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Minneapolis, Minn. — David Jennings began working for Minneapolis public schools nearly two years ago as chief operating officer. When Carol Johnson announced in late July she was heading to Memphis, school board members quickly tapped Jennings to serve as interim superintendent. Two weeks ago, they decided to make him the permanent successor.
But the decision drew fire from some African American leaders, who claimed the search process was flawed and Jennings lacked the necessary qualifications. They took their complaints to court this week, trying to stop the superintendent's contract negotiations.
"While the noise is coming from a small group of folks, it is beginning to get in the way of the work, and time is short," Jennings said. "I feel a sense of urgency about helping the kids of this district and about closing the achievement gap and about doing things about attendance and behavior and the things I care about. And I don't want to spend my time on anything else."
Jennings says he'll continue to serve as interim superintendent until the school board selects a replacement. He says he'll focus his efforts on helping struggling students succeed. Jennings says criticism is an expected part of the job of running a public school system, and he doesn't expect it to end after his announcement.
"What I would hope is, that to the extent that there's criticism or lively public discussion, that it is about issues that actually matter. About what we're going to do about these poor kids who aren't making it about what we're going to do about kids in our community that don't have a permanent home. I don't mind arguments and criticisms and discussion about that, that actually means something," he said.
I don't have much confidence in the self-appointed 'community leaders'... who tend to show up when the cameras are rolling and disappear when the hard work is there to be done.
Earlier in the day, a Hennepin County District Court judge heard arguments related to the challenge of Jennings' hiring. Four community groups filed a request for a temporary restraining order against the school district. They claim the school board violated state and federal laws, as well as the school district's own affirmative action policy in the hiring process.
The Rev. Randolph Staten of the Minnesota Council of Black Churches -- one of the plaintiffs -- says he commends Jennings for stepping aside. But he says the legal challenge will proceed in order to keep pressure on the school board.
"We think it's important for the school board to do what it is that we talked about. And that is make sure that they have an open process by which someone who's capable and qualified can lead the school system. That's all we wanted from the beginning, fairness and for the process to be right," he said.
School board members firmly contend there was nothing wrong about their decision to hire Jennings or with the process they used. They still say he was the right person for the right time.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is defending Jennings as someone who's made tremendous contributions to kids. Rybak made a pointed challenge to Jennings critics to put aside their egos and make the same kind of contributions.
"I don't have much confidence in the self-appointed 'community leaders' who've never gotten a vote from anyone, who tend to show up when the cameras are rolling and disappear when the hard work is there to be done," he said.
School board members say they reluctantly accepted Jennings' decision after trying to change his mind. They say it's too soon to know how they might proceed with a new search. The next regularly scheduled board meeting is next Tuesday.