Schools need new superintendent ?? just not right away

Search on hold, but what do leaders want?

The search to replace Minneapolis School Superintendent Carol Johnson whose six-year tenure ends this month, has been put on hold. Will the Board of Education conduct a national or regional search or hire someone they already know? The board has agreed to wait until late September before discussing what they want in a superintendent, and by what process they will look.

In 1997, the last time there was a vacancy, board members simply went out and hired Johnson, a former Minneapolis teacher who was superintendent in St. Louis Park.

David Jennings, Chief Operating Officer of the district, will serve as the interim superintendent until a replacement is found. He recently wrote a memo to the school board stating that he will serve as long as it takes but that he will not be participating in the search as a candidate. He will advise the Board about what qualities he thinks the next superintendent should possess. His fear is that certain community groups may line up behind a certain candidate and others may line up behind somebody else, and it will become too political.

"I can’t do what I have to do to run the school district and be a candidate at the same time," Jennings said.

He agrees with Board Chair Sharon Henry-Blythe’s thoughtful approach. "They are not going to meet when emotions are running high to find a replacement for Carol Johnson and start making all sorts of decisions that will have long-term implications," Jennings said.

The school district’s Human Resources Department will post no job description. The standards by which candidates will be judged is based on the school’s "District Improvement Agenda" (DIA), a large document detailing the goals and responsibilities the School Board has set for the schools. The new superintendent is required to champion DIA and, in that role, wear many hats.

Among them is that of a business manager overseeing the district’s $676.8 million budget, its 8,299 employees, and almost 100 schools and office buildings. Included in the DIA is the obligation to eliminate cost overruns in all budget categories and to meet budget objectives. The superintendent must represent the schools in the political area — and, as important, in the business, foundation and grant communities to bring schools additional financial resources.

The job also mandates that the superintendent take responsibility for education of the district’s 47,661 students, many of whom live in poverty and speak English as their second language. The role also requires overseeing district compliance with state, local and federal regulations regarding education. Other goals include supporting affirmative action and diversity in hiring, as well as increasing graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates.

The superintendent also needs to be a scholar who can inspire the community and family members to encourage student success, including on comprehensive tests given in 3rd, 5th, 10th and 11th grade. Johnson had a Ph.D. in education curriculum.

Another role is that of an enforcer, making sure that effective interventions reduce student suspensions, classroom disruptions and the percentage of students missing more than eight days of school each year. Keeping drugs and guns out of the schools is a major parental concern, as is increasing the number of students and staff reporting that they feel safe in school.

It’s a big job. That’s why Johnson was paid $160,000 per year.

So what should the School Board look for in a new superintendent? A few community leaders share their wish list.

State Sen. Jane Ranum Ranum, a Lynnhurst DFLer, represents Armatage, Kenny and parts of Lynnhurst and Windom on the Senate Education Committee. Her district also covers Richfield and part of Bloomington.

Ranum believes that the ideal candidate should have experience as a superintendent at another school district, with an understanding of what the School Board’s priorities are and be someone who can institute those priorities.

"That person will have to be a champion for education in Minneapolis," said Ranum. "He or she has to be a great communicator who can communicate with the schools and make the case that here in Minneapolis education is important, especially to the business community."

Minneapolis School Board Director Dennis Schapiro

Schapiro, a Linden Hills resident, said that the Board shouldn’t search for another Carol Johnson — who, he said, was more than the sum of her parts — because they are not going to find one.

He said maintaining a good environment for learning is that person’s most important job.

"What you don’t want is the savior coming in with silver bullets because I think our vision is pretty good," Schapiro said. "We need to find somebody who honestly agrees with our vision. And that’s unusual because I think a lot of urban superintendents come in yelling ‘fire’ and are there to put it out. Even though our test scores may not look that good, Carol planted the seeds for long-term growth."

Schapiro said he would look for a strong leader who will give clear directions since the current economic climate forces tough decisions and a big part of the job will be to say "no."

While the Board makes big decisions, they try not to micromanage. "The new superintendent is going to have to make cuts, and we are going to have to trust that person to make cuts in the right places," he said.

Mayor R.T. Rybak Rybak, an East Harriet resident, said the new superintendent’s role is not only making sure the schools work but also to champion the needs of children in the community.

"The schools are being asked to do a lot of things," said Rybak. "The new person cannot solve all the problems facing children in the community, but still he [or she] should be an advocate for youth in general and forge partnerships with the community because we all need to do more."

Catherine Shreves, former School Board chair

Shreves, who lives in Fulton, said she hopes the Board conducts a local search rather than a national search because she thinks there are some fantastic suburban superintendents who would do a great job. As far as qualities, Shreve thinks communication skills are most important.

"The new superintendent has to be politically savvy and have the ability to relate to many different communities, especially the political community at the Legislature, the governor’s office, city officials, the parks, the libraries, the City Council and the mayor," said Shreve. "He [or she] will also have to be able to deal with labor unions and parents of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds and the business community."

Her choice: David Jennings.

Rev. Albert Gallmon, a former School Board director and president of the Minneapolis NAACP Gallmon, who lives in North Minneapolis, said the Board should be looking for someone with all the qualities of Carol Johnson who, he said, had the ability to articulate her goals, strategies and her visions clearly.

Gallmon hopes the new superintendent recognizes the importance of closing the achievement gap between children of color and white students in the district — the state of Minnesota recently posted the largest gap in the nation, according to one survey. He stresses the importance of early childhood learning as a way to fill the gap and hire more teachers of color.

Is it important that the new superintendent be a person of color?

"When I first came to Minneapolis seven years ago from Washington, D.C., we had many African-American role models like Sharon Sayles Belton, Denny Green, Brian Herron, Carol Johnson, Louis King and Ron Green," said Gallmon. "Now many of them are gone from the scene. From a selfish standpoint, I would love to have someone of color, but it is not a must."

Heather Martens Martens is the chair of the Joint East Harriet-Kingfield Neighborhood Committee on Community Schools, and a parent of a Lake Harriet 2nd grader.

She believes the next superintendent should have teaching experience and is also be a good leader.

"Carol Johnson inspired confidence and built bridges between the different communities," she said. "She listened attentively, acknowledged other people’s ideas and responded respectfully. That’s important when you are dealing with controversy. We need that in the next superintendent, too."