Bill Green reflects on his tenure leading Minneapolis schools

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bill Green retires from office July 1 with plans to return to Augsburg College, where he has been a professor of history.

A former School Board chair, Green was named interim superintendent in 2006 and took over the position permanently in 2007.

With less than two weeks left in his tenure, Green sat down in his office at district headquarters June 21 to reflect on the previous four years.

SWJ: When you announced plans to leave [your post] a year ago, I spoke with [School Board Chair] Tom Madden, and he told me that one significant change under your leadership was that, prior to 2006 when you were named interim superintendent, “the attention was mostly all non-kid-focused stuff for Minneapolis Public Schools.”
Some of the initiatives of your tenure — particularly Changing School Options — were controversial, but you personally didn’t generate the level of controversy as some of your predecessors in office. Was that a defining characteristic of your superintendency?

Green: It wasn’t the intent, but I think the difference between what we did here and what was traditional was that superintendents didn’t spend as much time in the communities getting to know people and letting themselves be known by the community. So, relationships had formed.
I think … most stakeholders in Minneapolis knew that something fundamental had to happen, but I think that people who have an investment in the institution are also unnerved when big changes get proposed and occur, facilitated by people they don’t know and don’t trust. I think what is oftentimes the case is that we had not, prior to ’06, worked hard to form the kind of relationship, and therefore trust level, that you have to have, because ultimately you can’t successfully make some major changes without the support of the community and the stakeholders who use the institution and will use it after the change has been made.
So, I worked hard on that, and I think that was one of the central reasons that the Board of ’06 — ’05, actually — came to me, because I had been on the Board and I had served for eight years and I had an understanding of the communities and the city, and the stakeholders in the city kind of remembered me from then. And it is a value of mine that the institution form a relationship with, and try to embrace transparency.
Those are some of the factors that contributed to the regard.

When you announced your retirement, you said you wanted the focus of your final year in office to be on what you called the “healing process” following Changing School Options. What, specifically, have you done in the past year to facilitate that healing process?

I’m a believer in history, and I think — I mean, you can look at national policy, whether it’s domestic or foreign — you can look at school district policy and see — that it is one thing to make a decision to do something and quite another thing to spend time helping the people who are most affected by that decision through it.
And what we did, I think, to a greater extent than traditional, was to expend resources working with families and communities most impacted by some of our decisions after the decision was made, so that we didn’t leave them, we didn’t abandon them. They had to kind of see, and play a role, in how they were going to see the next step take form.
If, for example, a school was going to close, we dedicated staff and resources to working with families and helping them visualize what comes next rather than just abandon them.
And I think in some instances the healing was slower than others, but I think that on the whole we’re better off having spent time working with communities. After the CSO decision, for example, we started, after the North Side Initiative we started.
We’ve been losing families, in part, because of the sense that people had been not considered when decisions were made. It was an effort on our part to not only keep the families but to show respect and appreciation for some of the sacrifices those very families made in helping us to get through that process.
But I think more than anything else it was just a different approach that we took, that belief that the work is not done. When you make a decision or know you have to make a decision, part of that consideration must include some sort of sense of: Can we facilitate it? Do we have the capital or the capacity to stick with a decision in the aftermath, and make sure that the electricity works, and the power and the water flows? The infrastructure’s in place.
That’s the stuff that’s not terribly exciting, and I think for that reason is oftentimes overlooked, had been overlooked. But I think that was an important thing.

With Bernadeia Johnson’s contract recently being approved, I did some checking on your contract. Between 2007, when you were hired as superintendent from interim, and 2010 you twice waived the annual raises included in your contract and in 2009 took a voluntary 2 percent pay reduction, so that you were at the end of your tenure earning slightly less than when you started. Are Minneapolis superintendents paid too much?

Well, I’ve only been in this office with one superintendent.
I think that, on a larger scale, it’s hard to compare one tenure with another tenure, because you’re talking about one time in history versus another time in history, where different factors are in play.
I think that the superintendents are — I think that superintendents of districts like Minneapolis deserve the money that they make, just like I think that any educator deserves the money they make.
But, I think that we’re facing now an unprecedented time, and if you’re going to underscore your belief that you belong to the community, as it’s a community institution, you kind of have a duty to reflect to some extent the reality that everybody knows.
And, as I said, this is unprecedented: the economy, the challenges public schools, Minneapolis faces. So, I don’t know what previous superintendents or successive superintendents will do, but it seemed to me to be a necessary thing here.

I also think, too — excuse me, Dylan — our history, I mean, we go through chapters. Now, maybe this is too much a reflection of my sensibility as a reader and a writer and all of that, but I do think Minneapolis goes through chapters, goes through different periods.
And I think that the success of an administration is based on whether that administration’s values and its work is aligned with the needs of the district at that time. So — and as I said before, this is an unprecedented time — so I don’t know what previous superintendents would have done or should have done. It was just what I thought we should do.
It wasn’t just me, it’s my cabinet that also agreed to trimming their salaries.

One of the things that, as of now, is kind of a loose end on your tenure is the teachers contract. Could you have done more to craft an agreement with the union?

I don’t think so, and I’m being probably more diplomatic.
Not only is the financial situation unprecedented, you don’t have to go far to see that the district doesn’t have a lot of money to meet the financial demands of the union.
But there are a couple of things that tend to be omitted in that discussion — and I don’t mean just in Minneapolis, I mean across the country — and that is the classroom teacher, the teacher in the building, the teacher who teaches kids on a daily basis — I’m convinced that the majority of them aren’t asking for more money, too. It’s just a feeling.
Because they read the papers, they look at their statements at the end of the — you know, just the cost-of-living issues that they face. They’re not here to make as much money as they can; they’re here to teach kids.
We also know that we’re at a very crucial time in our development as a district where we have to change the way teachers work with teachers, teachers and principals work with each other and the administration works with all of them. We’ve got to change the way that we work with each other.
In a non-traditional way, an unprecedented way, we actually asked teachers what they felt would be the way that will allow them to live in a work setting that they can do the job they came to do. And their responses were such things as: We would like to have an opportunity to create our own teams that meet the needs of our school community, of our kids; We would like to have a hand in who’s the best fit for this school, in terms of a teacher; And that we can work collaboratively with our principal; And that we want to minimize the churning.
This is what teachers told us, that they know that we have to change the process in which we staff buildings. But that’s not where the union is.
Our breakdown occurred when we gave them our best deal back in January and the union wanted an increase on base pay. And we’re miles and miles apart. And we can’t spend what we don’t have.
Furthermore, in granting the money that they requested, we have other bargaining units who are waiting for the same deal. So, it’s an issue of: How do we do the best thing for our kids, systemically?
And when you have rank-and-file teachers telling you, We know what we need and what we need isn’t more base pay, then that’s the frustrating part of this negotiation.
Could we have done more? No. We don’t have another proposal to put on the table. It’s left to the teachers to decide whether they want to vote on this or not.
So, yeah, I’m frustrated about that. And I’m frustrated, in part, because a lot of other teachers — there are a lot of teachers in the district who don’t really understand what’s going on. They don’t know what’s going on. They don’t feel fully informed. And they don’t feel empowered.
And I might also say, too, Dylan — and I’m sorry, man — this has probably been one of the most touchy moments in my whole tenure, in the sense that I know that teachers feel under assault on all quarters, especially from those who had been their friends, or they viewed to be their friends, and who were their friends. So, a lot feel very much cornered. And add to that the fact that when people complain about education, or more so teachers, they’re not speaking precisely. They kind of confuse the classroom teacher with the union, which I think sometimes have divergent interests. And, so, everybody gets lumped into the same category.
Finally, for me to push harder would mean that I would have to — you know, I’m leaving July 1st, and Superintendent Johnson has to deal with the drama as a result of that, and that’s not fair to her or to the teachers.
So, it, for me, is an issue of, I wish I had closure, or could provide closure. But, it is what it is. We did the best we could.

I have another kind of bigger question that I want to get at but I want to make sure I get to this one in case we run out of time: What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for Superintendent-designee Bernadeia Johnson?

I think that she is obviously going to be faced with the academic piece, trying to reduce the gap, to close the gap. To make sure that every child gets the best education, that’s a huge enough challenge in and of itself.
But she’s also going to be forced to deal with non-educational factors that insinuate themselves into the daily activity of the district, such as politics, finances, state and federal policy. And all of that within the context of how those factors have a way of forcing the calendar to move faster and faster, tempting the district to make decisions in a vacuum.
A challenge that she’s going to face is: How do I keep the proper level of deliberation in place?
We have created relationships with more stakeholders in this community. How do we keep them informed on a timely basis? That’s going to be a challenge.
How do we communicate to our own people, to our own teachers and principals, on a timely basis, what we’re trying to do, knowing that they are, many of them are uncertain as to how all this is going to play out given the circumstances that we’re facing? And how does she assure them that we can get through this period together, if we hang together? That’s going to be a major challenge that she faces.
So, of course the academic piece is key, but a superintendent of a district of this nature doesn’t have the luxury to just be an academic superintendent. They are a major, major force in setting the tone for not only the quality of the relationships for the institution, but being able to move the institution forward.
So, those are some of the factors I think she’s going to —

You said that closing the achievement gap, that was the first challenge, and I wanted to ask you about that, in particular.
The racial achievement gap is one of the most stubborn and vexing issues facing the district. Recently, we read the news that African American adults in Minneapolis are significantly more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts, even with similar levels of education, which seems to point to a larger issue in the city.

Exactly. And another example of that is the gap of foreclosures. Middle-class blacks foreclose at a greater rate than middle-class whites.
Of course, we’ve known that, but that was reaffirmed in the papers over the weekend.

My question was: How can the city and the school district work together to address this issue?

I think that the two entities have to continue to do what they’ve been doing. I think that to the credit of the mayor and the council, they have begun to look at the schools as a partner.
Most of their constituents are affected by the physical presence of the building. The city that they govern is dependent on the level of vitality that it holds, and businesses are attracted if the workforce is educated.
So, our interests are very closely aligned, and the fact that both the city and the county see their independent, individual success directly tied to the success of the schools helps us sit down and coordinate work. That creates an opportunity for people to sit down and think collaboratively.
Whereas before the different jurisdictions worked in a vacuum and then hoped that the other partners would come along, we’re beginning to work more collaboratively with each other.
I think, at the same time, the city is in a better — especially the mayor — is in a better position to encourage corporations and businesses and foundations to continue their support of the schools.
So, it’s that relationship, but historically — well, not historically, but typically — the city had virtually no real contact with the schools and the school district wanted it that way. And so, periodically, mayors, for example, out of frustration or out of an effort to help, would, in the view of some board members, overstep his or her bounds. So you had that kind of unfortunate issue.
I think that with the personalities that we have now, both on the council as well as in the mayor’s office, and with the superintendent — as well as with a very important stakeholder of ours, the Achieve[Mpls] group, who have contacts all over, and other groups who have been very helpful, like the Itasca [Project] group — I think that the type of collaboration that is needed is going to continue.
People who never knew that they had an interest in Minneapolis kids recognize now that there is a personal, financial, social, political interest in seeing kids in Minneapolis succeed.

How do you plan to remain involved in the district?

I had a ready answer that I’m not sure is accurate. I was going to say I am as close as the nearest phone.
Over at Augsburg [College], for example, I’ve been given support to facilitate the kinds of discussions that I couldn’t do as superintendent about the state of integration, the state of governance, the state of public education. Having people come together and have Chautauquas and seminars and things of that nature.
Even discussions on leadership, having young people really get a sense of what leadership is about. Having them aware of the legacy of Minnesota, which I think is incredible, with regard to solving these kinds of big policy issues. Bipartisan stuff. I’d like to reprise that kind of discussion.
On the other hand, while I want to do that stuff and want to be available — I’m being a little bit more candid, here, even though I’m hesitating — I think the moment I leave office my usefulness, practical usefulness, begins to age. You see kind of brown spots.
That happens to every superintendent. When I first took over I couldn’t get close enough to Carol Johnson and Dave Jennings and John B. Davis — and Peter Hutchinson. Those were people I knew, had contacts with, could talk to.
And then, as time progressed, this thing started taking a life of its own that they hadn’t experienced. Their advice was valuable, but it only had applicability in certain areas. And it’s not about them, it’s about the nature of this work.
I keep coming back to the original point that this is an unprecedented time, and I think one challenge I will face is not presuming that I know the answer.
And, so, I’ll just be quiet and wait for the call. The worst thing I could do is presume that somebody should answer the phone.

There’s a freshness date for former superintendents.

Absolutely. I mean, it’s stenciled right on.

Do you feel a sense of relief leaving this and all the responsibilities of this office?

A sense, yeah. In the sense that is one of many feelings I feel.
Because part of it is I’m going to miss the work. I’m going to miss the people I work with.
I’ll always be able to go into a classroom somewhere and talk to somebody and meet with some kids, but I’m going to miss a lot of parts of this job.
On the other hand, it is a relief to be done. Whatever controversies we faced we got through them. And, to some extent, that’s a reason to feel relief.
And I’m not a very public person. I mean, I’ve had to do that, and it’s not one that feels comfortable, although I like people and I like meeting with them. I like speaking to them in groups, and whatnot. And the work itself created a lot of — I forget the term, when you have a lot of energy.
It is time for me to —
I’m looking forward to when I don’t have to get up to any calendar that tells me where I’m going to be.

One of the things I wanted to ask you — and I feel like we actually talked about this the last time we sat down for something like this, but — whenever you talk about your future plans you always say you want to return to “teaching and writing” at Augsburg. What topics, in particular, will be the focus of that teaching and writing?

Well, I teach Minnesota history. That is a love of mine.
I teach civil rights history, which is an intensely personal area for me.
I teach legal history, history of American law. And I used to teach African American religion, the history of that. I don’t know that I’ll go into that.
And I now have an interest in integrating the survey of U.S. history with educational history. So, I’ll be doing some of that.

That’s what I was wondering, is if this experience had influenced your historical curiosities.

It did. It did.
I found myself — whenever I speak to groups — I found myself bringing in history, Minnesota history in particular. But I also found myself going back to the record to see, you know: What did happen in such and such a time period?
And that would create something that wasn’t immediately relevant to my work here as superintendent, but something that I would footnote as a topic that I’d like to explore when I get out. So, those are the areas I’m looking to get into.
I’m also going to return to a manuscript. I got readers to evaluate the manuscript last fall and I knew that when I read the comments I probably was going to be so pissy I wasn’t going to be able to focus in a meeting. I’d probably take it out on somebody, so I never read the comments.
But I am looking forward to: I’m going to take those notes up north and I’m going to stand among trees and I’ll read them and start screaming and swearing. And, you know, as I’ve told people before, threaten to burn the manuscript — and that’s going to fix them, whoever the “them” are. And then I’m going to get down to work.