How not to hire a superintendent for a battered school system
January 16, 2016

It’s hard to find agreement on much that ails the Minneapolis Public Schools, but few would disagree that the district is deeply troubled. Saddled with the poor governance of a chronically discordant board, lagging achievement, deteriorating internal systems, discipline issues, and waning public confidence, it’s hard to see how we will ever return to schools that Minneapolitans can be proud of supporting.

One thing is for sure, there is no hope of turning the district around without strong leadership, and that makes recent reports about the failed process of selecting the next superintendent concerning.

The national search firm hired to assist the school board find a new leader failed to engage local networks for candidates, then produced a weak pool of B-players, and, apparently did not do a deep enough dive into the finalist Sergio Paez whose star darkened when a damning report from disability advocates in his home state raised concerns about child abuse.

If Minneapolis is serious about recovering its school system, its search for a leader would be much better than this one.

Now the city is home to a divided community and a weak board wading in rough political waters. Some activists are asking for a new search, while a smaller group is asking the board to default to the second place candidate, Michael Goar, the district’s current interim superintendent.

The argument for a new process says the search was poorly done and Minneapolis deserves better. There is also a contingent in this camp who believe a new search would yield candidates who are not ideologically devoted to “corporate” education reform.

Just go with Goar

Contrasting calls for a fresh search are the demands from some who say the most practical and prudent thing to do is to hire Goar and move on. Two former school board members, Pam Costain and Alberto Monserrate, publicly support this approach. They’re joined by Bernadeia Johnson, the former superintendent who was ousted after a tenure that has left the district substantially of course.

While Goar’s supporters point to his direct knowledge of district operations as a chief selling point, they ignore troubles in his past.

Goar left Memphis public schools in 2007 for a job in Boston during an investigation into mismanagement totaling $600,000. Once in Boston he was questioned – but not implicated – in a FBI investigation into district corruption.

In 2012 when he left Boston for a job back home in Minneapolis he left behind a controversial busing plan that was two years late, and a facilities plan that ran millions over budget.

Since returning to the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2014, he has been credited with fixing some longstanding operational issues that bedeviled the previous administration, but he also has had problems here too.

In one incident the district awarded a large no-bid contract for technology services to one of Goar’s former Memphis colleague. The contract was for services that local experts say were available locally.

Most recently he admitted that he failed to follow district policy when he entered into a contract with Reading Horizons, a curriculum provider that became controversial with educators and community members when the company’s reading materials were deemed to be racially insensitive.

Putting aside Goar’s questionable record, his supporters say he is the devil they know, a safer bet, and he can put the district back on course for stabilization.

I’m not convinced that is at all a reasonable conclusion to draw given the enormity of our challenges, this district’s particular history of hiring under-qualified superintendents simply because the political class likes the candidate or feels some metaphysical kinship with them. This is a district who has hired novices without the proper credentialing for the past several superintendents. Indeed, Minneapolis has the dubious distinction of having hired one superintendent that wasn’t even a human being (this was the first district to hire a firm as its superintendent).

The leader we deserve

It’s time to break that cycle and at very least commit to finding a blue chip candidate with all the required licensing and experience needed to run a nearly $700 million organization.

Perhaps the Star Tribune editorial board put it best:

The Minneapolis School District is struggling to address the achievement gap and enrollment challenges. It needs a strong and credible leader who can rally students, parents, teachers and administrators as well as rebuild faith in the city’s critically important public schools. And that leader must emerge from a hiring process that is above reproach.

We have not had a stellar hiring process, and fixing that is job one for a responsible school board. While some of my former board colleagues may disagree, I too learned a few lessons about superintendent searches from my time on the Minneapolis Board of Education.

First, it isn’t easy to find a top leader for a small urban district. At any given time there may be several markets looking for superintendents, and many of those markets might pay more and have better weather.

There is a range of candidates available, with the least experienced being the most likely to see Minneapolis as a leg up. Some of the more experienced leaders who might consider the Twin Cities need a strong confidential process to avoid jeopardizing their current employment. All of this is why you hire a great search firm, and you bring together a blue ribbon group of local leaders who can help land the right person when on the hook. A district with weak public support, a divided community, and a poorly performing board is likely to attract nothing but bad candidates

Second, the reason the local political class push for a local or known candidate is not always in the best interest of the district, students, and community. We live in a small and professionally incestuous social system – almost a fraternity – where people support candidates more because of what they think they will get in return rather than the fitness of the candidate for the role.

That’s just one guys observation, take it for what it’s worth.

Finally, when you have signs that a candidate might not be right for the role, don’t ignore it. Hiring a leader isn’t about how much you like the candidate or how warm they have made you feel. Our district has a series of complex problems, and we need to be more mature than selecting candidates based on emotive reasoning.

In one of our previous searches, the board was told the popular final candidate was not right for the district. All the warning signs showed up during the hiring process. Yet, because the political class was so sure they had the leader who could be easily domesticated to their needs Minneapolis Public Schools lost valuable years.

All the signs were there, we just ignored them for reasons that are reappearing today.

It’s always most tempting to do the easiest thing. Today, that would be defaulting to Goar rather than admitting how outrageously bad this search process has been, how short that has sold Minneapolis from finding the best possible leader, and how completely inept we would have to be to settle for a second fiddle when our kids deserve a first choice.

Let’s move forward, but with a hiring process worthy of a great city with amazing children.



  1. Minneapolis must pull together to get a great leader for kids – Citizen Ed - […] school board here met recently to admit their year-long search has failed spectacularly, and to offer assurances they will get it right from…

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