Barton parents question principal placement

District says new hiring process aims to identify strong instructional leaders

EAST HARRIET — Barton Open School parents dissatisfied with how the district chose their school’s new principal are questioning a hiring process that they say was changed in ways that limit parent input.

Two years ago, when former principal Steve DeLapp announced his retirement after 20 years at the magnet school, parent and teacher representatives sat in on interviews with the principal candidates, including Patrick Duffy, who won the job. Duffy resigned this spring to take a job with St. Paul Public Schools, but parents never got the chance hear from his replacement, Paul Scanlon, before Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson appointed him to the post in June.

Parents sat on interview teams when district hired new principals at nearby Ramsey Middle School and Washburn High School in recent years. While that practice will continue at the high school level, district officials said, they are not part of the principal selection process at the K–8 level.

Across the district, ten elementary and middle schools will have a new principal next fall — an unusually high number. It’s an early test for the district’s new placement process, one district spokesman Stan Alleyne described as a significant change from previous years. 

“Compressed process”

This spring at Barton, parents updated the “leadership profile” last used for Duffy’s hiring. But members of the Barton Leadership Council said they only had a couple of days to revise the document, and t hey were still hoping to see principal candidates interviewed until learning otherwise in a meeting with Associate Superintendent Cecilia Saddler.

“It was such a compressed process,” said parent Kristi Smith Knutson, a member of the Barton Leadership Council.

Smith Knutson was one of dozens who voiced concerns to Saddler and DeRay McKesson, the district’s senior director of talent acquisition, at a packed June 23 meeting inside Fuller Recreation Center. The parent-organized gathering also drew School Board members Tracine Asberry and Rebecca Gagnon, who both live in Southwest, and at least four of the candidates vying for open board seats this fall.

Some parents spoke of embracing Scanlon and moving forward. But more than 130 Barton parents signed a letter mailed later that week that asked Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson to delay Scanlon’s appointment and reevaluate the hiring process.

Experience questioned

Missteps by the district added to Barton parents’ frustration. In reverse of the usual district procedure, Scanlon’s posting was announced online before a letter went out to Barton parents.

Some of those parents also found reason for concern in Scanlon’s resume, which includes no experience leading a school using the open education model, like Barton. Most recently he was a Minneapolis district instructional specialist, and his administrative experience includes two years as assistant principal at St. Paul City School, a K–8 charter in the Frogtown neighborhood.

At the June 23 meeting, Saddler said no one in the current pool of principal candidates had the open education experience Barton parents were looking for, which prompted parents to call for a wider search.

Under the district’s current hiring process, candidates enter the pool only after applying for a Minneapolis principalship and passing a round of assessments. Working with the district’s human resources department, an associate superintendent — Saddler, in Barton’s case — then finds the best fit between candidate and school and passes the recommendation on to the superintendent.

Alleyne said the aim of the assessments used early in the process is to allow only “strong instructional leaders” into the candidate pool. That quality is more important than experience with a specific educational philosophy such as open education or the Montessori method, he said.

Saddler has experience leading an open program as former principal of South High School. She said she’d worked closely with Scanlon during his time at the district and expressed confidence in his abilities.

“This is a candidate that actually a lot of school leaders were fighting over to have at their school,” she said.

District differences

Sarah Lahm, a parent representative on the Barton Leadership Council, said she preferred the more transparent hiring process that brought Duffy to the school two years ago. Whether or not parents influenced the final decision, they were at least reassured when their representatives in the interview room said Duffy was the best candidate.

“It’s a more democratic way of making a decision,” Lahm said.

But Alleyne said it was also an “exception” for a school that was then experiencing its first leadership change in two decades.

In another part of Southwest, Bryn Mawr Community School has seen a lot more turnover in the top job: four principals in 10 years. Parents learned this spring Principal Renee Montague was tapped to lead the reopening Cityview site.

“My recollection is that we were never involved like [at Barton],” said Lynda Shaheen, a parent who serves on the Bryn Mawr site council and PTA. “But I hear Barton people and I think, gosh, if they were consulting Barton all along, they should be consulting us, too.”

Their associate superintendent, Michael Thomas, sent the Bryn Mawr PTA a three-question survey that will be used to help develop that school’s first leadership profile — the same document used to match Scanlon to Barton. Shaheen described that as a welcome step, but said waiting until summer to conduct the survey might limit the response rate.

“I think the community does value (having a voice),” she said. “I think we’re not organized enough when we get a bad deal to speak up.”