a board meeting last month. He also previewed his vision for improving upon the status quo in four main areas: achievement, equity, engagement and accountability.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that we have extraordinary students … we have extraordinary families, parents, staff members. We are a diverse, talented, and committed community that really wants to make a positive difference for every student in our schools,” he said at the meeting. “We definitely have an intention and a passion for making an impact. And I’ve observed that, unfortunately, we’re not unified, and focused and consistent in that effort.”
At the Davis Center — the large central office building housed off W. Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis — progress is largely being hampered by a lack of accountability measures and clear chains of command. At least, that’s what a team of experts concluded after a three-day site visit in early September.
The team was composed of two representatives from the Council of the Great City Schools and three experienced leaders from large urban districts in Texas and Florida. The report they compiled [PDF] states that “many members of the senior team were particularly strong.” But it also highlighted a number of overarching concerns that they identified through staff interviews and other investigation.
“The district’s central office organizational structure and culture was fractured, incoherent, and was defined as much around the needs of adults as the academic essentials of children, and is structured in a way that discourages collaboration,” the report said.
As outlined in the report, the team suggested a number of organizational changes that aim to add clarity to the hierarchies within and among the various departments and encourage greater collaboration in a central office that’s “characterized by executive stovepipes and silos.”
The report also touched on the apparent lack of an accountability system that would ensure each department is advancing district goals.
“There does not appear to be a coherent and consistently-applied central-office staff performance evaluation system that is built around attaining overall districtwide goals,” the report said.
Many of these shortcomings have ripple effects, impacting teachers and other district staff who struggle to make sense of the messaging they’re getting from leadership. In an online survey that was open to all district staff [PDF] — to which 946 responded, 60 percent of whom were teachers — the findings highlighted this disconnect.
“There are deep concerns among staff about the climate and culture of the district. There is mistrust between Davis Center staff and teachers, as well as a general lack of communication, clarity, and transparency leading to a general sense of pessimism,” the survey report stated.
On the upside, 44 percent of respondents rated their job satisfaction as “very satisfied” and another 47 percent answered “moderately satisfied.” Asked to identify what’s working well, respondents praised things like the Grow Your Own Residency program, professional development efforts in equity and socio-emotional learning, the Office of Black Male Student Achievement, and more. It also captured a sense of optimism about the new superintendent.
One other major take-away for district leadership involved the need for better communicating the district’s strategic plan and measuring fidelity with the plan, at all district levels. According to the staff survey report, one fourth of respondents indicated they did not know or understand the plan.
“Especially troubling is the lack of understanding among respondents of the district’s strategic plan, in addition to a belief gap that the plan as written has the potential to impact students achievement,” the survey report stated. “This is unfortunate, as a strong strategic plan could provide a rallying cry for student achievement in the district and bring clarity to both internal and external constituents.”
New scaffolding, plus auditor
In response, Graff had already begun working with his senior leadership team to revamp the district’s strategic plan, adding concrete strategies and accountability metrics that many had called for. For instance, part of that work includes adopting a literacy curriculum.
At the board meeting, he said, “We aren’t where we need to be with our strategic plan, Acceleration 2020. There’s a lack of understanding and there’s a lack of alignment,” adding there are strong goals that “we all need to be laser focused on.”
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, participated on the team that conducted the organizational review this fall. In a phone interview, he said the district appears to be responding well to all of the feedback.
“My sense of it is that the superintendent, Ed Graff, took the report very seriously. He saw many of the same things that we observed and documented. My understanding is that he is beginning to move on his organizational structure pretty quickly, which is a good thing,” Casserly said.
One of the district’s most concrete changes, supported by the council’s recommendations, included hiring an internal auditor. This new hire started on Monday and will be conducting internal audits to help catch and correct any accounting mistakes, or misuses of district funds, before they escalate.
In years past, the district faced public scrutiny for a lack of transparency as well as for its “sloppy financial record keeping” discussed in a 2015 Star Tribune story criticizing employees’ use of district credit cards for unauthorized purchases. In a sample of 270 expense reports, nearly half were submitted without a receipt to show proof of purchase.
The district’s new chief financial officer, Ibrahima Diop — who started last fall — has been a big proponent of adding an internal auditor position so the district can be more proactive, rather than reactive to these types of problems. The internal auditor will likely conduct two school audits and one central office department audit each month, and will report directly to Diop for the time being. For any specific investigations, the report would also go to the superintendent and board members.
When Diop joined the district, he walked into a $36 million deficit, and a system that had become lenient with its financial policies. “What I found would be, in some instances, it would be cases of policies in the books that were not followed. Or in some instances, cases where there’s no policy or financial system,” he said.
For instance, he said, district policy states that any purchases over $3,500 must go through the RFP (request for proposal) process. But some employees simply weren’t following this procedure, and they weren’t facing any repercussions. Additionally, Diop said, all employee purchase records must now be submitted with justification for how their purchases align with the goals outlined in the district’s strategic plan.
Next up, Graff will become the focus of accountability talks as the school board discusses what, exactly, the superintendent evaluation will entail.