New interim Minneapolis superintendent to focus on rebuilding trust, stabilizing enrollment

A person speaks behind a table into a microphone
The new Minneapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Rochelle Cox held a press conference to talk about her priorities in the role.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

The interim superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools started her first day of work on Friday in a position that will last for a year while the state’s third largest district looks for someone to permanently fill its top job.

Rochelle Cox said she will focus on rebuilding trust with a community that in the past year has struggled to transport children to school, fill open staff positions and shuttered classrooms for three weeks while facing off with its teacher’s union during a contentious strike. School board member and superintendent Ed Graff resigned amid the labor turmoil.

“Number one, I think, is communication,” Cox said. “I want people to know me personally, because I think that’s where trust begins. I want people to feel very comfortable communicating with me and my staff. We need to be where our families and our students are. I need to be shopping at Cub down the street so that people see me and they go, ‘Hey, don’t you work for MPS?’”

Cox, who lives with her family on a small horse farm in Isanti Minn., said she would rely on the district’s parent advisory councils to evaluate programs, policies and progress.

She steps into the superintendent role after after working with Minneapolis Public Schools for 25 years, much of that time focused on special education. She’s worked in the early childhood special education department as well as led the district’s special education and health services.

During the five years she worked as executive director of special education services, Cox said she and her team reduced by three times the risk of over-identification of Black students as emotionally and behaviorally disabled. She also oversaw a 17 percent increase in the graduation rates of special education students.

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Board Chair Kim Ellison on Friday called Cox a “trusted and proven leader who can provide stability and keep the focus on student learning.”

The Minneapolis district has struggled with declining enrollment and budget problems. More than 1,000 students than predicted will have left the district by the start of the next academic year. And district leaders are facing a deficit that has grown by $27.1 million to a total budget gap of $86.2 million. It currently plans to cover those gaps with its fund balance, federal COVID-19 relief money and budget reductions.

But Cox said she wants to use her time as superintendent to work on the district’s budget issues, including lobbying the Minnesota Legislature for more funding.

“I think we’ve been figuring it out year by year what the plan is and I think it’s time to start thinking what the long-term plan is. It’s challenging when your funding sources change year after year,” Cox said. “There will have to be changes that will be made. We can’t operate like this. We have to stabilize our enrollment.”

The interim superintendent said she does not currently plan to be in her position for more than one year, but is focused on “to get this school district ready for its next superintendent.” She said the search for a permanent superintendent could take the entire year of her term.