Board of Education cuts ties with Páez

One potential superintendent is dropped and another faces community opposition

Sergio Paez left the room after the Board of Education voted to terminate contract negotiations with the former Massachusetts superintendent. Credit: Dylan Thomas

The Board of Education cut ties with Sergio Páez on Jan. 12, just one month after it selected the former superintendent from Holyoke, Mass., as the next leader of Minneapolis Public Schools.

But attempts to settle the superintendent question that night were derailed in a way that revealed fissures among board members and between the board and segments of the community. After protests disrupted the meeting, a decision on the district’s next leader was tabled until February.

Páez won votes from six of nine board members in December, but an ongoing investigation into the alleged abuse of students in Holyoke cast a shadow on him. The board voted unanimously to terminate contract negotiations with Páez.

“That sort of doubt starting off a superintendency would not serve our district well,” Board Member Josh Reimnitz said.

Goar has led the district since former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson resigned just over a year ago and won votes from the remaining three board members at that December meeting. Fresh off a weekend retreat and eager to demonstrate unity, the board still struggled to decide between offering the job to the runner-up and re-opening the superintendent search.

“We have to be fair and we have to be genuine,” Board Member Siad Ali, who voted for Goar in December, said. “We have to look to the person who was next to Mr. Páez, and that was Mr. Goar.”

Goar remains a divisive figure in the district. His period as interim superintendent was marred by a community protests over a controversial literacy curriculum, which forced Goar to apologize for a lax review of the reading materials by his staff, and pushback against changes to the district’s citywide autism program.

“It is interesting to have a person in a job for a year and lose a vote 6–3,” Board Member Rebecca Gagnon said.

Earlier, Gagnon suggested offering a one-year contract to Chief of Schools Michael Thomas, an internal candidate who is familiar with the district’s goals and strategic plan. Several community members suggested the same during the meeting’s public comment period.

But Board Member Carla Bates said she was “profoundly concerned” by the idea of “anointing” a candidate who had not previously sought the job, leading to a tense exchange with Gagnon. Bates urged her colleagues to reconsider Goar and a third superintendent finalist, Charles Foust of Houston.

Board Member Don Samuels said he would’ve supported either Páez or Goar as superintendent, but said both had been poisoned politically.

“There’s no way to put them in the pot again,” Samuels said. “Take them out.”

A series of votes moved the board closer to a showdown on Goar, prompting both Gagnon and Board Member Tracine Asberry to remark that they didn’t expect the decision to proceed so swiftly. That was when a group of protesters that included Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy Pounds surged to the front of the boardroom, cutting off debate with a series of loud chants.

“We are sick and tired of you all playing games with our children,” Levy Pounds said, adding that community members were frustrated with the district repeatedly turning to “subpar leaders.”

Board Chairperson Jenny Arneson recessed the board for more than 30 minutes. When they returned, Arneson sought and received a motion to table the decision for a month.

Gagnon said she appreciated the board’s willingness to delay the superintendent decision, noting they’d ended negotiations with Páez because of “community angst.” She said the protest revealed more angst over Goar’s leadership.

Bates shot back: “I think that’s one way we use community sentiment against each other to undermine each other.”

Samuels warned his colleagues that he board was setting a dangerous precedent in its response to the protest.

“We can’t expect this will just now go away,” he said. “… I think children are watching it. They’re watching democracy not work.”

“You had board members who said this moved faster than they expected,” Levy Pounds said after the board voted to table. “This moved faster than the community expected.”

How we got here

Johnson’s resignation prompted the Board of Education to launch its first national search for a superintendent in 10 years. Executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates won the contract to run the search process.

In November, the board narrowed a list of six superintendent candidates to three finalists: Páez, Goar and Foust, a school support officer for the Houston Independent School District. When it came time to vote nearly a month later, on Dec. 7, six board members picked Páez and three cast votes for Goar.

But Páez had less than 48 hours to celebrate his new job.

On Dec. 9, Massachusetts’ Disability Law Center released a report detailing instances of physical abuse that occurred under Páez’s watch at Holyoke a school for students with physical and emotional disabilities. The allegations, stemming from a spring 2015 investigation, never came up during the superintendent search process.

Steven Zrike, the state-appointed receiver placed in charge of Holyoke, said he was “deeply concerned” by the report and described the Disability Law Center’s findings as “troubling” in a written statement given to the press. Reacting to the news in Minneapolis, Bates said allegations of staff members punching or slapping students and using physical restraints excessively made her “sick to (her) stomach.”

Stanley Eichner, litigation director for the Disability Law Center, raised questions about Páez’s response after a district employee brought her concerns to the superintendent’s office.

“The district is large enough and has enough challenges that you wouldn’t expect a superintendent to know each and every thing that’s going on,” Eichner said. “But in this instance there were pervasive problems, and it would be fair to raise a question if someone in that position knew or should have known.”

A week after the revelation, the Board of Education voted to suspend contract talks with Páez.

When he was first asked to explain why the investigation wasn’t discussed during his interviews in Minneapolis, Páez’s response was that he didn’t believe it was a “significant issue.” He reasoned that dealing with issues of student safety and even responding to state investigations were routine matters for school superintendents.

Over the next month, Páez attempted to bolster his case with documents he said showed Holyoke responded to concerns raised by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and that the department determined the matter closed in October. But that wasn’t enough to reassure some in Minneapolis who argued Páez should have been more forthcoming about the investigation.

His efforts at reassuring an uneasy community during three-day visit to Minneapolis in January didn’t change the mind of parent Rebecca Hamblin, who said Páez lost her support the moment she learned of the allegations in a news story.

“To me, it was a failure ethically and politically,” Hamblin told Páez during one of his hastily arranged meet-and-greets at Minneapolis café.

It was a different story at an earlier stop on Páez’s whirlwind tour of the city. No community member even asked about the allegations when Páez met with the public at Avenue Eatery, just blocks from district headquarters, where the conversation focused on student achievement and what Páez might do to better market the district to families.

Meanwhile, two Board of Education members visited Holyoke in mid-December, following through on a plan made before the abuse report went public.

In a written report to the board, Josh Reimnitz and Tracine Asberry said their interviews with a dozen people mostly confirmed what they’d learned about Páez’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader during the interview process. But Reimnitz and Asberry were unable to learn anything more about the allegations of abuse at Peck School, now the subject of an investigation by the Hampden County District Attorney.

In the month after it was first released, Páez repeatedly questioned the timing of the report.

Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy Pounds and a group of protesters disrupted the Jan. 12 board meeting when it appeared the board was moving toward starting contract negotiations with the interim superintendent. Photo by Dylan Thomas


Board Member Carla Bates watched while protesters forced a pause in the board’s debate. Photo by Dylan Thomas