The Minneapolis Board of Education selected three finalists for the district’s open superintendent position Wednesday night.
Interim Superintendent Michael Goar advanced in the selection process, joined by former Holyoke, Mass., superintendent Sergio Paez and Charles Foust, a school support officer for Houston Independent School District. A second round of interviews, plus school visits and conversations with district stakeholders, are scheduled for Dec. 1–3.
Goar and Paez were strong favorites, and a ranking exercise by board members showed Goar leads the pack at this point in the search process. But search consultant Ted Blaesing of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates encouraged board members to regard the upcoming final phase as a blank slate and to put each of the finalists on equal footing.
Three other semifinalists for the superintendent job — Jinger Gustafson of the Anoka-Hennepin district, Jesse Rodriguez of Milwaukee Public Schools and Kenneth Spells of Alton (Ill.) School District — were eliminated from the running.
Of those three, Spells had the most support from the School Board. But a motion to advance Spells instead of Foust won votes from just three of nine board members: Jenny Arneson, Nelson Inz and Rebecca Gagnon.
Board Member Don Samuels described Foust as the “most energetic, fire-in-the-belly candidate,” but added it could be challenging for some in the district “to deal with that level of energy.”
Added Board Member Carla Bates: “I would like to know more about how he works with people who may not agree with him, who may not see it his way.”
Asberry said Foust’s “relentless” nature could be a positive or a negative, but noted it might be just the thing to address the weak execution of district plans, which she described as the “Achilles heel” of the district.
Bates also anticipated challenges for Foust in making the transition from red-state Houston to blue-state Minneapolis, noting the political and legal landscape for schools varies significantly between the two states. Samuels and Gagnon agreed.
Spells, too, impressed board members, but there were questions about how he would transition to Minneapolis, a district seven times the size of Alton by total enrollment. Gagnon pointed out that Alton has just one high school, while in Minneapolis he’d be in charge of seven traditional high schools plus a network of alternative schools.
Inz described him as “appealing” and “dedicated” to his job, but also questioned his lack of experience with English-language learners, who comprise nearly one-quarter of Minneapolis’ student population.
“It seemed nobody had a bad thing to say about him,” Inz said. “… He came across to me as a leader.”
Gagnon said she was impressed that Spells experience in Alton included “marketing” the district to area families, something she’d like to see Minneapolis pursue more aggressively.
Bates recalled Spells discussing a “donuts for dads and muffins of mom” approach to outreach, a phrase that left her wondering if he was prepared to lead a district as diverse as Minneapolis. That phrase, she said, “codifies a sort of family arrangement” that is not the reality for many district families.
After an extended discussion comparing Foust and Spells, and a vote to approve the slate of three finalists, the board circled back to consider their top candidates, Goar and Paez.
Paez was praised for his clarity of vision, strong communication skills and understanding of the racial dynamic of public education in a city like Minneapolis, where student achievement can be largely predicted based on race and income. But there were also questions about how he would fare in Minneapolis, a much larger district than Holyoke.
Goar is a Washburn High School graduate, and his loyalty to Minneapolis is viewed as a strength by board members. His experience as an administrator in large urban districts — Boston and Memphis, in addition to Minneapolis — also gives him an edge.
But Goar will need to address the fact that he is the only finalist who lacks experience as either a teacher or a principal, Bates said. And Gagnon said turnover among high-ranking district officials raised questions about the “stability” of his leadership team.
Parents, community members and district employees are invited to a community reception for the finalists 6:30 p.m.–8:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at Webster Elementary, 425 5th St. N.E., when they’ll have a chance to ask questions of the candidates. The School Board plans to meet to identify its preferred superintendent candidate Dec. 7 and announced the appointment at its regularly scheduled board meeting the following night, Dec. 8.
The district’s next superintendent will assume his responsibilities July 1, or at another date negotiated with the School Board.