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Lisa Sayles-Adams' career as an educator began in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and she will return to the district as its next superintendent.

The school board voted 8 to 1 on Friday to name her the sole finalist for the job, citing her experience in Minnesota and knowledge of Minneapolis, in addition to her ability to build trust and measure progress.

Board Chair Sharon El-Amin said Sayles-Adams, currently the superintendent of the Eastern Carver County Schools, pledged to listen, learn and lead.

"That is what we need in our district," El-Amin said. "She brings an abundance of experience. She brings a connection with the community: She was a teacher in Minneapolis public schools, and her children attended Minneapolis public schools."

Sayles-Adams was chosen over Sonia Stewart, deputy superintendent of Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"I am so honored and delighted to be selected as the next superintendent for Minneapolis Public Schools," Sayles-Adams said in an interview after her selection. "This is certainly a dream job."

Her start date and salary will be negotiated as part of her contract, which the board must also approve, likely at its December meeting. The board said Friday that it wants to offer Sayles-Adams "regionally competitive" compensation.

Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox's salary was $230,000, the same amount that former Superintendent Ed Graff was earning when he left the district in 2022.

Cox's extended term officially ends at the end of June 2024, but her contract includes a clause stating that, with mutual consent, it can end early if a permanent superintendent is ready to start before July.

No matter the start date, the new superintendent is entering a district facing numerous challenges, requiring a leader ready to make tough decisions.

District staff members have long warned of a looming fiscal crisis, exacerbated by the 2024 sunsetting of millions in federal pandemic relief. And the board is in discussions about a "district transformation" that could include closing and consolidating schools. The city's schools now serve fewer than 28,000 students but have capacity for more than 40,000.

In answering questions this week about why they were drawn to Minneapolis Public Schools, both candidates said they were up to the task and ready to make tough choices.

Stewart pointed to the district's strategic plan and mission statement as top reasons she wanted the job.

For Sayles-Adams, coming to Minneapolis Public Schools as a leader would be "full circle" and like "coming home," she said in her interview with the board.

"I am ready to come back to where I started because I know that I can help," said Sayles-Adams, 54.

She started her career in the city's public schools in the late 1990s and served as a teacher and coordinator before becoming a principal of City Alternative High School.

Sayles-Adams then served as a principal in schools in Georgia before returning to Minnesota, where she worked as a principal in St. Paul Public Schools before becoming an assistant superintendent. After five years in that role, she became an assistant superintendent in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District and in 2020, took the helm at Eastern Carver County Schools, which serves about 9,600 students.

She has a doctorate in educational leadership from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and completed her dissertation on African American women principals.

She is the niece of former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, the first African American and first female to be mayor of the city.

Lengthy search, strong candidates

The district's search for its next permanent superintendent has stretched for more than a year. The board decided in January to delay the process to allow for more community engagement and extended Cox's interim superintendent contract. If she serves in her role until the end of June 2024, Cox will have led the district for two years.

The district's contracts with permanent superintendents are typically for three years.

"Hiring a superintendent is the single most important decision a board makes," El-Amin said Friday. "While our search has taken longer than others, it was important that we get this right."

Twenty-five candidates from 16 states applied for the job, she said.

Though board members said both women were strong candidates, the difference came down to Sayles-Adams' understanding of the community and public education in Minnesota.

"She's a holder of history," Board Member Joyner Emerick said. "She's here to continue on work she's been doing for a long time, and I would be honored to partner with her."

Board Member Ira Jourdain cast the sole vote against Sayles-Adams' selection. Jourdain and Board Member Adriana Cerrillo had expressed support for Stewart before the vote.

Jourdain said he was impressed by both candidates but believes the district needs an "outsider with a fresh set of eyes."

He referenced disparities in standardized test scores between white students and students of color in Eastern Carver County under Sayles-Adams' leadership.

"I worry that we're just getting more of the same, but hopefully, she'll bring a new perspective," Jourdain said.

In a statement after the meeting, Stewart wrote that it was "a privilege" to be a finalist.

"I was immediately drawn to this community's aspirations for the future — strong investment in public education, a fierce commitment to equity, and a unique focus on the individual strengths of every student," she wrote.

Board Member Collin Beachy said he struggled to choose between the two candidates but thought Sayles-Adams was the best suited to rebuild trust and heal the district after years marked by the pandemic, a teachers strike and rapidly declining enrollment.

"We have someone who already knows Minneapolis and loves Minneapolis and believes in Minneapolis," he said.

On Friday, El-Amin called Sayles-Adams after the board's vote and Sayles-Adams again assured her — as she did in her interview — that she wants the job "for the long haul."

"I'm ready for the challenge ahead," Sayles-Adams said in the interview after the meeting. "I'm excited."

Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this story.