Over the coming months, Minneapolis Public Schools will see turnover in leadership roles for both the superintendent and within the school board. The MPS school board will be appointing an interim superintendent and interim board member during its May 10 meeting. Starting January 2023, there will be five school board seats up for election; currently, just one incumbent is running. Minneapolis voters will vote on the candidates this November. The teachers’ union is holding an election through May 14 for union leadership positions, including president.

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Chapter 59  members, are currently voting to elect leadership for the union. The election started May 2 and members have through May 14 to vote. The incumbent president, Greta Callahan, is running a slate of candidates on a platform that continues the themes from the recent strike with the slogan “Moving Forward Together.” She is being challenged by Alexis Mann, a Black teacher at Harrison Education Center, who is running a slate calling itself “The Coalition for Truth.” Their platform is focused on raising student achievement, diversifying the teacher workforce, bringing greater transparency to union functions, and connecting with the community. MFT 59 leadership positions are for two years.

While voting is underway in internal MFT leadership elections, the MPS school board will announce an interim superintendent to take the place of Superintendent Ed Graff who announced in March that he was resigning at the end of his contract. The announcement of an interim superintendent is expected at or before the May 10 board meeting. Sometime after the appointment of the interim superintendent, the board will begin a search process for a permanent superintendent.

At the same meeting on May 10, the board will vote to appoint a new member to fill the at-large seat that Josh Pauly vacated during the educators’ strike on March 16. The newly selected interim member will join the board the following day on May 11, for a term ending January 2, 2023. On May 6, the board will list the names of qualified applicants with its May 10 meeting materials.

Five of the nine seats on the MPS school board are up for election in November including two of the three at-large seats. This includes the seat that will be filled with an interim board member. The seats held by Jenny Arnesen in District 1, Siad Ali in District 3, and Nelson Inz in District 5 are open. Ali, Arneson and Inz were first elected in 2014, 2010 and 2014, respectively.

Only one incumbent, Kimberly Caprini, an at-large board director, is running again. New board members will be seated January 3, 2023. School board members are elected to staggered, four-year terms. Many candidates running for the MPS school board are seeking a DFL endorsement. This endorsement process will happen on May 15 at the Minneapolis DFL endorsing convention.

What Minneapolis voters can look for in MPS leadership candidates

Minneapolis voters ultimately decide who will serve on the MPS Board of Education. If voters are not familiar with the public schools system, they may struggle with how to choose the “best” candidates.

Paula Cole, a former MPS teacher, a current school board member in Richfield Public Schools, and executive director of Educators for Excellence said voters don’t always understand the role of the school board. In Minnesota, the main job of the school board is to set a unified vision for the school district, pass a balanced budget, and hire and hold accountable a superintendent who will implement the board’s vision.

Currently, the MPS school board has had division, exemplified in the vote on whether to renew outgoing superintendent Graff’s contract at the Oct. 12, 2021 board meeting. The board split 5-4, with Directors Arneson, Inz, Jourdain, Ellison and Caprini voting to renew Graff’s contract, while Directors El-Amin, Cerillo, Ali and Pauly voted against renewal. Cole says this division creates a challenging environment for a superintendent, “How is one person supposed to be accountable to nine different people wanting nine different things?” Cole asked, rhetorically.

Effective school board members will be able to hire a superintendent aligned with the board’s values for the district, and be able to hold the superintendent responsible for operating the district in a way that supports the board’s values, according to Cole. She also said that it is crucial for board members to be focused on fiscal responsibility because they ultimately balance a budget with taxpayer money.

“Fund balances are sacred. It’s not an ATM. It’s not a piggy bank,” Cole said. Replenishing a depleted fund balance is extremely challenging when the state government is underfunding public schools.

In terms of what to look for in a superintendent candidate, Cole said voters should look at whether the candidates can work collaboratively with others, and have the ability to earn respect among parents, board members, and staff. Respect can be illustrated through the candidate’s transparency, a clear vision and specific goals for the district, and the ability to uphold a positive climate, especially for families, students, and staff of color in the district. Given the funding challenges in MPS, and across many districts in the state, Cole also said a superintendent who is comfortable lobbying at the state capital with board members, staff, and families is something that would benefit MPS.

One of the challenges faced by school boards is that candidates for school board typically seek office for one of two reasons, according to Paul Hill, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and scholar of public education systems for over four decades.

“[Either] they have this overwhelming love for kids and they want to do something for them, or that they have a point of view they want to represent or push,” Hill said. Therefore, it’s possible for voters to vote in a board that has little interest in getting a broader sense of the district.  

“The school board should hire a superintendent with enough clarity to be able to say this is what we want to be able to see within a year, some measurable outcome.” Hill said.  

“The school board needs to get out of [the superintendent’s] way and let them do it,” Hill said.

In Hill’s opinion “some form of executive leadership” is required to right a situation like that of MPS, where there has been a churn in leadership, a divided school board, underfunding, and low academic proficiency rates for students of color.

Superintendents ideally perform that executive leadership function, but are often unable to because of the internal political dynamics within districts, according to Hill.

In his research, Hill has proposed that boards be less involved in school district functioning, allowing the superintendent more discretion to focus on the operations of districts.

Voters will likely get information from the MFT 59 teachers and ESPs chapters as they endorse candidates they’d like to see on the board. This adds another layer of complexity to the election.

“It’s true that teachers individually, and in some sense collectively, have the kids’ best interests at heart,” Hill said. “But they also have the interest of maintaining job security for teachers, getting as big a share as they can of the budget, and protecting privileges for senior teachers.”

A useful analogy for thinking about Minneapolis Public Schools leadership as a three-person canoe. The three seats are occupied by: the school board, the administration leaders, and MFT 59 leaders. The  three seats have to work together by paddling to arrive at their destination. They will sometimes confront wind, currents, and chop in their way. In the same way, the three groups of leaders within MPS have to work together in order to right the ship and get the district moving towards its goals.

“Right now, it would take some sort of understood crisis to make everyone realize that unless we row in the same direction we’re going to sink,” Hill said.

“The school board, the superintendent and union leadership have to work together in tandem with students’ best interests at heart,” Cole said. For example, Cole credits the in-tandem strategy for why Richfield Public Schools has been able to focus on a range of goals, including improving academic outcomes for students of color.

“The union, the school board and the superintendent all had the same vision in mind,” Cole said. “We didn’t do the same job, but we were all working towards the same goal,” Cole argues.

In February 2022, the current school board voted to approve a new strategic plan for MPS. There are four goals in the plan centered on student achievement, student well-being, effective staff, and school and district climate. The strategic plan includes “conditions for success” for each of these goals, which acknowledge the substantial barriers the district faces in implementing the strategic plan.

The district faces a range of challenges internally and externally. These challenges are all exacerbated by its current budget crisis, caused in part by several decades of underfunding of public education by the state of Minnesota, particularly the underfunding of mandatory special education and English learner services. Additional challenge are the district’s own legacy of racial discrimination against students and staff of color, the academic and discipline disparities for students of color that existed before the pandemic, the additional challenges of “unfinished learning” from the pandemic and disruptions to in-person learning that have disproportionately impacted students of color, and the strain on staff that came to the forefront during the recent strike by teachers and ESPs.

Southwest Voices will continue to provide coverage of MPS and the critical services it provides to the students and families in its schools. Our aim is to keep readers, especially MPS families and voters, informed about the district at-large. Throughout these leadership changes, we will continue to cover school board meetings and other news related to Minneapolis Public Schools.