The elephant in the room

David Jennings remains a Republican, but he's transcended partisanship to become the Minneapolis schools' interim superintendent

The framed poster on the wall behind David Jennings' desk at the Minneapolis Public Schools office reads: "This guy makes the bad guys nervous." It was given to him by a corporate lobbyist in the 1980s, a tribute to his early days as a Young Turk when he was the Republican Speaker of the House in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Jennings has made his old GOP colleagues nervous as the Chief Operating Officer for the state's largest school district. Some Republicans feel that in Jennings' role managing the business end of the Minneapolis schools -- food service, transportation, finance, human resources, computers and technology, and facilities management for 46,000 urban students -- he's gone over to the enemy.

That feeling may only increase in the wake of Minneapolis Superintendent Carol Johnson's resignation; in late July, the School Board named Jennings as her interim replacement. He may seek the post permanently.

In June, the Star Tribune published Jennings' account of the drama with "Almanac," a weekly public affairs show on public television that has long used Jennings as a Republican political panelist. Hours before airtime, a concerned producer called to ask if he was still a Republican.

"They heard complaints from people at the Capitol who said that they shouldn't have me on the show because I wasn't a loyal, true-blue Republican," Jennings said. "They took me off the panel and put on Brian Sullivan (an Orono businessperson and former Republican gubernatorial

candidate) instead because I didn't spew the party line."

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum said his party wanted Jennings yanked because he endorsed DFLer Roger Moe in the last gubernatorial election.

Sviggum has known Jennings for 25 years. He said he is glad Jennings still

calls himself a Republican but would like him to follow Ronald Reagan's 11th

Commandment: "Never fight publicly with one of your own."

Sviggum implies that Jennings should not be surprised by partisan hardball. "I like David a lot. He is a very strong, good thinker and has certainly great assurance and comfort in his thought and abilities. However, when he was Speaker of the House he was called 'King David' because he was very unilateral in his decisions.

He ruled with an iron fist, without involving a lot of other people in the decision-making process."

For what it's worth, Jennings said he is still a Republican but reserves the right to speak out when he thinks it is appropriate. (Moe, he said, was the best candidate for public education.) However, his loyalties are now split between his historical allegiance to the GOP, and his responsibilities to Minneapolis parents -- who, he believes, need a clear understanding of the current political climate because it is going to affect their children's education.

Minnesota has a national reputation for being on the cutting edge of education policy. Such things like open enrollment among schools, privately managed charter schools and flexible postsecondary options took hold here first. However, according to Jennings, the school district's current financial situation -- a $40 million budget deficit that forced 450 teacher layoffs -- is the biggest challenge it has faced since a court-ordered desegregation plan in the 1960s.

"Minneapolis is a Democratic town in a Republican world and the political climate is challenging the issues of race and poverty," he said. "Budget cuts are going to strain the district's ability to serve its students. It is important for parents to get involved in the schools. The community must hold up its end because issues that have an impact on kids' ability to learn have a lot to do to do with what goes on outside the classroom. We need to help with immigrant kids and poor kids to be successful."

As in his public life, Jennings' private life is a mix of cultures. He blends a live-free enthusiasm for motorcycles -- he's been to the annual Sturgis, S.D. rally six times -- with a book club that includes Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz, a former Republican legislative colleague. Last month, they discussed Shakespeare's "King Lear" and Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning."

Ego and common sense

How did an iron-fisted conservative rural Republican become a champion of Minneapolis schools?

The Truman, Minn. native was born the son of the town's postmaster. He did a five-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps out of high school. Following an honorable discharge, he attended Mankato State University, where he studied political science. He dropped out of law school at the University of Florida because he was bored. In 1978, he won his first election in the State Legislature. He spent three years on the back bench, later rising to become minority leader and then speaker.

After eight years, he decided not to run for reelection. Instead he got talked into running for governor. "My ego overcame my common sense," he confessed.

Lured into a three-way race with Cal Ludeman and Mike Menning, he lost at the Republican convention after five ballots and went quietly into the private world. He first worked as trade association executive and then for Schwann's Sales Enterprises for nine years as their vice president of administrative services. He did a brief stint for Gov. Jesse Ventura as commissioner of commerce and then went to work as the president of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce.

That's where his contact with the schools began. In 1999, the chamber worked on two projects. The first was developing a curriculum called "Voyager" for Northeast Minneapolis' Edison High School, the second was giving city citizens their first school district report card, a project with The Minneapolis Foundation.

Jennings, who now lives in Burnsville, said the efforts didn't change his opinion of Minneapolis schools -- but it did change his sense of urgency.

"I wasn't surprised to find poor kids in the Minneapolis schools; what I was surprised to find out was how poor they are. The poor kids in Minneapolis are among the poorest kids you'll find anywhere in the country," he said. "There is more homelessness in Minneapolis than I realized. And so my sense of urgency is about how much time there is to get things done."

Jennings said Minneapolis is one of the nation's most segregated cities. He said that reflects a dichotomy, wherein, alongside the poverty-induced problems, one finds success stories about kids who win national competitions and are exposed to extraordinary things such as the International Baccalaureate program.

However, for kids who are highly mobile and homeless, who have serious language issues, there is an achievement gap the district continues to struggle with.

He said the difference between the success stories and the challenges is the difference between kids who come from stable homes and those who do not. And that fact has little to do with family income, he said.

Unconventional choice

Outgoing Superintendent Johnson said that to many, Jennings was an unconventional choice for COO because he hadn't been part of the education establishment, even though he knows a great deal from his days at the Legislature and has been a strong supporter of schools since he worked at the Chamber.

"He simultaneously is an advocate for public education but is also a friendly critic of what we aren't doing well or where our commitment falls short of what the community expects," Johnson said.

For example, he made administrators give up their perks. Most can't go to national conventions because the district can't afford it. No one gets to go unless he or she can explain how it will help student achievement. He also made the district give up its print shop and contract with outside vendors.

According to Johnson, Jennings asks questions people within her organization don't usually ask.

Are those comments welcome? Johnson replied that sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren't.

"It's taken some time for us to get used to hearing the brutal facts," she said. "And sometimes to understand the perspective that he brings. But people within our organization truly respect his insight. He has challenged us to think differently about the work we do and our own efforts around accountability."

Jennings concludes that his transition from GOP leader to city schools defender wasn't that much of a transition. "During the height of my legislative days, there was talk about school vouchers. Many Republicans thought that was a good idea to do away with public schools and give vouchers to parents…I never subscribed to that theory."

He raises his eyebrows at the noisy political constituency critical of public education because of state test results when, in his opinion, there is so much more at stake.

"The true value of public education goes far beyond kids learning to read and write. It is about protecting the future freedom of this country. The reason our democracy has survived is because our public schools have provided the necessary means for good citizenship. [Public school] teaches kids about their constitutional rights, how to protect them and how to think. If public education is weakened, then I believe you weaken the institution of democracy itself."

For Jennings, that is neither a republican or democratic issue.