As the sixth school year under Superintendent Ed Graff continues, families of Minneapolis Public Schools continue to wonder: is he the right man for the job? While often criticized for his leadership and big yearly raises, he has also been forced to lead under a time that the world has never seen before. With historical events like the murder of George Floyd and the spread of the COVID-19 virus both happening within the last two years, just how well did he hold up under the pressure?
Minneapolis Public Schools has been led by Superintendent Graff since 2016. After the Anchorage, Alaska School District decided not to extend his contract, Mr. Graff was voted in as superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools following an extensive, nation-wide search in 2016. At the time of his hiring the Minneapolis district offered him a contract with an 18% pay increase from that of the previous superintendent, Bernadeia Johnson. He was also afforded a monthly car and phone stipend. Minneapolis school board members have described Superintendent Graff as an effective leader – especially in the student support category – and recently renewed his contract, making it retroactive to 2019. However, not everyone seems to agree with this sentiment or the decision to renew his contract.
Many people – especially teachers! – were surprised when it was announced during the Pandemic that Graff’s contract would be extended. While he’s now sitting comfortably with a $15,000 raise for the next three years (resulting in an annual salary of $230,000, a 6.5% raise from his last contract) teachers and Educational Support Professionals (ESPs), such as Educational Assistants (EAs) and Special Educational Assistants (SEAs), are still working to settle their own expired contracts. Negotiations started in January of 2021, and recently Graff pushed them into private mediation. In the last contract year 2018-19, teachers were given a .5% raise, then followed by a 1% raise in 2019-2021. They now are working on settling their three year contract. They are asking for safe and stable schools, more mental health support for students, smaller caseloads for social workers and special education teachers, and recruitment and retention of BIPOC teachers. The ESPs are also trying to settle their contract with the district. Teachers are asking that the ESPs get paid a living wage but Graff and the board still continue to hold off on settling it.
General frustration towards Ed Graff and the school board has risen in the past several years, especially in spring 2020 when the new highly controversial Comprehensive District Design (CDD) redistricting plan was passed, much to the dismay and annoyance of many families. There was a firm opposition to the vote being passed during an especially difficult time, a time when we were dealing with the murder of George Floyd, civil unrest, as well as the COVID-19 virus. Not to mention that the district hardly took into account any input from teachers, schools, or parents who were actually going to be affected by this new plan. Forcing these transitions and school changes during this very challenging time added more stress and trauma onto the students, parents, staff, and teachers of the district. In the last 2 years 2,950 students have left the district, at a 7.6% loss rate. The goal of the CDD plan was not the problem: in fact that’s the one thing many can agree went right. The district is inequitable but there was no clarity within it, and timing was all wrong.
Then there was the COVID-19 pandemic. This year marked the second year of the pandemic. But what has changed? Many schools still don’t have the proper ventilation, there is no consistent enforcement of mask-wearing, and it’s physically impossible to social distance. At all the schools, nurses are overworked with contact tracing and many teachers and staff have quit as the school year progresses over frustration with the district. At a January 11th board meeting, Superintendent Graff continued to voice his firm belief that keeping students at in-person school was the district’s top priority despite increasing infection numbers. Although moving online was imperative to stop the spread of the virus, it wasn’t going to be a very easy switch. While students and families waited for a sign from the district that schools would be transitioning to distance learning, frustration grew. There was even an Instagram account created with the username “Ed Graff sucks”, which now has more than 800 followers. Finally, on the evening of January 12th, families of Minneapolis Public Schools and teachers received the email that they would, in fact, be moving to distance learning. The district stated that the decision was made due to COVID-19 affecting MPS staffing levels. This of course came with its own set of rules. Online learning would only be for two weeks, until the end of the quarter, and schools would be required to remain open for those students who needed to come in. Could planning for these waves of variants in schools had been planned for so that we were ready?
Having multiple unsettled contracts, confusing the parents, students, and teachers on planning around COVID, and moving thousands of students during the pandemic certainly reflects poorly on Ed Graff’s leadership. If it were up to the public who knows how much longer he’d stay in office. Really, is his leadership what Minneapolis Public Schools needs, now or in the future?
CORRECTION: We had previously stated 29,500 students had left the district over the past two years. We were alerted of our error and have updated it to reflect the more accurate 2,950 student who have left. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!