Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff addressed reporters outside Pillsbury Elementary School in February 2021, as schools prepared to reopen for in-person learning. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Ed Graff, the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, announced plans to leave the district Wednesday, just days after settling a three-week educator strike.

In an email to school board members dated March 29, and made public March 30, Graff announced his decision to decline a third contract as superintendent. His last day will be June 30.

His announcement came days after the conclusion of a three-week teacher strike, and hours after Graff walked out on students protesting a school-board meeting.

In a letter to board members, Graff highlighted his accomplishments. “We have been state and national leaders in multiple areas during my tenure: deeply embedding social and emotional learning in all of our schools; moving magnet schools from segregated neighborhoods to more diverse, centralized locations; mandating ethnic studies courses for all graduating seniors; and requiring all District policies and practices be considered through our racial equity policy,” Graff said.

Graff said he had decided to pursue other opportunities. “It was a difficult decision but ultimately, after praying and careful consideration, I’ve decided that it is time to turn over the helm of leadership in Minneapolis to someone new,” he wrote. 

“MPS has a team of committed and dedicated educators, parents, and community members who want our students to succeed and I am confident they will continue to join hands with you to make that happen.”

Minneapolis Public Schools said it would soon share plans for appointing a new leader and a timeline to hire a permanent superintendent.

Union leaders and school-board members weigh in on Graff’s departure—and what should come next 

Leaders of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals, who recently held a 14-day strike, expressed hope for a collaborative process for choosing new leadership. 

“We look forward to working with the Board of Education and our school communities—families, students, and workers—through this process to ensure the next superintendent shares our values and is chosen through an open and authentic process,” said Greta Callahan and Shaun Laden in a joint statement.

School board members expressed a mix of appreciation for Graff’s service and relief at his departure.

Kim Ellison, the school board chair, expressed gratitude for Graff. “Always with students as the focus, Superintendent Graff has brought systemic and transformational change to MPS during an extremely challenging time in our history,” Ellison said in a statement. “He has repeatedly delivered on the School Board’s values, implemented equity-driven structural changes, and kept students and staff safe and learning through a pandemic. I am grateful for his service and all he has done for Minneapolis Public Schools.”

School board member Nelson Inz also expressed appreciation. “Ed is an extremely ethical, principled person,” Inz said. “I’m really grateful for his service to Minneapolis Public Schools.”

Adriana Cerrillo, one of the board’s newest members, said she was glad to see him leave. “I’m glad that he made the right decision,” she said. “Because what he did last night, walking out on students who were cursing, is unacceptable.”

School-board members narrowly voted to advance with renegotiating Graff’s contract in October, with many dissenting board members expressing concerns about the district’s literacy plan. State data show that in 2019, 76 percent of white third-graders in Minneapolis had a proficient score on their reading tests; only 24 percent of Black third-graders did.

Sharon El-Amin voted against renewing Graff’s contract. “There’s no clear literacy plan for our school district,” she told Sahan Journal in October. “I don’t see the necessary actions to try to rectify or even address where our children are falling behind.”

Graff’s signature accomplishment: a major redistricting plan

Graff came to Minneapolis Public Schools in 2016 from Alaska, where he served as superintendent of the Anchorage School District. As Minneapolis superintendent, Graff made his signature accomplishment the implementation of the Comprehensive District Design. This was a redistricting plan aimed at integrating schools and providing a more well-rounded education to students across the district, particularly students of color.

The school board passed that plan in May 2020. While some parents and advocates hailed it as a step forward for racial equity, others felt the district failed to take parent voices into account, while destabilizing beloved schools and programs.

New district boundaries took effect just this fall, so it’s too soon to judge the plan’s results. But resentment about the redistricting plan proved an undercurrent throughout the 14-day Minneapolis educator strike. Educators pointed out that the district anticipated short-term enrollment declines due to the redistricting plan, and blamed administrators for the district’s budget shortfall.

“They don’t take responsibility for the horrible Comprehensive District Design rollout,” said Daniel Perez, a social worker at Green Central Elementary School, at a March 9 rally at the state Capitol. 

“As a mental health clinician, as an expert on that, I will tell you, kiddos and families need stability, familiarity, and predictability the most.” He criticized the district for uprooting many students in the middle of a pandemic. 

Graff, he said, was hired to close literacy and math gaps between students of color and white students. “And those results have not happened,” he said. “Ed Graff, you’ve got to go.”

Union leadership saw the implementation of the Comprehensive District Design as emblematic of a top-down leadership structure that did not account for family and educator voices.

“This is about power hoarding,” said Greta Callahan, teacher chapter president of the Minneapolis educators union, during that same rally. 

Graff leaves a school board meeting, then leaves his job

A small group of students with megaphones interrupted a school board meeting on Tuesday, which was intended to set an extended calendar for the school year to make up for days missed during the strike. District leaders had explained to board members earlier in the meeting that the time must be made up for the district to remain in compliance with state law. Failing to provide those classroom hours could result in criminal penalties for district leaders, school administrators, and teachers.

The revised calendar includes an additional 10 school days to make up for the 15 days missed during the strike, as well as an additional 42 minutes on each school day, beginning April 11. The school year will now end June 24. 

But those changes didn’t sit well with student activists, who said they had responsibilities with jobs, internships, and watching their siblings.

“Can somebody say bullshit?” one student demanded.

“Bullshit!” the others chorused.

Graff stood up to leave.

“Graff, you’re running away again?” one student said. “Not again.”

Graff took his seat.

“Just to be clear, I am leaving because I am not going to be a part of any organization that allows people to use profanity,” he said.

And the superintendent left the board room.

“You can’t talk to your students because of a curse word?” a student shouted. “Shame! Ed Graff, where you at?”

When the meeting reconvened, the motion to amend the calendar passed, with board members Adriana Cerrillo and Ira Jourdain voting no. Sharon El-Amin abstained. “I’m not voting without the superintendent here,” she said.

Cerrillo and El-Amin, too, got up to leave before the meeting adjourned. Cerrillo joined the students. El-Amin said it was inappropriate to take the vote without the superintendent present.

“Where,” she asked, “is our leader?”

This is a developing story. Sahan Journal will be updating this piece with additional news and reporting.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.