Páez picked for Minneapolis superintendent

Former Holyoke, Mass., superintendent will start this summer pending negotiations

Sergio Páez spoke with community members during a Dec. 2 event at Webster Elementary School. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Sergio Páez was chosen from among three finalists Monday to be the next superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.

Pending contract negotiations with Páez, the district’s nearly yearlong search for a superintendent has come to an end. Former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced her resignation in December 2014 and left the post the following month, after more than four years leading Minneapolis schools.

“The feeling I have is (I am) truly honored and humbled by the decision of the board last night,” Páez said when reached by phone Tuesday morning.

Six of nine Board of Education members cast their vote for Páez following a nearly two-hour discussion of the three candidates. Interim Superintendent Michael Goar received three votes. None were cast for Charles Foust, a finalist from Houston.

The board had a fourth option, to restart the search. A group of about 10 people held signs up throughout the meeting urging the board to do just that, citing evidence that all three finalists had ties to corporate education interests. An online petition garnered more than 900 signatures, including that of School Board student representative Noah Branch, but no board member voted to restart.

Páez spent two years as superintendent of schools in Holyoke, Mass., where he now works as a consultant. He left the superintendent position after the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to put a receiver in charge of the district’s chronically underperforming schools.

Páez will start in July pending contract negotiations. The board also voted Monday to send two of its members on a fact-finding mission to Holyoke, Mass.

“This change in the district is not going to be just about me,” Páez said. “I am the person who’s going to lead the district, but I need those partnership and the trust … from community leaders, from teachers, from principals and administrators, from the school board.

“Everyone needs to understand that I’m coming with the best intentions to do the best work possible for this district to make it the best urban district in the nation, but I can’t do that alone.”

Voting for Páez were School Board members Jenny Arneson, Tracine Asberry, Kim Ellison, Rebecca Gagnon, Nelson Inz and Don Samuels. Goar won votes from Siad Ali, Carla Bates and Josh Reimnitz.

It was Bates who introduced the motion for two board members to visit Holyoke. After some discussion, it passed unanimously.

The final comments from board members focused on unifying themselves, and the district, behind Páez. Reimnitz said each of the three candidates had his strengths and weaknesses, and that he was “excited to support” Páez.

Later, Samuels said Goar had “built an incredible foundation” for the next superintendent to work from, adding that “it felt almost unfair” to give the job to someone else. Samuels said he began the search wanting Goar for superintendent.

“At the end of the day, it’s for the kids,” Samuels said.

Páez and his wife, Andrea, have two children: a son in college and a daughter who is a senior in high school.

Challenging Páez

Minneapolis, with an achievement gap in its schools that mirrors a wide income and employment gap in the community, presents considerable challenges to its next leader. Before resigning, Johnson established the Office of Black Male Student Achievement to focus on the student group that consistently rates near the bottom in many measures of student success.

Several times during the multiple rounds of candidate interviews in Minneapolis, Páez paraphrased a line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” saying the American education system has written black students a check with insufficient funds.

“My job is to deconstruct those barriers that have historically been a part of our country,” he said.

Bates, however, argued Páez had a “significant lack” of working with black students and communities, citing the demographic profiles of Holyoke and Worcester public schools, where Páez worked for six years.

At 37 percent, black students are the single largest demographic group in Minneapolis; they are just 3 percent of the student body in Holyoke and 15 percent in Worcester. Hispanic students are the largest demographic group in both those Massachusetts districts, accounting for 79 percent of Holyoke students.

Páez emigrated to the U.S. from Colombia with his family at age 14. He attended Harvard and went on to earn a doctorate in education from Boston College, and during the selection process repeatedly stated his desire to give others opportunities to succeed.

“I’m very keen to equal access and social justice, and I would love to have the opportunity to make that happen here in Minneapolis,” he said.

Later, Bates said the “crux” of the superintendent decision, for her, came down to each candidates’ support for the strategic plan. Reading for more than seven minutes from a prepared statement, she said Páez “disparaged” the theory of action behind Acceleration 2020, summarized by the phrase “schools as the unit of change.”

“I do not believe he embraces our strategic plan,” she said, describing Páez as a “traditional command-and-control” leader.

The plan includes performance benchmarks: a 5-percent annual increase in students meeting reading and math performance goals; a higher, 8-percent annual target for struggling students; and a 10-percent annual increase in the graduation rate. But it aims to achieve those goals through the theory of action, an autonomy-for-accountability deal with schools that offers principals, teachers and parents more control in exchange for results. The deal is paired with student-based accounting, a significant shift in the way the district allocates financial resources to school.

Páez said he would not abandon the plan, but wants it to be a “living document,” one that adjusts to changing conditions. Although there are pockets of success and the graduation rate is rising, the district fell short of the 5-8-10 targets in the first year of Acceleration 2020.

“I don’t want the district to have a failure because we didn’t achieve our goals that we set,” he said.

Páez said accountability is expected of schools, whether or not it is paired with autonomy. And he suggested some school leaders might view the demands of true autonomy as a distraction.

“Based on my experience, not everyone is happy with having the autonomy in human resources, for example, or the budget, because their role is to lead the schools, to be able to focus on teaching and learning,” he said.

The “critical difference”

Goar entered the superintendent selection process as the hometown candidate, an experienced schools administrator who, as a Washburn High School graduate, had an unquestioned allegiance to Minneapolis. He was born in Korea and adopted from an orphanage by American parents at age 10, a personal story he spoke more openly about during the superintendent search than at any other time.

But the community’s familiarity with Goar cut both ways; he was in charge when the district botched its handling of a controversial literacy curriculum this fall, leading to protests at board meetings, and also had to manage a budget shortfall earlier this year. After Johnson left, Goar was the leader who carried out a plan to cut staff at the district’s central office, a shift prompted by strategic plan priorities.

Bates acknowledged criticisms of Goar’s demeanor, that he could be “too blunt” or “cold and analytical.”

“But on the whole, people agree that we know where Mr. Goar would take our district,” she said, meaning down the path laid out in the district’s strategic plan, which he helped to craft as Johnson’s district CEO.

Goar was never a teacher, and his lack of classroom experience stood out in comparisons with Páez and Foust.

Board members’ praise for Foust often focused on his “potential”; it may not have been his time, yet, to lead a school district of the size and complexity of Minneapolis, Arneson acknowledged in an interview after the vote.

Gagnon said Páez’s pedagogical knowledge was the “best and deepest” of all the candidates. Arneson described Páez’s time as both a teacher and principal as the “critical difference between him and Mr. Goar.”

Arneson said observers surprised by the outcome — and there were gasps in the boardroom when the votes started piling up for Páez — were “making assumptions.” She described her vote for Páez as “one of the hardest decisions” she has made as a board member.