The Minneapolis school board plans to choose a superintendent Tuesday night after a long and sometimes contentious search.
The public had its say Monday night on the two most recent finalists at a community input session. Parents and community members were divided between a desire for change and a preference for experience in the Minneapolis district.
The finalists present a strong contrast.
Brenda Cassellius worked as a Minneapolis assistant principal and associate superintendent before she became the state education commissioner in 2011. She lives in Minneapolis and has children in the district schools.
The other finalist, Ed Graff, lives in Alaska. Graff is superintendent of the Anchorage School District, where he started working in 1991. Graff, who is from Minnesota, promises change for Minneapolis.
On Monday night, several of the 40 or so parents and community members present seemed hungry for that change.
"MPS needs a complete paradigm shift," said parent Teto Wilson, who served on the district committee that chose the superintendent finalists. Wilson said the district needs to break from Cassellius' ties to former Minneapolis superintendent Carol Johnson. Cassellius was an administrator under Johnson and followed Johnson to the Memphis school district for three years in 2004.
"We've been selecting superintendents from the same group of politically connected friends that with the help of various school boards, community and political partnerships, racist policies and practices within certain schools with different ZIP codes, have been failing our students," he said.
Graff promised a "paradigm shift" for the district in his interview with the board last week. He also repeatedly said students would be his top priority in the job.
Those words resonated with Minneapolis student Collin Robinson, who also served on the selection committee.
"We need someone who is going to listen to the students. We need someone who is going to be a champion for the engagement of students," Robinson said. "There are oftentimes where we have to make our own spaces for us to talk, and oftentimes that can be emotionally and physically draining for us. And for someone to say that they are going to listen to us is incredibly empowering."
But Bill English, who co-chairs a leadership group at the district's Harrison Education Center, argued students would benefit more from an insider like Cassellius. He brought up the Anchorage district's failure to renew Graff's superintendent contract when it expires this year. Graff declined to explain that decision during his Minneapolis interview.
"I cannot believe that you would consider a candidate that was fired in Anchorage, no real track record of transforming schools, and will have to spend years figuring out the district, its personnel, pick a team that understands our school culture and district and our student populations," English said.
Parent Abdirashid Abdi also spoke up for a leader from within the district and someone with Cassellius's political experience.
"Someone who will not shy away to engage politics — that's willing to engage politics head-on and deal with it to turn it into positive gains for our students," Abdi said.
Cassellius and Graff emerged from the second search process since Bernadeia Johnson stepped down early last year.
Critics pushed for more transparency after the board cut off talks in January with its top candidate in the first round. Concerns arose when abuse allegations surfaced at a school in that candidate's former district.
This time around the board used a selection committee instead of relying on a search firm to choose finalists.
Leslie Redmond of the Minneapolis NAACP was among those critics and said transparency did improve in the second round.
On Monday night, she urged the board to tune out the noise and focus on the decision at hand.
"I just urge you all to make the best decision for the community members, for the students, and again please stay away from the politics," she said.