New Minneapolis Chief Is Expected To Stay the Course

By Ann Bradley — August 09, 1997 7 min read

‘Friendly Divorce’

Now, a 20-year veteran of the district has been tapped to replace the St. Paul-based Public Strategies Group--a selection that seems to be a return to more conventional ways.

But it turns out that neither hire was what it appeared to be. The Minneapolis school board, despite its choice of Public Strategies in 1993, never intended to make radical changes in the district. And the new superintendent, Carol Johnson, is expected to follow closely the work begun by the private group to rebuild a tattered curriculum and focus the entire system on student achievement.

Ms. Johnson, the superintendent of the nearby suburban St. Louis Park, Minn., schools, is scheduled to take over the 42,400-student Minneapolis district in August.

Board members say they expect Ms. Johnson, who worked closely with the PSG team as an associate superintendent for curriculum before leaving the district in 1995, to implement the plan designed by the private company.

Rather than resorting to radical measures, the company ended up pursuing a traditional set of reforms that board members and knowledgeable observers describe as critical for the dispirited district.

Credibility, Not Ideas

The board’s choice of Public Strategies Group, a firm associated with the trend toward “reinventing government,” was motivated primarily by members respect for Peter Hutchinson, the firm’s president. He served as superintendent until the arrangement ended, by joint announcement, May 29. (See Education Week, June 4, 1997.)

Board members were looking to rebuild public confidence in the financially ailing district, where student achievement was declining. A businessman in Minneapolis, Mr. Hutchinson had cleaned up the district’s finance-and-operation division, making him an attractive choice for the top job, concludes a report on the arrangement commissioned by a local foundation, the Ron Speed Award for Public Affairs Leadership Committee.

Mr. Hutchinson, who is widely praised as an upbeat person who boosted employee morale and exhibits a passion for public education, represented familiarity and was a safe bet, the report says.

Exactly what his firm’s mission was to be, however, wasn’t initially clear.

“We thought when they hired us that they hired our ideas,” a senior PSG member says in the report. “They hired Peter to restore their credibility. Only later did we realize that they were not that interested in our ideas for how to change things.”

One of the firm’s most novel proposals, for example--to separate the management and educational function of the district, with PSG acting as an “agent for children” arranging educational services--was rebuffed. Despite the setback and initial confusion, the firm is credited with laying the groundwork for improvement.

“We have the architecture--it’s designed and on paper,” said Judy Farmer, a school board member. “Now we need someone who knows about implementation and understands how you get teachers’ behavior to change so they’ll try new things.”

‘Friendly Divorce’

From the start, the management arrangement was expected to last from three to five years. Although the split was amicable enough--board member Ross Taylor called it “a friendly divorce"--it came after a rocky few months.

In March, the results of the second round of state basic-skills test showed that the city’s 8th graders had again scored poorly. Just 9 percent of African-American 8th grader passed both the reading and mathematics tests. Outraged civil rights advocate denounced the results.

Then in April, Mr. Hutchinson took a two-month leave from his job for personal reasons, passing on district management duties to other PSG team members. Because he had no designated right-hand person, Ms. Farmer said, some board members began to feel the district was leaderless, just as Gov. Arne H. Carlon and state legislators debated using tax credits for private school tuition.

It also became clear that Public Strategies had accomplished much of the work that needed to be done, said Susan Eyestone, the president of the Minnesota PTA and a longtime volunteer in the Minneapolis schools.

Though few people talked about it publicly at the time, she said, the district was in shambles in 1993. The curriculum department had been dismantled, and clear guidelines abandoned, just as new teachers were being hired and student demographics were changing. The budget was a mess. Workers were demoralized and defensive.

Ms. Eyestone likened PSG’s charge to “walking into a city after an atom bomb had hit and starting to rebuild.”

Mr. Hutchinson agreed. “We had a district that was going downhill,” he said. “When I got here, everybody was fighting and nobody trusted anybody. It was unbelievable how many lawyers were at meetings.”

‘Relentless’ Focus

In addition to rebuilding morale, Mr. Hutchinson restored public confidence enough that voter last fall passed a five-year, $33 million property-tax levy to keep class-size small. The management team also is credited with stabilizing the district’s finances, reaching a landmark contract agreement with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, creating academic standards and a new curriculum, aligning them with assessments, and designing a districtwide accountability and incentive program.

Under the firm’s leadership, the school board also voted in November 1995 for a partial return to neighborhood schools after years of busing for racial integration.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Public Strategies’ tenure was the firm’s unusual pay-for-performance contract, which set specific goal with attached price tags. (See Education Week, Feb. 9, 1994.)

But negotiating the pay-for-performance contract proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of the arrangement, education consultant John Kostouros concluded in his analysis for the foundation. Board members complained that they couldn’t show which Public Strategies employees, besides Mr. Hutchinson, were working on district business to deflect criticism that the pact simply allowed them to pay him more than the $125,000 that state law allows.

Since January 1994, the district has paid Public Strategies nearly $1.1 million for Mr. Hutchinson’s services as superintendent and other projects undertaken by the company’s employees.

The emphasis on performance reflected in the firm’s contract, Mr. Hutchinson said, now permeates the district, from individual teachers who can be counseled out of the profession by their peers to schools that can receive cash award of up to $25,000 for improved results.

In addition, the district closed an unsuccessful elementary school and reopened it with a new staff and programs during his superintendency.

Louise Sundin, the president of the teachers’ union, said Mr. Hutchinson brought fresh thinking and a relentless focus on achievement and performance through the use of data. He also made teacher’ feel that their work was valued, she said.

Despite their low scores, Minneapolis 8th graders did better this year on the state test than last year. Because students had to get higher marks to pass this time, however, the progress was masked. Scores on norm-referenced tests also have been moving up, district officials say.

Steering and Rowing

Although Public Strategies didn’t get far with its notion of severing the district’s education and business functions, Mr. Hutchinson argues that the idea is a sound one. His firm plan to pursue the concept in its current talks with “two or three” districts that he declined to name.

Citing a new book by management expert, he equated the functions to steering and rowing a boat. The steering function in education-standards-setting, measurement and performance evaluation, and resource allocation-never get the attention given to rowing issues like personnel, buses, food service, and textbook purchasing, he complained in a recent interview.

“We found ourselves constantly struggling with the conflict between steering and rowing,” he said. “It was a trick to manage both things.”

With the appropriate accountability systems in place, one part of an organization could “look for building, practitioner, or providers to do the best job,” he said, while the other part would operate the schools themselves.

But board members and others familiar with the proposal said the notion seemed too fuzzy and problematic to them.

To Ms. Eyestone of the state PTA, the suggestion sounded too much like an invitation to vouchers. “It seemed too loosey-goosey and decentralized,” she added, “with not enough control and focus.”

“The notion that schools aren’t doing anything, or can’t, and somebody else can come in with a bright idea is a myth,” said the board’s Mr. Taylor, a retired Minneapolis teacher.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week