Almost exactly 17 years ago, the Star Tribune published an editorial calling for radical change at Minneapolis Public Schools. “The disparity in achievement between white and minority students makes radical changes at the top long overdue,” the paper inveighed.
The radical change in question was the hiring of Peter Hutchinson and Public Strategies Group, Inc., to helm the district, which then boasted 75 schools and 42,000 students. A non-educator, Hutchinson had served as a nonprofit executive, a public-sector consultant and former Gov. Rudy Perpich’s finance commissioner.
The radical change the new superintendent in turn pledged in December 1993, according to the newspaper: “To believe that all students can achieve; to have challenging expectations for students, families and staff; to remove barriers to improved performance on all levels; to listen, hear, and respond to feedback from students, staff and the community; to tell the truth in love.”
Hutchinson was trained as a teacher, but needed a waiver from state requirements about superintendent licensing to assume the post. For its part, Public Strategies Group agreed to a series of ambitious pay-for-performance benchmarks. Because it was unique, the deal made headlines throughout the country.
What’s that hoary cliché about the more things change?
A media mogul as next chancellor
I thought of Hutchinson over the weekend while reading about the pushback New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is experiencing over his decision to appoint media mogul Cathleen Black as the city’s next chancellor of schools.
A non-educator like Hutchinson, Black needs special permission from New York state to take the job. The most recent headlines suggest that she’ll get it so long as she and Bloomberg agree to take on a state-nominated chief academic officer with more traditional bona fides. As of this writing, pundits had yet to decide whether the CAO would have authority to rival Black or serve as a clipboard-toting factotum with little real power.
What is interesting is how much ink has been spilled erroneously suggesting that placing a non-educator in charge of a school district is a novel experiment. Indeed, Hutchinson is only one of a number of nontraditional superintendants who have served in Minnesota over the last couple of decades.
After Hutchinson’s consulting group failed to live up to stratospheric expectations, MPS hired an educator, the widely beloved Carol Johnson, who, in 2000, in turn hired one-time GOP state House speaker and corporate executive David Jennings away from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to serve as the district’s chief operating officer.
When Johnson was lured away by Memphis in 2002, the Minneapolis School Board gave Jennings the top job on an interim basis and the state gave him a waiver from traditional credentialing requirements. Jennings turned around and hired a chief academic officer to compensate for the holes in his background. During the two years he held the post, 2002-2004, Jennings called unsuccessfully for a number of the reforms the current board has struggled to implement, including the painful closure of a number of schools.
From Jennings to Peebles
Jennings took himself out of the running for the job on a permanent basis after a segment of the African-American community protested his conservative political leanings and demanded the job be given to a minority. Infamously, the board then hired Thandiwe Peebles, an educator who was groomed for her superintendence by a private nonprofit in Los Angeles that sought to recruit veterans of the armed forces and corporate America to change the way urban districts are run.
Alas, Peebles quickly ended up at the center of numerous scandals — including the alleged use of district personnel to complete homework assignments needed to earn her traditional superintendent’s license — and the board was forced to buy out her contract not long after.
Stick with this history lesson for a moment, for the ironies are thick: Jennings went on to earn praise as Chaska’s schools chief from 2005 until the end of the 2009-2010 school year, when he retired. After unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, Hutchinson went on to become president of the Bush Foundation, which is working on a series of ambitious, widely praised educational initiatives. Carol Johnson, meanwhile, continued her meteoric rise and is currently superintendent in Boston, where many of the reforms under consideration locally were piloted.
In short, there’s no way of handicapping the possibilities of Black pulling off some kind of private-sector-inspired miracle. Nor should that necessarily be her goal.
A background in finance
Bloomington Superintendent Les Fujitake has a history in finance, as well as a reputation for finding innovative ways to keep a good proportion of a shrinking pot of dollars in classrooms. For starters, when he was hired four years ago, Fujitake took a lower salary to compensate for his lack of a superintendent’s license, which he received within his first six months on the job.
He’s had some home runs: The district’s food-service operations turn a profit, which he uses to underwrite teaching jobs. “Each school is a profit center,” he told a DFL education group a couple of years ago. “We run it just like a restaurant or any other kind of food-service business.”
That same rationale doesn’t extend to all district operations, though. When he took the job, Fujitake brought transportation — long the first thing outsourced by many districts — back in house. Not only do Bloomington’s buses run on time, they do so at a lower cost.
In the end, it seems more likely Black’s ability to serve as change agent will hinge on many of the same challenges facing other urban superintendents, whether they come from teaching or corporate America. Will she be able to work with an increasingly adversarial union, find a way to address lagging student achievement, close enough schools to deal with demographic shifts and raise graduation rates — all in the face of a budget crisis neither she nor her political patron can do much about?
One thing’s certain: If she discovers she needs help with her not-totally-novel experiment, she can find a wellspring of experience in the Twin Cities.