School & District Management

Independent Points to Stint as Minneapolis Schools Chief

By Michele McNeil — October 27, 2006 3 min read
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Peter Hutchinson said he found the best definition of what it is to be a leader in the most unlikely of places: a 4th grade classroom.

That lesson, which would help define his Independence Party run this year for Minnesota’s governorship, came more than a decade ago during his four-year tenure as superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools.

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“A leader is someone who goes out and changes things, and makes them better,” a 4th grade girl told Mr. Hutchinson, a story he repeated to about 50 medical students at the University of Minnesota during a campaign stop here this week.

Mr. Hutchinson, a Democrat-turned-Independent who is embroiled in one of the closest governor’s races in the country, is campaigning as an alternative to two major-party candidates he likens to Coke and Pepsi. In other words, he says, he’s the choice for voters sick of the standard politicians who are similar in their partisan bickering and devotion to special interests.

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His platform hinges on reforming health care and education, two issues he sees as inseparable. The cost of health care is draining money from the Minnesota state budget, he says, and from school districts that pay health-insurance premiums for their teachers. Making health care affordable will free up more money in the state and in districts’ budgets for K-12 education, he says.

In addition, he believes the state needs to contribute more funding to universities, to keep rising tuition costs in check.

“Education has always been the economic engine for Minnesota, and we’re falling behind,” said Mr. Hutchinson, 57, whose no-frills “Team Minnesota” headquarters are here in Minneapolis, above a bakery cafe and an antiques store.

Minnesota has elected an independent candidate before, former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who served from 1999 to 2003.

But several polls indicate Mr. Hutchinson is unlikely to win; he’s receiving about 5 percent of the vote in surveys, according to media reports.

That doesn’t mean his candidacy is without impact, though, because Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Mike Hatch and Republican incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty, are in a tight race and can’t afford to lose any votes.

In fact, Mr. Hutchinson is enough of a factor that Gov. Pawlenty has launched an attack ad against him for favoring in-state college-tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants.

‘Had to Do Something’

Even with the odds against him, Mr. Hutchinson said he couldn’t sit back as the two major parties gridlocked over the issues he champions. He decided to make his run for the state’s highest office in 2005, when state government came to a halt after neither the governor nor the legislature could agree on a budget.

“I had to do something,” he said.

The foundation for Mr. Hutchinson’s education campaign platform is his experiences as superintendent of the 37,900-student Minneapolis school district from 1993 to 1997, when the city became one of the first to experiment with hiring a private company to run a school district.

The district hired the Public Strategies Group, which Mr. Hutchinson co-founded, and he became the designated superintendent. The group specializes in innovating to change government services, especially in budgeting and spending.

While the group ran the district, Mr. Hutchinson and his company were paid based on results—such as improved test scores, or the hiring of more minority teachers. The company received a base sum that could be increased depending on gains in student achievement. It had to report progress several times a year in public school board meetings.

By taking a business-style approach to education, Mr. Hutchinson touts that he helped raise test scores, from a 31 percent passing rate for 6th graders on the state standardized test when he started in 1993, to a 56 percent passing rate when he left in 1997. During his tenure, he also garnered a 70 percent yes vote on a referendum to raise property taxes by $160 million.

Mr. Hutchinson says that his four-year assignment as schools chief prompted him, years later as a gubernatorial candidate, to propose expanding early education for 3- and 4-year-olds, making free, all-day kindergarten available for all, and changing how the state pays for special education students.

“We were trying to focus on the early years,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “That’s when you can really make a difference. ”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Independent Points to Stint as Minneapolis Schools Chief

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