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In four years as superintendent, Green brought stability

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Bill Green
Retiring Minneapolis superintendent Bill Green, sitting in his office on June 24, 2010. Wednesday is Green's final day as superintendent; he's returning to his teaching job at Augsburg College.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

It's the last day on the job for Minneapolis school superintendent Bill Green, who is credited with bringing stability to a district that badly needed it four years ago.

Green is stepping down to return to teaching history at Augsburg College.

When he gets back to his office at Augsburg, Green will have at least one memento from his days with the Minneapolis School District: an effigy of him that was once used during a protest.

"It wasn't fun to receive it, but I still have it.  Good times!" he laughed.

The effigy was actually used during Green's days on the Minneapolis School Board.  He left the board in 2001 and returned to Augsburg, thinking he was done with the district - at least as a policymaker, but there was turmoil in Minneapolis Schools.  

After Carol Johnson left in 2003, there were three superintendents over the next two years, if you count the 19 days Mitchell Trockman spent at the helm.   In late 2005, Green says there was a lot of infighting that was leaving children as an afterthought.

"I've often likened it to an estranged couple with kids that, at a tragic point, parents are so angry with each other that they fail to see the child sitting in the corner, listening to mom and dad argue," Green said.

The district needed a familiar face who could calm the storm, bring stability, and repair hurt feelings and broken relationships with other stakeholders in the community.  Green jokes that that person never answered the phone, so they called him.

"I really care for the district, and I really care for the people who make this district work."

"I didn't expect it, never sought it, never even saw myself having the temperament to do this kind of work," he said.

And after more than 1,600 days in charge, Green says he's leaving at the right time, but with plenty left for his successor, Bernadeia Johnson, to do. 

Green says he'd hoped the achievement gap might be closed -- so that there would be little or no difference in how well students of color do compared to white students.  That didn't happen -- the gap remains.  And teachers in Minneapolis still don't have a new contract, six months after the state deadline to have one in place.

But Green says he can point to some important accomplishments, including passing a referendum two years ago that raised property taxes in a city where most of the voters don't have kids in the schools.

He also says some of his most significant improvements were internal and likely unknown to the wider public.  Those include defining specific goals and roles for principals, something Green says hadn't been done in many schools, and approving a strategic plan meant to guide the district's future decisions.

Bill Green
Minneapolis Schools superintendent Bill Green delivers the 'State of the Schools' speech at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in December 2009.
Tom Weber

Not surprisingly, Green feels Minneapolis city schools are the best place for parents to send their kids, but he understands that public perception doesn't necessarily mirror that.

Test scores have shown anemic gains in recent years. Earlier this year when the state identified 34 persistently low-performing schools, seven of them were in the Minneapolis district, far more than any other district.  

"How often can we expect them to hear, 'We're putting everything in order and you just have to have a little patience, this is a long-term deal,' because they've been hearing this for decades," Green said. "I think what has happened in the past is we have shut those public eyes, closed those public eyes with the closed doors behind which we'd do our business.  And we basically told the community, 'This is not something you need to worry about.'"

Green has said before that the hardest part of any superintendent's job is to close schools, a task that he spent most of last year addressing.  The school board eventually approved a reorganization plan that included closures.  Green says there were countless public meetings before that vote, where he and other leaders took a lot of heat.  But in the end, he says it had to be done.

"This had been a district that could accommodate more than 40,000 kids, and we had 33,000 kids enrolled," he said. "That meant there were a lot of classrooms not being used, a lot of facilities that weren't being used.  And yet we kept them on the books, and that meant money that could be spent in the classroom was being diverted."

Now, as he leaves this job that admittedly added to his stock of gray hair, Green keeps his answer simple when he's asked what he wants people to remember about him.

"I did the best I could," he said. "I really care for the district, and I really care for the people who make this district work.  And I just hope people remember me that way."

But you can also hear the history professor in Green.  He adds that it usually takes time for the final analysis to be written on a man's work, and he's willing to wait.