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Minneapolis superintendent under investigation
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Minneapolis school superintendent Thandiwe Peebles is under investigation for allegedly asking her staff to help conduct personal business. (MPR file photo)
The embattled Minneapolis school superintendent is defending herself against anonymous allegations of misconduct. The school board has hired an outside investigator to look into allegations Thandiwe Peebles used her administrative staff to perform personal tasks and to complete her college course work.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The allegations reported in the Star Tribune newspaper say Peebles had her office staff perform tasks such as arrange grooming for her dog and work on details of a home purchase. The paper cites two letters to the school board from an anonymous former Minneapolis Public Schools administration staffer.

The letters reportedly also allege Peebles had staff work on projects required for University of Minnesota course work. Peebles needed the courses for her superintendent's license.

At a news conference to announce a grant for Minneapolis schools, Peebles refused to comment on the allegations.

"I really can't speak on this, and I think you understand that," she said.

There's no evidence for or against anything. But we take any allegations against our employees seriously.
- Minneapolis school board president Joseph Erickson

Peebles told the Star Tribune she expects to be cleared of all the allegations. Joseph Erickson, president of the Minneapolis School Board, says the board hired an outside investigator to determine whether Peebles violated any school policies.

"We're not going to ignore it. We've taken it seriously. We immediately sent it out to an external investigator,"says Erickson. "There's no evidence for or against anything. But we take any allegations against our employees seriously."

Erickson says the board has occasionally received anonymous letters of complaint about other employees in the past.

Steve Belton, Peebles' former chief of staff, confirms he witnessed Peebles directing staff to fax documents related to her purchasing a home.

Peebles did not renew Belton's contract this year. Still, he says he is not disgruntled and not out to get anyone. Belton says he is not the author of the anonymous letters.

He says he remembers Peebles' former assistant telling him she was having to perform numerous personal tasks for Peebles that were outside official duties. He says Peebles was not receptive to his warnings that such actions were improper.

Since she took over the superintendent's job last year, Peebles' brusque style has earned her a reputation for being intimidating and difficult to work with. In June, the school board directed Peebles to be more approachable to parents and employees.

At the same time, many black leaders rush to support Peebles, saying she has made great strides in improving schools in impoverished, mostly minority communities. The Rev. Randy Staten says the allegations are overblown.

"How in the world did this merit front page coverage? Wars are happening, people are being killed, strikes," Staten says. "How in the world does this, with all the information that's out there as far as this is concerned -- this much about nothing information -- how does this merit being on the front page of the newspaper?"

Staten attributes the allegations to a disgruntled employee, and says they play into a bias against Peebles by the media.

"We're talking about some people who are acting in a very vicious, malicious, harrassing kind of manner, with the overall objective is to replace Dr. Peebles," Staten says.

Peebles also wins qualified support from Louise Sundin, the president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Sundin says Peebles is highly qualified and has attracted significant talent to the district.

Sundin says she's waiting to read the investigator's report before making up her mind on the allegations.

"I'm trusting that they aren't true. If it were a teacher in that spot, I'd want to hear the actual report before I suspected the worst. I'm always hopeful for the best," says Sundin.

Sundin says Peebles seems to attract controversy, which can turn into a harmful distraction.

"The noise is a problem, and the teachers' trust is key to making progress. If teachers lose trust, or never gained that kind of trust in leadership, I think that is a problem," Sundin says.

The next major step toward gaining that trust comes after the outside investigator finishes looking into the allegations.