Now, Minneapolis schools’ big challenges: Replacing Bill Green and building on his legacy

Superintendent Bill Green
Superintendent Bill Green

When Superintendent Bill Green announced today that he will allow his contract with Minneapolis Public Schools to lapse at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, reaction from parents, staff and board members was swift:

No one was happy that Green had decided to return to his “first loves,” teaching and writing. But the fact that his tenure was widely considered a success likely makes the prospect of replacing him much less daunting than the last time Minneapolis went hunting for a superintendent.

Green said he started thinking about tendering his notice months ago. “I miss teaching, that’s the long and the short of it,” Green told MinnPost in an interview. “I wanted to avert the kind of jarring transitions that have occurred in the past by giving the community a year’s notice.”

Urban school superintendents in demand
Superintendents with the skills to lead a large urban district are in hot demand, and Green was concerned that postponing his announcement would make it harder for the district to find a top-notch replacement. “Good people are in districts by September,” he explained.

In the past, Minneapolis has had a hard time attracting the most attractive candidates. “Frankly, we’re in a much better position because of Bill,” said School Board Chair Tom Madden. “The average tenure of a superintendent is 18 months and, at the end of Bill’s contract, he will have been here four years.”

During that time, Green has built a strong leadership team, Madden adds. “The focus has been on students and achievement for the last three years.”

The popular, affable Green, who has been on leave from his post as a tenured professor at Augsburg College, will hand his successor a very different district from the one he inherited. It’s dramatically smaller, more cash-strapped than ever, and still facing a yawning achievement gap. But for the first time in more than a decade, MPS’ various stakeholder groups are not at war with one another.

They are, however, fearful that the fragile truce could easily fall apart. “He was brought in to bring some stability to the district,” recalled Bill English, co-chair of the Council of Black Churches. “I think he’s leaving the district in reasonably good shape. I think we’ve got a good strategic plan, and I think he’s moving in the right direction. Beyond that, I really have some concerns with his leaving.”

Green’s response: “That is absolutely understandable, and it’s based on history.”

When Green’s appointment as superintendent was announced in January 2006, it was over the shouts and catcalls of an angry mob. Only a year and a half after replacing short-timer David Jennings, who was white, the Minneapolis School Board had just accepted the resignation of divisive Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles, who was black, and voted to buy out her contract to the tune of $180,000.

Frequently tone-deaf, the board at the time had largely alienated the African-American community. Peebles had made closing the racial achievement gap her top priority, but she had also paralyzed district staff, who accused her of “shaming and blaming,” and embarrassed the board, which was forced to investigate allegations that she misstated her credentials and ordered district employees to perform personal chores.

After rough seas, Green calmed the waters
When then-board chair Joseph Erickson announced that Green, who served on the school board from 1993 to 2001, would replace Peebles on an interim basis, the shouting in the school board meeting room on the third floor of district headquarters literally stopped.

“Thandiwe was just a couple of days out of office when I stepped in, and that was very difficult,” he recalled. “Each of those very vocal community leaders has become a valuable member of the process since then.”

Green assembled an enviable senior leadership team. He convinced Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s former finance commissioner, Peggy Ingeson, to take the district’s top fiscal post. He appointed Bernadeia Johnson as chief academic officer and Steve Liss as policy guru. He wooed Jill Stever Zeitlin away from McKinsey and Co. and placed her in charge of strategic planning.

Directed by a board that has since undergone near-total turnover, he and that core staff have led a painful three-year reorganization that is in its final phase. The district has space for 55,000 students but enrolls just 32,000. Green and the board have closed a number of schools and are in the process of selecting more to shutter.

Attendance boundaries throughout the city are being redrawn, and the district has been chipping away at union rules that have made it hard to put the most qualified teachers in the most challenged schools. Despite the passage of a new referendum last fall, the district is struggling with its sixth consecutive year of budget cuts.

Two-thirds of Minneapolis students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and one-fifth are considered homeless or highly mobile.

The process of deciding which schools to close has been fraught with racial overtones. Most of the school closings of recent years have taken place on the city’s impoverished African-American North Side, while affluent white schools in Southwest Minneapolis have been spared. Current board members have been outspoken on the topic of racial equity, but some community members aren’t yet convinced that the pain of reorganization will be distributed equally.

“We’re talking about equity across the district,” said English. “If that means they need to close some Southwest schools, which they have never done, then that’s what they’ve gotta do.”

Successor should get a positive, running start
By staying through the 2009-2010 school year, Green will allow his successor to take the helm of a reorganized district. The painful, divisive process of deciding which schools to close and which students to move, and how to stanch the fiscal hemorrhaging will be over, and the newcomer can get a running start, with a strategic plan painstakingly hammered out by school board members in hand.

“I took the news as a sign that we’re definitely headed into some challenges,” said Kate Towle, a member of the district’s parent advisory council. “It’s very difficult to close schools and change schools and we have many ambitious goals. We have ambitious desegregation goals, we have ambitious achievement goals.”

Still, she added, “His timing is such that a new leader can come in and go forward.”

Both Green and English said they hope the board will consider internal candidates. “I hope the board takes into account the need for continuity,” said Green.

“They need a kick-butt superintendent in order to bring cultural change to this district,” said English. “We have confidence in this board. We believe they have the right intent and they have a sense of urgency about them.”

“I promised myself years ago that I would have the good sense to know when it’s time to move on,” said Green. “We’re nearing the point where this work has to be handed over to someone else.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools and other topics. She can be reached at bhawkins [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 07/24/2009 - 09:17 am.

    This is just thinking out loud. But could the school board create a czar like position and/or create a 3 year commission (hard to get the politics out of it) so the superintendent or school board could take on an altered role. Also just for more info are all school board candidates at large or are there geographic boundaries?

  2. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 07/24/2009 - 10:25 am.

    In the last election, Minneapolis residents voted to expand the school board from seven to nine seats. The changes will be phased in over two election cycles. Six of the members will represent geographic districts and three will be elected citywide. Historically, some parts of the city–particularly northeast Minneapolis, have been very poorly represented.

  3. Submitted by Linda Lincoln on 07/24/2009 - 11:31 am.

    Thank you very much for this analysis of Bill Green’s decision. One thing that’s interesting to me is the way the current state of district affairs is being presented as calm, stable and positive. As a long-time parent in the district, I’m afraid that the parents I know are petrified about where the district is at with its “Changing School Options” process and what it means for their children’s education. It was extremely disappointing to have the district’s 4/28 proposal rejected out of hand, setting back the CSO schedule by months. It is very scary for parents of students entering high school in 2010 to still be in the dark about what their choices will be, and many are afraid they will forced into schools that are chronic underperformers academically and otherwise. With the delayed CSO schedule and now with the departure of the much-respected Dr. Green, many parents I know now feel they must begin to look very seriously at other high school options–charters, private school, and open-enrollment in suburban schools–because they don’t trust the board and district officials to provide legitimately appropriate options for their high-achieving students. There is a strong perception, I’m afraid, that the “Changing School Options” process is off the rails, and that Green’s departure is a confirmation of that.

    Linda Lincoln
    Marcy Open and South High School parent

  4. Submitted by Ann Berget on 07/24/2009 - 12:47 pm.

    I am surprised to read that Green’s administration is assessed as successful. Does anyone know whether this view is widely shared by Minneapolis residents?

  5. Submitted by Paul Rohlfing on 07/24/2009 - 02:19 pm.

    Is Superintendent Green’s tenure seen as a success by most Minneapolis residents? The clearest measurement might be the fact that over 70 percent of Minneapolis voters supported the school referendum on the ballot in 2008. A majority voted “Yes” on the referendum in all 131 of the city’s voting precincts. Having worked on the campaign, it was clear to me that the vote represented strong support for the district’s strategic plan and commitment to greater accountability and transparency.

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