MPS principals give thoughts on rehiring of staff

Minneapolis Public Schools principals on Wednesday expressed concern about the School Board’s decision to rehire seven staff members at its most recent business meeting.

Several encouraged the board to make sure all sides of discussion are heard when it makes decisions. Another said he worries the district will lose students if leaders continue to be divided. Several others said the district should not lower its standards for students and staff of color.

“You do not right the wrongs of racism by compromising your standards and expectations,” Lucy Laney Principal Mauri Melander said. “… The question that should be asked are, ‘What are pockets in this district that do not support staff of color?’ That is a front-end question.”

The comments came at a meeting called by the principal’s union in response to the School Board’s action on April 18. The board passed a resolution that night that rehired the seven staff members, who are all employees of color.

The employees told during the public-comment period of being let go for speaking up against practices they felt were wrong or for not seeing eye-to-eye with their respective principals. They were supported by scores of protesters, who blocked the board from doing business until it considered the resolution.

The principals on Wednesday asked the board how it would unify the community and support principals and assistant principals going forward. They shared their own stories of how race has affected them, such as the assumptions people have made about them because of their skin color.

They said it’s important to have conversations around race but that hard decisions should be made after hearing all sides of an issue.

“We have to be better about how we talk about race and, more importantly, about how we make decisions about race,” Wellstone Principal Aimee Fearing said, “because there’s always consequences on both sides.”

The discussion began with an explanation of the system principals use to support underachieving teachers. The district has a peer assistance and review process that offers teachers structured support, Kenny Principal Bill Gibbs said. Firing isn’t a responsibility principals take lightly when it becomes necessary, Field Principal VaNita Miller said.

“Those are the nights I lose sleep,” she said. “… I don’t make those decisions alone, and I’m glad I don’t have to.”

The principals talked about creating a culture of high expectations for all students and staff members, regardless of their race. They said principals, along with protesters, should have a voice in these conversations.

“We are internal agitators as well,” Melander said. “If we are able to align ourselves together, we may be able to accomplish what you and us and everyone else really wants.”

The meeting also gave board members a chance to explain their thoughts on the resolution. All board members voiced support for it on April 18 except for Don Samuels.

Kerry Jo Felder, who brought forth the resolution, said there’s a lot of change that still needs to happen to crack the nation’s education gap. Rebecca Gagnon said the fired staff at the April 18 meeting shared a lot of compelling stories. She said the board’s action could lead to positive conversations around hiring and retaining teachers of color and probationary employees.

Ira Jourdain said it wasn’t on his radar that the vote created the appearance that the board was usurping the principals’ power.

Don Samuels, who abstained from the board’s vote, was vocal Wednesday in his displeasure with the board’s action. Samuels said he went home after the meeting and told his wife he was going to resign from the board.

“If we didn’t do anything wrong on Tuesday, I don’t belong on this board,” he said.

Other board members expressed regret at how the situation played out but said the discussion around retaining staff of color is an important one to have.

Jenny Arneson said the board had limited information and needs to find a space to address the larger issues. Kim Ellison said she was sorry about what happened and that she would do everything she could to close the opportunity gap facing students of color.

Nelson Inz said it was not his intention to usurp the principals, though he said he did recognize it could be perceived in that way. Inz said his vote was rather to stand in solidarity with teachers of color.

“I hope that you will continue to trust and respect me and that we can continue to have a mutually beneficial relationship,” he said to the principals, “because it’s just too important what we’re working on here, for schools and for students.”

Superintendent Ed Graff  said in closing that the board, the district’s staff and the community still have a lot of work to do on building priorities for MPS students. People won’t necessarily agree with the district’s decisions, he said, but that shouldn’t end their relationship with MPS.

“I can’t stress that enough — the immense responsibility that we have to get it right for our students,” he said, “and I can’t stress enough how critical it is that we come together to do that.”