About 100 people gathered at Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters May 16 to hear from the two finalists for the district’s open superintendent position.
An 11-member Superintendent Selection Committee named the finalists just three days earlier: Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius and outgoing Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff. It’s now up to the Board of Education to choose which one of them will lead the district, a decision they’re planning to make by the end of the month.
Both finalists sat for questions after a day of back-to-back meetings with district stakeholders, including brief public meetings and panels with principals, teachers and parent groups. They were scheduled to begin the next morning with school tours and end the day in public interviews with the board.
Both Cassellius and Graff began their careers in the classroom and, after time as teachers, went on to become principals and then district administrators. They’re vying to lead the state’s third-largest district, one with wide racial and socio-economic gaps between its 35,000 students.
Many of the questions community members asked May 16 focused on those gaps.
Graff repeatedly said a “focus on students” was the key to improving outcomes, stressing the importance of spending time in schools instead of the superintendent’s office and pledging to involve students in decision-making and to create welcoming environments in schools. He said he sensed the urgent desire for movement on the achievement gap and planned to capitalize on it.
“There is no apathy here,” he noted.
Cassellius said the district’s disparities where a problem that could not be solved by a single superintendent or school board. She said she would engage with the city, county and state to close the “opportunity gap.”
Cassellius also emphasized her energy and enthusiasm for the job, noting she’s been called an “Energizer bunny” and giving out her personal cellphone number to the entire room.
School Board Member Nelson Inz, who chaired the selection committee, said they reviewed seven candidates whose names were passed on by executive search firm DHR International. The committee chose to interview five of the candidates, finally deciding to forward just two names to the Board of Education.
Graff is originally from Minnesota. In April, he was named one of three finalists for an open superintendent seat in the St. Michael–Albertville School District, located about 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
Five months earlier, in October, the Anchorage School Board announced its intention not to renew Graff’s superintendent contract. Local news reports indicate the board is seeking a new leader who can help the district achieve its aggressive goals, but the school board in Anchorage has not publicly been any more specific about why Graff wasn’t the right person for the job.
The Anchorage School Board unanimously appointed Graff superintendent in 2013. He began a 25-year education career as an elementary teacher in Anchorage and subsequently worked as a principal, executive director of elementary education and chief academic officer for the district.
Graff is married to an Anchorage School District principal, and the couple has one son.
Cassellius, who grew up and still lives in Minneapolis, was appointed education commissioner by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2010. During her time as head of the department, Minnesota applied for and received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, allowing it to develop a new statewide accountability system for schools.
Cassellius was part of the Minneapolis team that followed former MPS superintendent Carol Johnson to Memphis, Tenn., where she oversaw the district’s middle schools. Her charge was high schools she returned to Minneapolis as an associate superintendent. She briefly served as superintendent of the East Metro Integration District before her commissioner appointment.
Cassellius is married and has three children, two of whom attend district schools.
This is the board’s second attempt to hire a new superintendent since former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson resigned in early 2015.
Sergio Páez, a Massachusetts superintendent, was the board’s top pick in the first search conducted earlier this school year. But the board rescinded its offer to Páez after news broke of an investigation into the abuse of students in a special education program in his home district.
That left the interim superintendent since Johnson’s resignation, district CEO Michael Goar, in position to take over the role permanently. Goar finished second to Páez in the board vote, but withdrew his candidacy after protesters criticized his handling of a controversial district literacy curriculum.
The board added the Superintendent Selection Committee when it restarted the search process, a change that kept the names of all candidates confidential until the finalist phase. Some board members were concerned that the more open and public nature of the previous search kept applicants away.
But at least one board member was disappointed after the committee produced just two finalists. In a Twitter post, Board Member Rebecca Gagnon said she thought there was a third “highly qualified candidate.”
The board is scheduled to take public comment on the candidates 5:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m. May 23 and then reconvene to vote on the next superintendent May 27.