St. Louis Park School Board selects Astein Osei as next superintendent

After an exhaustive process, the search for a new St. Louis Park School District superintendent had to wait a little longer while consultants drove to the winning candidate’s house to wake him up.

After a Wednesday evening debate in which board members gradually shifted their support toward Osseo Area Schools Assistant Supt. Astein Osei, the board sought to contact Osei repeatedly to no avail.

Astein Osei (Photo courtesy of Osseo Area Schools)

Board members joked about singing the St. Louis Park High School song outside his house near Peter Hobart Elementary School, but representatives from search firm School Exec Connect made the trip instead.

“This is the first time this has happened, and we’ve only done 60-some searches in Minnesota alone,” said Patty Phillips, a retired superintendent who serves as a School Exec Connect consultant.

When they arrived, they found the lights out. After consulting with a neighbor, they confirmed Osei lived in the house and eventually woke him up to let him know he should contact School Board Chair Jim Yarosh.

When Yarosh received Osei’s call at about 10:50 p.m., Yarosh told him the board had been deliberating but had one more question for Osei.

“All right,” Osei responded.

Yarosh asked him if he would be willing to enter into negotiations to be the next district superintendent.

Osei replied, “Wow, you know what, absolutely. That’s the best news I’ve heard of.”

Yarosh joked, “We were wondering because we were having a hard time getting a hold of you.”

When Osei admitted he had fallen asleep, an amused Yarosh responded, “That’s quite a slumber. Congratulations. I tell you, we really are super excited. We really had a tough decision with really good candidates, so it’s a credit to you to get this offer.”

Osei replied, “Thank you. I’m absolutely honored. I’m excited, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to come to St. Louis Park.”

Yarosh said, “We’ll let you get back to sleep. It’s been a tough couple of days for everyone. Again, congratulations, and we all look forward to seeing you soon and hopefully get the contract formalities behind us and start getting started on our bond referendum and our work.”

After the call ended, Yarosh remarked, “All right, that’s classic,” as other school board members and district staff members cheered the conclusion of the search process.

The board picked three finalists after interviewing six candidates May 3 and 4. In addition to Osei, the board selected Eric Melbye, assistant superintendent at Bloomington Public Schools, and Michael Thomas, chief of academics and leadership at Minneapolis Public Schools.

Throughout the day May 8, 9 and 10, one finalist per day met with multiple groups of stakeholders, conducted a question-and-answer session with community members, and had dinner with board members and a formal interview with the board.

Debate over selection

After the board wrapped up the final interview with Thomas, they debated the merits of the finalists. Yarosh told Thomas during the interview that Thomas had made the selection difficult. In an initial, informal vote, only one vote divided Thomas and Osei. However, after a debate, a new informal vote showed Osei leading 5-2. The board followed up with a formal, unanimous vote agreeing to enter into negotiations with Osei before they attempted to call him with the news.

Board members who supported Osei early on in the discussions cited his energetic style.

Boardmember Ken Morrison said, “I felt that he communicated extremely well to all parties, and his energy kept me engaged all the time.”

Morrison said Osei would be able to relate to everyone from teachers to custodians.

“They felt that he would be able to work with all people very well without letting them feel that he’s superior to them,” Morrison said. “He would be more like a coworker to them, leading them through our journey as he leads them through their journey.”

Boardmember Bruce Richardson said he had been leaning toward Thomas until he watched Osei interact with people during the district’s selection process.

“I just watched him, how he related to people and to the group and others,” Richardson said. “There was a lot of depth, a lot of heart there.”

Boardmember Karen Waters said she liked Osei’s energy as well but that she had not chose him as her choice initially because he has young children. Referring to retiring Supt. Rob Metz, Waters said, “I’ve heard Rob say it’s very hard to do this job at a high, high level. He didn’t think he could do it if his kids weren’t out of the nest. We’re going to ask a lot of this person.”

However, Boardmember Nancy Gores responded, “I hear what you’re saying, Karen, but I really think that’s his call.”

However, Gores expressed mixed views initially about her choice.

“I love Astein,” Gores said. “He’s just so charismatic. Love can be blind, and I don’t think we’re blind and he will do a good job. But I don’t think he’s ready.”

She initially supported Thomas, who she called a serious leader with more depth and knowledge. Thomas knew more about core instructional principles and had more experience in coaching principals, she added.

Boardmember Joe Tatalovich said he had supported Thomas after the first round of interviews but changed his mind to support Osei because of the way Osei connected with people. He said he believed the superintendent’s cabinet members could help him in areas in which he has less experience than Thomas.

“I think we have the foundations there to protect against any sort of issues we might have with someone who is a little greener,” Tatalovich said.

Gores said she likes Osei but said, “The core instruction has to be there, too.”

Morrison said Thomas is pragmatic and “a great academic.” But Richardson said of Thomas, “I think he’s more an administrator than he is a leader. I think we need a leader here.”

The difference in demeanor between the two leading candidates arose often in the discussion.

“When I did the initial scoring, Michael scored higher just on his technical capabilities, but I have to say Astein was very impressive in this marathon,” Waters said. “His level of energy was quite good throughout the whole thing. Michael is very laid-back.”

Yarosh said Thomas provided concrete examples of how ideas he had helped implement had improved the academic progress of Somali students, in particular, in Minneapolis schools.

Boardmember Jim Beneke added, “He had definitive ideas we could try.”

Waters said she had reviewed all of the public input forms, which stood about a foot high on the table in the conference room where the board members deliberated.

“A lot of them were very pro-Astein – hire him tomorrow; when can he start?’” said Waters, who noted that some also supported Thomas.

Waters said she had thought as an observer that the decision to hire Metz had been “just so crystal clear,” but that between Thomas and Osei “either one is going to be stellar.”

Yarosh suggested board members take a walk to think about their choices, and when they returned Waters had announced she had decided to support Osei.

To Gores, Waters said, “Thank you, Nancy, for saying it’s not my call on his little kids. I want to be bold.”

Beneke said that the decision had been an extremely close call to begin with but that he, too, had decided to support Osei.

“Part of our equity work is crushing institutional racism, and I think he probably is the person to do that with his energy,” Beneke said.

With a clear majority favoring Osei for the position, the rest of the board decided to also provide him with their support.

Before the vote, Yarosh said, “I just want to talk about the quality of the candidates again and how tough of a decision it was. It’s a good problem to have because it’s so important to us and to them.”

If contract negotiations are successful, Osei would begin after Metz’s retirement becomes official at the end of June.

Metz plans to begin a new role as deputy director of Building Assets, Reducing Risks, a nonprofit center that began as a program at St. Louis Park High School.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]