School & District Management

In Minneapolis, School Chief’s Tenure Debated

By Catherine Gewertz — February 07, 2006 4 min read
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The superintendent of the Minneapolis schools has resigned after only a year and a half on the job, leaving in her wake angry debates about the roles that race, politics, and her own job performance played in her departure.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Even those who disagree most sharply, however, agree that Thandiwe Peebles was a strong and effective academic leader. Under her watch, test scores in the 39,000-student district increased sharply, and the performance gap between students of different races narrowed.

She resigned on Jan. 27, just ahead of what some say was a likely firing. Whether her troubles were rooted in other people’s resentments and agendas, or in her own missteps, depends on who is talking.

The seven-member school board brought Ms. Peebles to Minneapolis in July 2004 from Cleveland, where she oversaw that district’s lowest-performing schools. She had done similar work in New York City.

Ms. Peebles, 63, an African-American educator known for her skill in turning around struggling schools, emerged in a national search and was unanimously chosen by the board.

BRIC ARCHIVE

She replaced David M. Jennings, a white former state lawmaker who became the district’s chief operating officer, then rose to interim superintendent, but withdrew from consideration for the permanent position after an outcry that the public was not allowed input into the choice. (“In Search for Schools Chiefs, Boards Struggle,” Oct. 29, 2003.)

By most accounts, Ms. Peebles went at her job with characteristic intensity, focusing particularly on the district’s seven most-troubled schools. The following summer, test scores showed Minneapolis’ schools improving faster on average than those statewide.

But she faced problems elsewhere. In a first-year evaluation, the school board praised her academic performance, but said she needed work on leadership, management, and communication. She agreed to a “360-degree evaluation,” in which her co-workers give feedback used to develop goals for her improvement. But she never took a local philanthropy up on its offer to provide her with an executive coach.

Board Investigation

Last summer, the board asked a lawyer to investigate allegations that Ms. Peebles used her underlings for personal errands, such as faxing papers for her home mortgage and retrieving district data for a paper required for coursework to obtain her Minnesota superintendent’s certificate. The accusations arrived in two anonymous letters to the school board, and were widely reported in the news media.

In a separation agreement negotiated last month between the board and Ms. Peebles, the board agreed to withdraw the allegations and keep private the investigator’s report. The two sides admitted no wrongdoing and agreed not to make disparaging remarks about each other.

Stephen Cooper, Ms. Peebles’ lawyer, said she did nothing wrong and noted that the University of Minnesota concluded she had done her own work. He speculated that district employees angered by the superintendent’s sometimes-abrupt style, or by the opposition—intense in the city’s black community—to Mr. Jennings, retaliated against her.

“Certain forces didn’t want her here to begin with, and started their campaign right out of the box,” Mr. Cooper said.

Some contend that the community’s mistrust of outsiders helped fuel Ms. Peebles’ difficulties. The Rev. Ian Bethel, the pastor of New Beginnings Baptist Tabernacle, said Ms. Peebles found herself out of favor because her strong racial identity made her professional circle uncomfortable.

“Immediately when she came in, [white] individuals were saying that she wore dreadlocks, that she had a ‘rough’ look, that she needed to change her ethnic African look,” he said. “It reflects an atmosphere in Minneapolis. They talk about ‘Minnesota nice.’ But there is a very strong undercurrent, [a] systemic racist atmosphere here.”

Hired to bring an urgency to solving academic problems, Ms. Peebles “didn’t have the time to fraternize” with board members and others, who then viewed her as “snubbish and short,” he said. “She was doing exactly what they hired her to do. That’s what they liked about her. But in the end, they got rid of her for the same reason.”

Judy Farmer, a member of the school board, said Ms. Peebles’ downfall was not her no-nonsense personal style, noting, “We have lots of New Yorkers here.”

She was “absolutely brilliant” at the curriculum and instruction part of her job, Ms. Farmer said. But as a first-time superintendent, she overlooked some of the job’s other facets, such as communicating the district’s vision to the public and building strong partnerships with leaders, she said.

In the end, board members and Ms. Peebles issued muted statements about their differing visions. The same day, the board appointed an interim superintendent, William Green, a black former board member who is a history professor at a local college.

One incident illustrates the varying perspectives on Ms. Peebles. After a 2004 appearance to celebrate good test scores, she walked wordlessly past two state lawmakers who are influential on education issues, appearing not to recognize them. Some were appalled by what they saw as her lack of political savvy; others were offended that a woman hired to solve academic problems should be criticized for failing to court the powerful.

Susan Eyestone, a former Minnesota PTA president who has been active in Minneapolis school affairs for two decades, lamented the way rumor and incomplete information fanned the controversy.

“We had these allegations of misbehavior, which may or may not have been all that serious, and [since the investigation report will stay private], we don’t know really what she was accused of and what [the investigator] found,” she said. “It all piled up, and we had all this stuff going on in the press, and the rumors, and it got to the point where the whole fabric of trust came unraveled.”

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