Ed Graff is board’s pick for superintendent

The Minneapolis Board of Education is bringing Ed Graff back to Minnesota.

The board on Tuesday named Graff their preferred candidate for Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent. The native Minnesotan has spent the previous 25 years working for the Anchorage School District in Alaska, where he currently serves as superintendent.

Pending the outcome of contract negotiations, Graff is expected to start his new job July 1.

Graff won votes from six of the nine school board members. The other three went to Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius, the only other finalist recommended by the Superintendent Search Committee.

Graff does not yet hold a Minnesota superintendent’s license. But in a Skype interview with the media following his selection, he said he was “looking forward to hitting the ground running full-time in July.”

Graff said he would focus on meeting with School Board members and building community connections before turning his attention to the district’s many pressing needs, including a referendum on the November ballot. Graff also talked about capitalizing on a sense “urgency” he felt in May when he was in Minneapolis for the job interview.

“The urgency is the common thread that I’ve heard from all my interactions and discussions, and that urgency really is about creating opportunities for our kids, positive opportunities,” he said.

As they discussed their options prior to the vote, board members said they were deeply impressed by both candidates.

Cassellius grew up in Minneapolis, has children in the district and worked under Carol Johnson, a respected former superintendent in Minneapolis, Memphis and Boston. In a public interview with the board, she framed herself as an egoless, data-driven leader brimming with energy for the job.

But Cassellius’ resume could also be seen as a weakness. Both the district’s former superintendent and the interim superintendent during the search also worked under Johnson, and if Cassellius meant more of the same it wouldn’t necessarily bode well for efforts to close the district’s achievement gaps. Board members noted gaps for African American students statewide hadn’t narrowed significantly during Cassellius’ term as commissioner.

Graff, on the other hand, was a district outsider, playing a role that came with both opportunities and challenges. He could offer the district a fresh start or struggle to gain his footing in a complex, politically charged environment.

In his public interview with the board, he emphasized his focus on students and his experience in using social and emotional learning techniques to build relationships with both children and adults. The Anchorage School Board recently chose not to renew Graff’s contract in that district, but Minneapolis board members Jenny Arneson and Rebecca Gagnon — who traveled to Anchorage in May — said Graff still enjoys strong support at home.

Arneson said Graff took over in Anchorage during a period of “turmoil and budget difficulty” and not only stabilized the district but boosted the morale of staff and teachers. The Anchorage School Board’s decision to replace him inspired reactions of “general surprise and confusion among everyone we talked to,” Arneson said.

“There is no smoking gun,” she said, adding that “it does not seem to be a performance-based decision, from what we can tell.”

With more than 48,000 students, Anchorage School District is 35 percent larger than Minneapolis Public Schools by enrollment. Both districts educate an ethnically, racially and economically diverse mix of students, but that diversity looks different in the two cities. In both cases, one demographic group makes up about 40 percent of the student population, but it’s white students in Anchorage and black students in Minneapolis.

Board Member Don Samuels said he was at first skeptical that a “white guy” was the best choice for superintendent, but after a conversation with Graff was “blown away by his ability to mitigate those concerns.”

Samuels noted that Graff lived on American Indian reservations as a young man and worked with a significant native student population in Alaska. Those experiences will “translate easily and effectively to the African American community,” Samuels said.

He was also impressed by Graff’s deep thinking and sensitivity, calling him “quite the evolved human being.”

The votes for Cassellius came from board members Siad Ali, Kim Ellison and Nelson Inz. Voting for Graff were board members Gagnon, Arneson, Samuels, Carla Bates, Josh Reimnitz and Tracine Asberry.

The board is scheduled to discuss Graff’s contract Friday, but it could take longer than one night for board members to decide whether Graff’s contract should include performance measures — like Bernadeia Johnson’s contract — and what those measures might be.

Although Graff holds a superintendent license in Alaska, he is short of the requirements in Minnesota. Graff said his application for a superintendent license in this state was not granted, and he will have to request a variance to start work in Minneapolis.

District General Counsel Amy Moore said Graff would need “approximately seven credits” for a Minnesota superintendent’s license. Moore noted the district has applied for and received variances for past superintendents, including one for Johnson’s predecessor, Bill Green.

The board on Tuesday also voted to name Chief of Schools Michael Thomas interim superintendent during the transition. Michael Goar had served in that capacity since Johnson’s resignation in early 2015, but on June 1 he starts a new job as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities.

Goar was one of three finalists in the board’s first attempt to hire a new superintendent this winter. The board rescinded its offer to Sergio Paez after the Massachusetts superintendent was confronted with allegations of abuse in a program in his home district. The board abandoned an attempt to offer Goar the job following community protests.

The search was restarted in March. The work of reviewing candidates and selecting finalists was turned over to an 11-member Superintendent Search Committee chaired by School Board Member Nelson Inz.

Graff was born in Bemidji. He moved to Alaska in 1987 after one year of college at Bemidji State University. He completed his bachelor’s degree at University of Alaska Anchorage and went on to earn a master’s degree in education administration from University of Southern Mississippi.

Graff is married to an Anchorage School District principal, and the couple has one son.