Weighty decisions on School Board’s agenda

Votes in coming months will plot a course for the district

Several key policy decisions are on the School Board agenda in 2015. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Major decisions on the direction of Minneapolis Public Schools lie ahead for a School Board that welcomed three new members and an interim district superintendent in the first month after students returned from winter break.

Those decisions include setting a process and timeline for selecting a new, permanent superintendent to succeed Bernadeia Johnson, who officially stepped down Jan. 31. At the same time, the board is grappling with several key policy questions that extend directly from Johnson’s vision for a district where schools drive change and improvement.

It’s “absolutely a big year,” said Jenny Arneson, who represents Northeast’s District 1 and was elected School Board chair by her colleagues in January.

Five of nine current board members voted in September to adopt Acceleration 2020, a five-year strategic plan for the district. (A sixth, Tracine Asberry, abstained from the vote.) That plan embraced the main theme of Johnson’s legacy-defining SHIFT Initiative: migrating financial resources and decision-making power to schools from the district’s central office and, in exchange, expecting principals to produce results.

“Certainly now we push ahead with our strategic plan,” Arneson said, adding that board members “feel comfortable” with the direction of the district.

Pushing ahead means hammering out the potentially controversial details of the school autonomy-for-accountability shift, like the district’s move to student-based allocations for fall 2016. Under that system, school budgets will be more closely tied to the needs of the students they serve, and schools where students face greater challenges are likely to get more funding.

Carla Bates, the School Board’s veteran member, said student-based allocation “puts the power in SHIFT.”

This spring, the board is also expected to vote on approving the first group of Community Partnership Schools, which will operate with the highest level of autonomy from district headquarters while testing innovative approaches to boosting student achievement. It’s another key piece of Johnson’s SHIFT Initiative coming to fruition.

“I definitely support moving that continued direction,” Bates said.

Continuing the SHIFT

For School Board Member Nelson Inz, though, the path ahead is not so clear. Inz, one of three new members who joined the board months after the vote on Acceleration 2020, has raised questions about the autonomy-for-accountability bargain.

“What happens if we give autonomy to a school and three years later, four years later, the school is in really bad shape? That’s not a good thing,” he said.

A social studies teacher at a Montessori charter school in St. Paul, Inz said he’d worked for principals that would thrive in that environment and others who would probably struggle. While he said he supports “taking some risks and looking to do some innovations,” Inz also is looking for clear evidence that increasing school autonomy will decrease the district’s achievement gap.

“That’s the million-dollar question for that policy,” he said. “If it isn’t going to improve equity, then what’s the point?”

While she supports SHIFT in general, Asberry said she abstained from the vote on Acceleration 2020 because the district hadn’t clearly shown how components of the strategic plan — including student-based allocation — would lead to better outcomes for students.

“That’s something I’ve really been asking for from the district, is show that alignment,” Asberry said.

Principals at 10 district schools are beta-testing the student-based allocation model this year, but the School Board still has to wrestle with several key questions, including: Which student needs will be weighted the most in the funding formula? What is the minimum funding amount for schools? Exactly how much freedom will principals have to set their budgets?

The School Board also plans to tackle a related policy issue this spring: school site councils.

The councils generally consist of a school principal and small group of parents and teachers. Arneson described them as “the primary place for the school community to really come together” and form a consensus around a school’s budget and culture, but she acknowledged the capability of the councils varies widely from school to school.

A revised site council policy could spell out what those bodies must look like, who serves on them and “the checks and balances” of power within the school, she said.

Selecting a superintendent

Asked about the superintendent search, Arneson described conflicting impulses: to not leave the district “in limbo” with an interim superintendent for too long but also to conduct a thorough search with a significant role for community members.

“I’m interested in moving along faster (rather) than slower,” she said, but added that she’ll remain flexible on the timeline. District staff members have said the pool of potential candidates is at its largest now and will shrink through the spring and summer.

At least one person has already announced his intention to apply for the job: current interim Superintendent Michael Goar.

Board Member Josh Reimnitz said, with Goar in charge, he felt “comfortable” taking the time to engage the community and find a top-level candidate.

“There’s going to be another prime hiring period a year from now,” Reimnitz noted.

While Goar is an experienced school district manager and executive, some have questioned his lack of experience in the classroom. Goar does not come from a teaching background — unlike Johnson, who was a teacher and principal before joining district administration.

Bates called Goar “a strong candidate,” but said she needs “to hear him articulate his academic vision.” Inz said he wouldn’t make teaching experience a “litmus test,” but added: “As a teacher myself, I certainly value teachers.”

Inz is just one of four current or former teachers on this School Board, and they have varying points of view on how important that experience is to the future superintendent.

“For me, we’ve had the experience where we’ve had people out of the classroom or deeply embedded education people as superintendent with varied results,” School Board Vice Chair Kim Ellison, a former alternative school teacher, said. “I think that (Goar) could be effective with the right team around him. He’s a listener. He’s a doer.”