The Minneapolis School Board has chosen Anchorage Superintendent Ed Graff as the district's new leader.
Members picked Graff over Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius in a 6-3 vote Tuesday night.
The district has gone through two superintendent searches over a year and a half, and the process been contentious at times.
The school board didn't try to hide the fact that Graff will have his work cut out for him in Minneapolis.
"I believe that his calm demeanor is great for a politically-charged, theatrical, drama-filled stage that we're often in," said board member Josh Reimnitz, who spoke in support of Graff ahead of the vote to begin contract negotiations with the Anchorage School District leader.
Graff is originally from Bemidji, Minn., but has lived in Alaska since 1987. He joined Anchorage schools in 1991.
Reimnitz noted Graff's recent experience maintaining staff morale during staff and budget cuts in Anchorage.
"That gives me hope that we could turn around the toxic culture that I've seen in the Davis Center and that extends beyond out from there," he said.
The superintendent search has divided the Minneapolis district since Bernadeia Johnson suddenly announced she was stepping down for personal reasons in December 2014.
The district cut off talks with its top candidate in January over abuse allegations at a school in that candidate's former district. Critics of the search shut down a January board meeting and forced the board to restart the search.
Board Chair Jenny Arneson said she hopes Graff's skill communicating with students and staff can restore morale.
"Really, my sense from him is that it's about the people, not the programs," she said.
Graff promised to get straight to work in a Skype call after the vote.
"The urgency is the common thread that I've heard from all my interactions and discussions, and that urgency really is about creating opportunities for our kids — positive opportunities," he said.
Graff said he aims to arrive in Minneapolis in June and has started looking for a place to live in the area.
But in discussion prior to the vote, several board members were concerned that Graff will have trouble hitting the ground running. Anchorage's student population is much different than Minneapolis'. Anchorage has large populations of Asian and Pacific Islander and multi-racial students, but it has far fewer black students. Minneapolis' academic achievement gap between students of color and white students is one of the district's biggest challenges.
Board member Siad Ali voted for Cassellius in part because of her local experience.
"I myself feel that we missed a great opportunity, but I do respect the decisions that we made here," Ali said. "I hope he addresses some of these issues. I hope that African-American communities work with the new superintendent and give him opportunity that he can work and do his job."
Graff addressed the concern with one of the main themes of his board interview last week: a focus on students.
"Who I am is that I look at every student as an individual and listen first and make sure I understand their story," he said. "And I think that's how you develop those relationships and connections and how you build trust and success."
Even board members who disagreed with the vote outcome called on the board to unite behind the new leader. Board member Tracine Asberry made that same plea to the parents and community members who filled the room to watch the vote.
"We have to wrap our arms around this leader. One person is not going to change this system. There's a reason why the system still exists that does not allow our black kids to thrive, our native kids to thrive, our Latino kids to thrive. And I think that that's the thing that we haven't really accepted, it is us."
The board aims to vote on a contract with Graff Friday and start his term as superintendent in July. The board appointed district Chief of Schools Michael Thomas as a second interim leader to serve after current interim Superintendent Michael Goar leaves the district June 1.
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