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State board overseeing teacher licensure reopens its executive-director search

The board, commonly known as PELSB, had narrowed down the search for its first permanent executive director to three finalists.

The Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board — the new state board overseeing teacher licensure, commonly known as PELSB — had narrowed down the search for its first permanent executive director to three finalists: Kevin Dahle, a veteran teacher and former state senator from Northfield; Paula Foley, a veteran educator and school administrator from St. Cloud; and Anne Soto, chief operating officer of Educate78, an education nonprofit based in Oakland, California.

All three finalists fielded interview questions from the public on Thursday and from board members on Friday. As board members took some time to deliberate after all three candidates had left Friday afternoon, however, things took an unexpected turn: They decided to reopen the search.

“I don’t think anybody went into Friday with any preconceived notions,” Jim Miklausich, head of the PELSB committee tasked with leading the search, said during a phone interview Saturday. “I think the longer we discussed the candidates, the more it became clear that we felt like these were good people, they all had great qualities. At the same time, nobody had the complete set we were looking for.”

According to the job description, that complete skill set includes everything from managing PELSB staff and working on standards for teacher prep to ensuring that the new state agency is following its statutory requirements. Perhaps most critically, in the midst of a learning curve, the new hire will be tasked with rebuilding trust with state legislators and educators.

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In a series of teacher-licensure reforms adopted last year, state lawmakers disbanded PELSB’s predecessor, the Minnesota Board of Teaching. A state audit, published in March 2016, had declared the state’s teacher licensure system “broken,” citing major concerns with the division of responsibilities and functionality of the two state agencies tasked with overseeing teacher licensure at the time: the state Board of Teaching and the Minnesota Department of Education.

This hiring setback puts the new 11-member PELSB board — all but two of whom are new to the position — in a bit of a pinch, as the next state legislative session begins on  Feb. 20 and the board is expected to roll out the new tiered teacher licensure system on July 1.

“When you opt to reopen a search, you’re not necessarily satisfying any of your stakeholders. And it continues to put the current office in the position of having to work even harder to get everything done because they are understaffed,” Miklausich said by phone. “At the end of the day, it’s the hardest decision. But you don’t make it unless you have to and that’s where we felt like we were.”

Deliberation centered on equity

At the board interview on Friday, Miklausich went through a list of 10 predrafted questions, asking each candidate to speak to their experiences and skill sets when it comes to ensuring the voices of rural communities are heard, helping others effectively handle a changing environment, and more.

Board members did not have an opportunity to ask followup questions at the end of each candidate’s interview. Miklausich says they wanted to give candidates an opportunity to address any potential concerns during some open-ended questions. But he didn’t want to create an inequitable interview process.

“When you open it up, I believe you can lead a candidate down a particular path,” he said. “I didn’t believe that was the intent of the process.”

Rather, after nearly three hours of interviews on Friday, board members took about an hour to share their thoughts on those they’d just heard from. They also had access to notes from the stakeholder interviews, completed the day before, along with notes from PELSB staff members who also had a chance to talk with all three candidates.

At the request of human resources, board members attempted to address each candidate by code — referring to a letter assigned to each résumé, rather than using names or identifying pronouns. But it quickly became clear whom they were talking about, as they discussed each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

Kevin Dahle
Kevin Dahle

Throughout the deliberation process, board members continued to single out candidates’ responses to a question asking what experiences or strategies they’d utilize to bring the voices of underrepresented communities — including non-native English speakers and immigrant communities — to the work of PELSB. The question reflects a growing sense of urgency around diversifying the teacher workforce in Minnesota to better reflect the state’s diverse student population.

For many, Dahle had creditable rural, teaching and legislative experiences, but his response to this particular question concerned many board members, including Penelope Dupris.

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“I’m not sure that I trusted him, when I listened to his interview — and I’m speaking as a Native woman,” she said. “His lack of experience working with people of color and students of color is a deep concern for me. We’re hiring somebody who is going to be in charge of making policy changes that affect half our state. So we do need somebody who has experience working with marginalized communities.”

In his answer to this question, Dahle had started out by pointing out that the school  districts he’s taught in are largely white, a circumstance that complicates “making sure persons of color are included in decision making.” He then talked a bit about the need to support different methods of recruiting more teachers of color to the teaching profession and about the district’s highly acclaimed TORCH program, which helps many marginalized students, including Latinos, finish high school and prepare for college.

During her interview, Foley talked a lot about her experiences advocating for Somali and students and parents in the St. Cloud area and for First Nation families when she taught near the Canadian border. “I try to be fair,” she said. “And honestly, I see equity more for seeing people for who they are and just being kind.”

This answer, combined with concerns outlined by stakeholders, stuck with Dupris.“I was bothered by her commitment to equity. She referred to it as ‘being nice to people.’ That’s not what it’s about. It’s about creating an even playing field,” she said, noting stakeholders had raised an issue with Foley speaking about people of color “in a deficit manner.”

Furthermore, many board members raised concerns over Foley’s rather public exit from St. Cloud schools. In the summer of 2013, the district’s school board OK’ed a settlement with Foley, ending her tenure as a principal in the district following complaints that she had created an “atmosphere of fear and intimidation” among some faculty and staff, reported the St. Cloud Times.

Soto came out as the apparent front-runner on the equity front. While a couple of board members raised concerns that Soto was leaning on more buzzwords than experiences, they generally agreed that her recent work in Oakland — helping underrepresented families navigate the public school system and developing a campaign to recruit more diverse teachers — seemed authentic and equity-oriented.

“I see an opportunity, in this position, for PELSB to be thinking about: How do we serve our most vulnerable students?” Soto said during her interview. “I believe we do that by putting well qualified teachers who have cultural sensitivity in front of them. I think that means setting a very high bar for this profession. It also means creating an open door that allows individuals to access the profession of being an educator in a way they may not have felt before.”

Her strength in this area, however, wasn’t enough to get her past this round of interviews. Board Member Loy Woelbler — one of the two incumbents on the board — shared his concerns about Soto’s lack of legislative experiences. “I don’t appreciate what happened to a couple of our staff members, through the media. I don’t appreciate what happened to some of our people by the Legislature,” he said. “And I don’t think [Soto] is ready for that. That’s my concern, to balance out the great experience with equity.”

Legislative learning curve a concern

While Soto graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in journalism and nonprofit management and had a few years of teaching experience in another state, Woelbler wasn’t the only board member who raised concerns about her ability to hit the ground running in such a highly politicized, Minnesota-specific position.

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Echoing some of the stakeholder feedback the board had collected, Board Member Maggie Borman said she appreciated that Soto had experience working with traditional district schools, charter schools, traditional teacher prep programs and alternative teacher prep programs in other states.

“I actually felt the lack of Minnesota experience could be a positive, a fresh set of eyes,” she said, noting she liked that Soto had acknowledged her legislative learning curve and willingness to learn on the expertise of PELSB staff while still learning the ropes.

Reflecting on Dahle — the two-term senator who partook in laying the groundwork for the teacher licensure overhaul during his time on various legislative education committees — Borman framed his experience as a double-edged sword.

Paula Foley
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Paula Foley

“His legislative experience is an asset, but it’s also kind of a liability because, by nature, he’s a partisan figure,” she said. “And it does send a message about how we are feeling about the political part of this. I’m not sure how that would be perceived by the public, or by other legislators.”

Daniel Sellers, executive director of Ed Allies, a local education reform group that’s been closely following the teacher licensure overhaul, points out that Dahle has a problematic track record. During his time in the Senate, he was an outspoken critic of alternative teacher certification and he authored a bill that would have labeled Teach for America and other alternatively certified teachers under the revamped teacher licensure system “interns,” a label Sellers said would have singled them out as not being qualified.

Political history aside, a number of board members praised Dahle as the most polished candidate and expressed confidence in his ability to both navigate politics at the Capitol and manage the PELSB staff. They also pegged him as a capable leader; he was a 2011 semi-finalist for Teacher of the Year and a longtime union leader engaged in settling teacher contract negotiations in Northfield. 

“There’s this concern that we are in a politicized environment right now and our board is a result of that. And it’s controversial. And it isn’t going to be easy for all of us,” said Board Member Anne Lindgren. “So that makes me nervous a little bit because I do want an advocate who can talk that talk a little bit and move us through.”

Foley’s wide range of experience in the education sector — from teacher and school administrator to adjunct professor of teacher prep courses and education specialist for the state Department of Education — stood out as an asset. During her interview, she also spoke of her experiences lobbying state Legislators to get her students in Greater Minnesota the services they needed.

Ultimately, though, questions surrounding her controversial departure from the St. Cloud district threw her reputation into jeopardy for many board members, since it could undermine her ability to help rebuild PELSB’s reputation.

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Next Steps

Miklausich says the all three finalists will be notified on Monday morning of the board’s decision to reopen the search. Until the board meets again, a lot of the details of the search remain up in the air, he said Saturday.

At this point, it’s unclear whether the finalists will have the opportunity to stay in the running. The board will need to decide whether they choose to do anything new in an effort to attract new candidates.

During deliberations on Friday, Miklausich posed the possibility of hiring an executive search firm this time around. “It’d be their job to assess the candidate pool for us, and bring back names of potential candidates that would either apply or that we would reach out to with an interest in,” he said. “And essentially, we would go through this process again. It’s not unprecedented.”

Some board members had expressed hope that simply reposting the application after the holiday season might be enough to attract qualified candidates who missed the initial deadline. At this point, however, they’ll be facing the added challenge of asking candidates to make their interest public — in the final stages of the search — after setting a precedent that making it to the final round is no assurance that a job offer will be made.

Anne Soto
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Anne Soto

The initial job posting listed a salary range of $85,000 to $115,000, says Miklausich. At that price point, they received 12 applicants. After comparing each applicant’s qualifications against a hiring rubric, they whittled the pool down to six semi-finalists. They invited all six to a screening process conducted by the hiring committee. Only four decided to attend — at which point they became publicly identifiable, via the search committees notes. And three were invited back for finalist interviews.

At this stage in the hiring process, one finalist withdrew, and the pool dropped down to two. So the search committee reached back out to the two semi-finalists who hadn’t come to the screening process. Soto accepted the invitation and entered the rounds of finalist interviews Wednesday morning.

Having attended both days of interviews, Sellers acknowledged how much time and effort the search committee had put into the effort thus far and applauded its decision to relaunch the search.

“I do think it was the right decision,” he said. “They’re going to have a hard time finding a candidate that meets the high bar that they have. But I think our teachers and students and schools deserve them at least giving it another go.”