Brainerd Board offers superintendent job to Hahn, who has yet to accept offer
As of Friday afternoon, Hahn could not be reached for comment but had not publicly accepted the position.
BRAINERD — Heidi Hahn is still deciding if she will accept the job as the next superintendent of Brainerd Public Schools.
After more than three hours of deliberation, Brainerd School Board members voted 4-2 in the early hours of Friday, April 15, to offer Hahn, the district’s current assistant superintendent, the job.
The deliberation — which was livestreamed on YouTube — saw three board members advocating for Hahn and three others lobbying for Eric Schneider, the chief academic officer of Chicago-based education company EdIncites. Board Chair Ruth Nelson ultimately switched her vote, choosing Hahn along with Charles Black Lance, Jana Shogren and Sarah Speer. Tom Haglin and Kevin Boyles voted against the motion to enter into contract negotiations with Hahn after strongly advocating for what they characterized as Schneider’s innovative leadership.
When Nelson called Hahn to give her the news after midnight, Hahn said she needed some time to think, as the district deserves a leader who has the support of the whole board.
Friday afternoon, Hahn said she talked to Nelson earlier in the day but was still waiting to make her decision.
“I’m very appreciative that the district went into such an in-depth discussion, and so that’s just given me a lot to reflect on,” Hahn said. “And so I’ve asked to just have some further conversation with School Board members prior to making my decision. … My intent is just that if I can navigate a couple more conversations, then I can make a decision.”
Nelson said she assured Hahn she fully supported her after Thursday’s meeting.
Friday morning, Schneider submitted a letter to board members withdrawing his name from consideration.
“As I write this letter, Dr. Hahn has not yet accepted your offer. Therefore, I am officially withdrawing my candidacy and encouraging you to reconsider your vote with the goal of providing Dr. Hahn the clear mandate she will need to be successful. At some point in the near future, I hope to offer my congratulations to Dr. Hahn, and wish her the best in guiding the school district forward,” Schneider wrote.
“Again, thank you for all that you are doing to build a better future for Brainerd. After a day filled with tough questions and courageous conversations, I left Brainerd with a high level of respect for the challenges ahead as well as the people who will face them. Thank you for your commitment to students and for your service to the Brainerd community.”
Schneider also expressed his gratitude for being considered for the job and praised the district’s work to advance equity in its schools.
“I realize that in many communities this can be a divisive topic, but after speaking with a number of stakeholder groups - especially Brainerd's students - I feel there is a deep need to create a more welcoming environment where ALL students feel seen, heard, and valued,” Schneider wrote. “In my comments during the final interview, I wish I would have placed a stronger emphasis on how important I feel this work is. I hope that by sharing this thought with you afterward, and by encouraging you to prioritize this work, it may help in some small way.”
Nelson began deliberations by saying she struggled between the two for her top choice but ultimately felt Schneider understood the district’s declining enrollment and knew how to get students back.
But she said both candidates were very dynamic, and Hahn obviously has passion for the district and is someone board members all know and love.
“I could be moved either way based on the discussion,” Nelson said, noting she ranked Schneider only one point higher than Hahn based on the items laid out in the superintendent profile created through a series of surveys and focus group interviews before the search began.
Shogren said she took a similar approach, ranking the candidates based on the profile, but came out with Hahn one point higher.
Haglin spoke highly of Schneider’s vision and how his innovation could catapult the district into a bright future, moving Brainerd from good to great.
“From the beginning, I thought Eric was very dynamic. And I think he’s the type of individual that can take us from where we are to what I have a vision of, and that’s much more than what our district is today,” Haglin said.
“I have a deep, tremendous respect for Heidi — well-respected in the community, certainly supportive. She bleeds blue. She’s done a wonderful job, and I think she would certainly do a fine job in continuing to lead the district. … But I think we have such a wonderful opportunity to really advance our district into something special, something different, and to really step out of the norm.”
Haglin said Schneider’s vision, paired with Hahn’s strengths as assistant superintendent, gives the district an opportunity to be transformational and move “in a really cool direction.”
Speer ranked Hahn as her No. 1 choice partially based on her 26 years of investment in relationships with those in the Brainerd community.
“I do see in her the ideas and the desire to build a plan and to have accountability within the district in a way that we’re not seeing today,” Speer said. “... I think she would have a headstart on that because she is so well-loved within the district. I think it would be a little bit more of a challenge for somebody coming in, not to say that it couldn’t happen, but I think it could go a number of different ways to bring that amount of change into a district.”
Speer said she believes Hahn could bring ideas the district hasn’t yet seen, which prompted Haglin to ask why the district hasn’t seen any of those ideas.
Speer said she’s not sure if it was Hahn’s place as assistant superintendent to bring those ideas forward but still feels she has them in her. Shogren added the board has also been complicit in not specifically asking for ideas relating to a strategic plan or increasing enrollment. While Haglin said he isn’t placing the blame on Hahn, bringing forward ideas is something the district should be able to expect from all of its leaders.
Black Lance chimed in, saying he believed Hahn had the importance of students embedded into her answers, which is important.
“Now of course, a person that’s going to have some financial chops is important, and that needs to be part of the analytics, but I don’t believe that’s more important than a person that’s going to keep students at the focus, at the center of what we do as a school district,” Black Lance said.
Black Lance also spoke of trust, which he said should be paramount to all aspects of education. While there were eyebrow-raising aspects to answers from all candidates, the one thing he said he never raised an eyebrow at was trust for Hahn.
Shogren and Speer also spoke of trust issues with Schneider, seemingly stemming from his resignation from the Minnetonka School District, where he served as an associate superintendent until 2020. Schneider resigned during a closed session of the Minnetonka School Board.
Specific details of the resignation were not clear, but board members referenced Schneider's work as a consultant for other school districts during his associate superintendent service as a contributing factor. Schneider previously told the School Board his contract allowed this work, but he ultimately came to a point where he had to choose between consulting and working in a public school setting, and he chose the former.
Though Schneider disclosed the resignation on his superintendent application and sought to clear the air when asked about it in his interview, Black Lance said Schneider was never able to fully earn his trust.
Black Lance said he hoped, through discussion, he could learn of something he missed that would help him to trust Schneider. Haglin asked where the mistrust came from and if he missed something, as he felt Schneider was forthcoming on his Minnetonka resignation. While it may not necessarily be Schneider’s fault, Black Lance said he still did not have all the answers he needed.
Boyles said it came down to a coin flip for him between the two candidates. He felt Schneider would bridge the existing gap between many communities, though he meant no disrespect to Hahn in saying that.
Boyles added he thinks students being the center of everything the district does is implied, including in budgeting processes and enrollment. He also echoed Haglin’s thoughts, saying the prospect of Schneider and Hahn working together was exhilarating.
While bringing in someone with new ideas comes with risks, Boyles said he also feared continuing on at the status quo — not that Hahn would necessarily be that kind of a leader, he said, but even if a new person is uncomfortable, that’s often where the most growth comes from.
Nelson said at the beginning of deliberations she could likely be swayed to vote for Hahn, as they were very close in her calculations. Boyles said early on in the night if Hahn ended up the choice, he would be behind her 100%, but when the vote came, he stuck with his choice for Schneider.
Diversity, equity and inclusion also factored into the decision, with Black Lance saying he liked Hahn’s answer to the question of successful work in that field more than Schneider’s.
Hahn said successful diversity, equity and inclusion work should be continuous and should be naturally embedded into everything the district does to the point no student or staff member in the district feels less than anyone else or excluded from anything.
Schneider said that work needs to be done in partnership with the community, and the district should work at the community’s pace rather than moving at a faster pace than is comfortable for some.
Black Lance said the reality is there are certain things some people will never be comfortable with, so sometimes the district does need to push ahead.
Boyles, however, said he took Schneider’s answer to mean that if the district goes in with the mentality of a bull in a china shop, there is going to be resistance. The worst way to motivate himself, Boyles said, is pushing him before he is ready.
Black Lance countered that point, asking how long the district should wait for something that will make students feel safe.
As deliberations continued, board members spoke of strategic plans, declining enrollment, financial issues and curriculum, but for those on Hahn’s side, it always came back to trust.
Shogren also weighed the candidates’ energy levels, noting Hahn kept saying throughout the day Tuesday that it was one of the best days she had ever had, being in the schools, meeting with students, parents and other community members. While Shogren said Schneider answered the questions relating to his Minnetonka resignation well, he seemed deflated at the end of his interview. She mentioned his quote at the end of the interview: “I have a pretty good understanding of where I sit, and I’ll just say that I’ve really enjoyed learning about Brainerd, and I’m going to be cheering for you guys no matter what.”
To her, Shogren said that sounded like Schneider was throwing in the towel, whereas she wanted someone who would fight for Brainerd until the end.
After hours of deliberation with no apparent movement on either side, Nelson took the reins by asking everyone how they would feel if their second choice was chosen for the job.
If Hahn were chosen, Haglin and Boyles had the following comments:
Haglin: “This has nothing to do with Heidi, but we’re missing out on opportunities. Would I be comfortable? Yeah, we’ll be alright. We can continue on. … I think you need a unique individual to have fantastic transformation.”
Boyles: “I think the staff would be in good hands. I think they would be made comfortable — not in love with that concept, haven’t been since I got elected. … Staff in good hands, probably not challenged as they should be. That’s my gut — I can’t prove that. Kids, great hands. Nobody loves the students more than Heidi does. I think we lose students.”
If Schneider were chosen, Speer, Shogren and Black Lance had the following comments:
Speer: “I’d have a hard time. I just have a lot of trust issues. … Feelings I got in the first interview from some of the responses, and not that they weren’t great responses, they just felt a little disingenuous, and I was not on board.”
Shogren: “I would struggle with it. … Maybe there’s some really great long-term potential in it — maybe. But I think the risk is higher. I would struggle.”
Black Lance: “I would have to be able to go home and tell my three kids who was chosen. … I would have to tell them that it wasn’t necessarily something that I was on board with. … It would be hard for me to share with them that we’re bringing on a candidate that I don’t trust, that I have significant questions on in terms of accountability.”
After a short recess, Nelson answered the question herself, saying she can see three board members have trust issues with Schneider but still believes he and Hahn would work together.
After more discussion, during which Haglin said he believes if the district doesn’t hire a transformational leader like Schneider there will be more enrollment and financial issues, likely pushing the board to eventually decide which elementary school to shut down, Nelson gave some final thoughts.
“It’s late. I see three board members that have a lack of trust,” Nelson said. “I have trust in both of these and would love to see Eric join our group, but I will vote for Heidi because I love her, too, and I think she’ll do a great job.”
The School Board interviewed a third candidate, Red Wing Superintendent Karsten Anderson, Thursday before beginning deliberations.
Anderson has also served as superintendent in Watertown-Mayer and Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley. None of the board members, though, chose him as their top choice.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.