MINNEAPOLIS -- Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson faced a large group of parents at Washburn High School Thursday night, and apologized for how the district handled the hiring of a new principal.
"I know you've been working hard to get through some of the things that have happened in the school, and I own my part of that," Johnson told the parents who filled the south Minneapolis school's gymnasium.
"And I'm deeply sorry for it. And I just want to come here tonight to make sure that you know that we understand that we made some mistakes in this process."
It's been a tumultuous year at Washburn, marked by a student walk-out in April in support of athletic director Dan Pratt when he came under fire for raising money for a new scoreboard.
That controversy led the school district to abruptly remove principal Carol Markham Cousins, and begin a search for a permanent replacement.
The educator hired by the district, Patrick Exner, had barely moved into his office last week when the district removed him from the job. Allegations surfaced that Exner had changed test scores at his previous school, a Hopkins charter school known as Ubah Medical Academy.
Exner has denied those accusations, but district officials said they feared the test score inquiry would become too much of a distraction for Exner to be an effective principal. He remains employed by the Minneapolis Public School system, but is on paid administrative leave.
Several of the parents expressed frustration with the district's hiring process, asking why Exner was the only one of 23 candidates forwarded to the school board for consideration.
"They only had one candidate that was forwarded," Washburn parent Kathy Cima told KARE.
"That just didn't seem like a process that was designed to get a very powerful principal. I just wonder if they take Washburn seriously enough."
When the question was raised during the meeting Johnson said Exner simply was the only one of the field of applicants who matched the committee's expectations.
"Some of the other people had limited experience," Johnson explained.
"They worked at small private schools, and didn't have any experience with a diverse school community."
The charter school where Exner served as an administrator has a predominantly Somali student body, and prior to that he worked at the West Metro Education Program, a multi-city district designed to promote integration.
"Parents at the school made it clear to us that you wanted a principal with cultural competency," she said.
Johnson, asked why the district didn't contact Exner's supervisor, said that the committee spoke to all of the references he listed. She said Exner listed Ubah board members as references, and they raised no red flags.
"I feel that the superintendent needs to answer more for that than she is," Carolyn Schmitt, who has two children at Washburn, told KARE after the meeting.
"I feel above that the board needs to take a look at the leadership, because I don't understand why it was handled so poorly."
Schmitt and Heidi St. Clair, another parent, said most families are happy with Washburn, but expect more from MPS leadership.
"We'd like to see more challenging academic options for those kids who are high achievers," St. Clair remarked.
New search underway
Associate Superintendent Cecilia Saddler said that many districts in the Twin Cities metro area were trying to fill secondary school principal positions at the same time Exner was hired.
But, at the same time, she said she was confident the new search for a Washburn principal will draw a good field of qualified seekers.
She said it was a matter of starting the search earlier, she maintained, and taking steps to make Washburn families feel more included in the selection process.
"All the schools in Minneapolis are very attractive to candidates," Saddler told KARE.
"And so you have people clamoring for all of those kinds of positions, and they're trying to bring forth the best viable candidate for a school."
MPS veteran administrator Linda Conley will serve as interim chief principal at Washburn, a development that was met by applause by the parents who attended the meeting Thursday evening.
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