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Six years ago, Minneapolis school board members described the man they hired to lead the state's third-largest school district as calm and reserved. Superintendent Ed Graff's soft-spoken demeanor, one board member said then, could be an asset amid politically charged conflicts.

But his tenure, which ends Thursday, has been anything but quiet or calm.

Under Graff's leadership, Minneapolis schools underwent a sweeping and controversial redesign that moved thousands of students to different schools and its teachers went on strike for the first time in more than half a century. Those disruptions came alongside the teaching, staffing and safety challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest and racial reckoning following George Floyd's murder. Enrollment has fallen from more than 35,000 to about 28,000 students in the years that Graff has been at the helm, further stressing a district budget recently balanced with one-time federal relief funds and millions in cuts. And the longstanding achievement gap between white students and students of color persists.

Graff, who doesn't live in the city, has faced pointed and often personal criticism from students, parents and teachers who saw him as the face of the division and dysfunction in the district. Others, however, said Graff was a humble and intentional superintendent dedicated to listening and implementing necessary changes.

Several board members at the most recent board meeting — Graff's last — praised him for his integrity through such tumult.

Board Member Kimberly Caprini told Graff he had brought them through the last six years like a champ, "and I don't care what anybody else says about it."

Graff's comments were brief, as usual, that night.

"I'm profoundly grateful and humbled to have been given the chance to serve Minneapolis Public Schools," he said, adding his thanks to the board, his administrative team, staff and educators in the district.

Graff has not said what is next for him. As the district's leader, he's shared little about his personal life and mostly avoided interviews with the media. When he did speak publicly, he often read from prepared statements and delivered his message in a muted, even tone.

'Difficult decision' to leave

Graff is originally from Bemidji, but moved around the country as the child of two teachers, spending time at American Indian reservations in South Dakota and at Native villages in Alaska. He was a teacher, principal and administrator in Alaska, serving as the Anchorage superintendent before taking the top job in Minneapolis.

In a statement to the Star Tribune, Graff said his time with the district "has been filled with successes, challenges and learning experiences."

"I could not predict what would come of our schools, our community or our country when I came to Minneapolis six years ago," he wrote, adding that students demonstrated "sheer tenacity and brilliance through the work they accomplished during the unrest of the past two years."

Graff said he's proud of reducing the number of racially identified schools in the district, relocating magnet schools toward the center of the city, creating pathways for students to study Hmong and Somali language and culture, and mandating ethnic studies courses for graduating seniors.

Graff wrote that choosing not to renew his contract — which the board had approved in a split vote — was a "difficult decision." Rochelle Cox, an associate superintendent in the district, will step in as interim superintendent for the 2022-2023 school year.

"Rochelle is student-centered, strategic and focused — and I know she will be an exceptional bridge to MPS's next permanent superintendent," Graff wrote.

Greta Callahan, teacher chapter president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said she's also looking forward to Cox stepping into the role.

"Graff is an incredibly top-down leader," she said. "The numbers speak for themselves. He's driven people out of this district — teachers and students. ... At the end of the day, maybe some of [the situations] he faced felt out of his control, but you have to as a leader work with the people affected by what's happening."

Board Member Adriana Cerrillo said she didn't often see Graff out in her community and felt he was personally sensitive to criticism but so publicly reserved that people didn't get to know him.

"We have to show our humanity to others in order to make that connection and to build relationships, even with people we disagree with," Cerrillo said.

Francisco Segovia, a Minneapolis parent and executive director of Copal, a nonprofit aimed at helping the state's Latino community, agreed.

"[Graff] was someone who was able to keep his composure," Segovia said. "And I think he was a little shy to some extent, or at least that's what it looked like. That can come across as unapproachable."

Graff's departure should be a time of reflection for the district, Segovia said.

"This is a moment to think about how all the leaders did or did not do the job they needed to," he said. "So Graff moves on, but what are the ongoing consequences? What happens to us, our kids and our families?"

Recognition of service

At Graff's final board meeting, before dozens of students, parents and teachers spoke out against budget cuts that were ultimately approved that night, three women stepped forward to present the superintendent with a gift.

Lucie Skjefte, chair of the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee, draped a gray and blue star quilt across Graff's shoulders as Louise Matson, executive director of the Division of Indian Work, thanked Graff for working with Native American families and teachers.

Skjefte said she chose the color palette of soft blues and greens "to bring calm back into his world." She described Graff as a humble leader who came to committee meetings and community events to listen.

Superintendent Ed Graff, along with School Board Member Kimberly Caprini, left, and board Chair Kim Ellison, right, at a meeting in November.
Superintendent Ed Graff, along with School Board Member Kimberly Caprini, left, and board Chair Kim Ellison, right, at a meeting in November.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Over the last few years, the district has made efforts toward visibility and awareness of its Native American students: Each board meeting and event now begins with an acknowledgment that the district sits on traditional Dakota homelands. And the flags of 11 federally recognized tribes in Minnesota are on display in the board room and at each school. Those ideas came from Jennifer Simon, the district's director of Indian Education, who said she always had Graff's support.

"There's been so much criticism of him," Simon said. "But the man is a human, he has a spirit. ... His spirit needs to be recognized after serving our kids and families in the ways he did for as long as he did."

At the end of Graff's final board meeting, which included hourslong debate and a split vote from a divided board, he quietly ducked out of the board chambers, the quilt folded under his arm.