Sergio Páez makes his case in Minneapolis

Seeking to ease concerns, superintendent-select reaches out to parents, community members

Minneapolis superintendent-select Sergio Páez spoke with community members Jan. 5 at Avenue Eatery. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Now fighting for a job he was supposed to have won in December, Minneapolis schools superintendent-select Sergio Páez conducted a three-day whirlwind tour this week of the city he hopes to make his home.

In a series of hastily arranged meet-and-greets, Páez reintroduced himself to Minneapolis in crowded cafés, community centers and, reportedly, in private meetings with some of the city’s key players in education. Part of Páez’s mission was to ease concerns about his handling of abuse allegations at a school in his former Holyoke, Mass., district.

Those allegations were made public Dec. 9, less than 48 hours after the Minneapolis Board of Education chose Páez from among three finalists vying to replace former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. A week later, the board suspended contract negotiations with Páez. It plans to revisit the issue Jan. 12.

Páez arrived Monday in Minneapolis and appeared that evening at Avenue Eatery, a West Broadway Avenue restaurant located just two blocks from Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters. It was one of four public appearances scheduled before his departure Wednesday afternoon.

About 15 community members heard Páez describe his vision for growing district enrollment by improving both parent engagement and the marketing of Minneapolis schools. He took questions on charter schools, how to improve teacher quality and his approach to closing the district’s stubborn achievement gap.

Community members didn’t ask about the Peck School in Holyoke. Those questions came earlier, when a media scrum trained its cameras on Páez while he sat at one of the restaurant’s high-top tables.

An investigation by Massachusetts’ Disability Law Center found evidence of psychological abuse and the excessive use of physical restraints by staff employed in the school’s Therapeutic Intervention Program. The program serves students in grades 4­–8 with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

Páez was superintendent during the time period covered in the report, but his two years as head of Holyoke ended in June after the state moved to take over chronically underperforming district.

Páez has questioned the timing of the report’s release. It may cost him the Minneapolis superintendency. A DLC official has previously stated the timing was coincidental.

In a letter distributed to some attendees at the public events and later posted on Twitter, Páez attempted to clarify what he knew and when. He said he investigated and responded to the allegations as they arose.

With hindsight, Páez wrote, he wished he’d disclosed the allegations concerning Peck during the interview process. “However,” he continued, “I can honestly say that this matter is, unfortunately, just one of the countless delicate, complicated issues that I faced as a Superintendent working to transform a chronically underperforming urban public school district.”

Doubts linger

Late Tuesday morning, Páez was at the center of a crowd wedged into an undersized back room at Fireroast Café in South Minneapolis. Unlike the night before, questions about Peck came early and repeatedly, and this time from district parents — not the few members of the media sprinkled in the crowd.

Rebecca Hamblin, the parent of a Roosevelt High School student and a South High School graduate, told Páez he lost her support the day she opened the newspaper to read about the allegations of abuse at Peck. Hamblin questioned Páez’s decision not to disclose the situation during the hiring process.

“To me, it was a failure ethically and politically,” she told Páez, who was standing just a few feet away in the crowded café.

Páez thanked Hamblin for her honesty but said he would “push back” against claims he acted unethically. Producing a paper he has carried with him to other public appearances, Páez said he could document that he investigated the claims and took action months before the news was widely reported, and that the state declared the case closed.

“In my mind, it was not an issue,” Páez said.

The steps Páez said he took included providing additional training and support to staff at Peck, measures he described as “exactly the same remedies” proposed by the Disability Law Center in its report.

More than an hour later, when the meet-and-greet ended and the crowd began to clear, Hamblin said she appreciated Páez’s forthrightness. But he hadn’t changed her mind, either.

Also left with lingering concerns was Annie Mason, a lecturer and coordinator of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota. Mason is the parent to two children who have attended Minneapolis Public Schools and who she said have both “experienced significant trauma,” similar to some of the students served by the Therapeutic Intervention Program at Peck School.

During the meet-and-greet, Mason climbed atop a chair at the back of the crowded room to make her comments. She said she shared parents “sad and mad feelings” over the Peck allegations, adding that one of her children had been placed in restraints in school. But Mason also said some critiques of Páez’s handling of the case were “simplistic.”

“What I think is simplistic is to isolate the issue in the superintendent role,” she said, clarifying her comments in a separate conversation later that day. “I see situations like this happening in school districts across the country, not specific to Minneapolis and not specific to Holyoke, and I think responsibility lies across society.

“It’s easy to say Sergio Páez is specifically and individually responsible for that disappointing outcome, but I think we need to look more broadly than that.”

Páez said increased teacher support and training in the use of de-escalation tactics were key to avoiding the use of restraints. Acknowledging that the use of restraints, in itself, can be “traumatic,” Páez said he would make it his “responsibility” to develop a plan for how they are used in schools in Minneapolis.

“My statement to the staff is: One is too many. One restraint is too many,” he said.

Mason said the need for change goes much deeper than the tactics teachers use in a moment of crisis — to the attitudes of staff, the design of school buildings, the process in which students are referred to special education programs and the training offered to everyone who works in schools, from administrators and principals on down.

“So, de-escalation strategies come later, in my mind,” she said.

Before leaving Fireroast Café for his final event of the trip, Páez also responded to questions about class size and the district’s shift to a new budgeting model known as student-based allocation. But what happened at Peck remains the one key issue standing between Páez and what was supposed to be his next job.

Asked whether she felt the district had found its next superintendent, Mason responded: “I think I would say that the district should start over.”

Páez held the third of four community events Jan. 6 at Fireroast Cafe. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Páez provided the following two letters documenting correspondence between the Holyoke district and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding a complaint filed about the Therapeutic Intervention Program at Peck School. A copy of the Disability Law Center’s report on the program can be found here