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St. Paul’s school board chair’s take on what led to breakup with Silva

Jon Schumacher: The board wanted a fresh look at how things might be restructured to raise student achievement during a period of dwindling financial resources.

Board Chair Jon Schumacher says he didn’t come into office this year intending to oust Superintendent Valeria Silva.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

In the wake of the St. Paul Public School board’s separation agreement with Superintendent Valeria Silva, a couple of major questions continue to loom over the district: Why, exactly, was Silva fired? And how does the board intend to change course?

Board Chair Jon Schumacher says he didn’t come into office this year intending to oust Silva. Even though he and his colleagues shared her vision for advancing equity work, he says, those who voted to fire her reached this juncture while tackling some complex financial items right off the bat, including the new facilities master plan, budget cuts and a new teacher contract. They wanted to start exploring alternative implementation strategies under the direction of a leader who’d be around long enough to see things through, beyond 2018, when Silva’s contract was set to expire.

The foundation of the district’s revised roadmap, however, will be largely established under the direction of Interim Superintendent John Thein since the process to hire a new superintendent, Schumacher says, may take the better part of a year. Once hired, the next leader will be responsible for executing the plan his or her bosses and predecessor crafted and will be held accountable for the outcomes. This process raises another important question: Will those most qualified for the position be willing to sign up to take full responsibility for a vision they didn’t help create?

As everyone continues to sort out the details of the breakup, Schumacher sat down with MinnPost this week to address both the board’s rationale for firing Silva and its roadmap for moving forward.

Mounting tensions lead to fractured leadership

First, a little background.

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While few dispute the value of Silva’s equity work, she’d recently encountered quite a bit of pushback on her strategies, which have been characterized by her critics as being too aggressive.

The Caucus for Change — the federation-organized DFL Party campaign that backed the new slate of board members  — added fuel to this discord last fall by connecting the wave of student-on-teacher assaults to Silva’s push to end the segregation of special education students and disproportionate suspension rates for students of color.

In effect, the conversation began to pivot away from improving student outcomes, especially for those who are traditionally underserved, to the politics of improving working conditions for teachers, both in terms of student discipline measures and pay increases. (In the latest teacher contract negotiations, the new board approved a 4 percent teacher pay raise totaling $21 million over the next two years, making the district’s teachers some of the highest paid in the state despite a $15 million budget deficit for the coming school year and a projected deficit of more than $20 million for the following year.)

Offering some context, Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says securing a school board seat used to be a much more nonpartisan affair. “There was a time in the past where … there weren’t endorsements by various groups for people running for the board. It was more of a bipartisan entity, being on the school board,” he said.

A number of onlookers have taken issue with the politicized nature of school board elections, including Sandy Vargas, the retiring CEO and president of the Minneapolis Foundation. She says conditions for children won’t improve unless board members are able to “get out of the business of politics” and agree upon some well-aligned philosophies and strategies with their next superintendent.

Schumacher’s perspective

Schumacher doesn’t quite see it the same way. He asserts that his commitment to students has not been compromised by those who backed his candidacy.

“I have always conducted myself with the understanding that my primary concern is for the students, period,” he said. “There is no obligation I feel toward any other group more than that.”

Valeria Silva
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson
Valeria Silva

Given the fact that he and the other three new board members had to play catch-up in the middle of the school year while the district was in the midst of making some major financial decisions, he says they’ve been asking a lot of questions to make sure they’re fully informed. This level of inquiry may have rubbed some the wrong way, he admits, since the new board majority was established under a campaign that had become quite oppositional in tone.

“I look at this as a pretty unique situation. That learning curve happened with this sort of backdrop,” he said. “I think it made it harder to form relations with the district in ways. With that narrative out there, people are weary: Who are these people? What are they about? I think the district tried very hard to share with us as much information as they can. We have asked a lot of questions. I think we felt the pressure acutely with these decisions that we’re making that have an enormous impact on the district not just this year, but for years to come.”

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An explanation for the split

Faced with some persistent issues like high remedial rates for graduates, decreasing enrollment numbers, and a growing budgetary deficit, Schumacher says the board immediately felt the pressure to rethink how the school system is run in order to improve student outcomes, especially in times of budgetary constraint.

“These challenges aren’t going away. They’re increasing,” he said. “However these things would have played out, everybody in the district understands that when you’ve had two years of large deficits and are looking at a third year, major change has to happen.”

Rather than attempt to usher in any major changes under Silva’s leadership, the board majority decided it was time to bring in new leadership for a couple of reasons. First, for a fresh take on how things might be restructured in a way that advances student achievement during a period of dwindling financial resources. Second, to establish more continuity in leadership to ensure the changes made over the course of the next couple years are being implemented and monitored by the same superintendent.

“The superintendent had told us that she was done in 2018. We wanted to have, we needed to have, that change happen now,” he said. “And so, [it was time] to put somebody in place who can help with that transition … like our interim, John Thein, who can come in with an outsider’s perspective, work with our staff to identify what is working, what’s not working,  and really set up that foundation.”

Once they bring on the new superintendent — hopefully within a year, he says — that person will be tasked with moving successful strategies forward — both those deemed effective under Silva’s tenure and those that have been modified.

That person will then be there “to make sure that those strategists continue to work and are played out beyond 2018 when the superintendent would have left,” he added.

He credits Silva with initiating the courageous conversations around race and equity that needed to start taking place in the district, but says change hasn’t come fast enough. What, exactly, the new roadmap looks like, however, remains to be seen.

This ambiguity didn’t sit well with Board Member Jean O’Connell, who resigned at the last meeting, on June 21, in protest of the board’s decision to fire Silva. In fact, in a recent interview with Minnesota Public Radio, she said it’s one of the main reasons she decided to resign.

“Before an organizational change happens, you need to be able to explain why, why now, and what’s the path forward? This board didn’t take the time to really clarify those pieces,” she told MPR. “And the process that brought us to [June 21] was not very transparent, even to board members, so I couldn’t support this decision in the end. It wasn’t about terminating Valeria, it was about the process.”

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Schumacher has a different take on the future of the district, even if the plan is not yet spelled out.

“Superintendents make and build strategies,” he said, noting the board simply oversees this work. “I’m looking forward to working with our interim and our staff to figure out what that looks like.”

The interim leader

Not even a full year into retirement, Thein, the 17-year veteran superintendent of Roseville Area Schools, agreed to help the neighboring St. Paul school district by temporarily resuming the role he knows best: leading a diverse school district.

During his tenure in Roseville, the district went from serving a student body that was 82 percent white to serving more than 3,700 minority students, roughly half of the student population during the 2014-15 school year.

As the interim superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, Thein’s expertise will be put to the test as he keeps the district moving forward during this transition period. It’s a task that most observers — both those disappointed to see Silva ousted and those in support of the move — seem to think he’s more than capable of handling. And since he’s worked with Silva in the past, there’s good reason to believe the two can work in collaboration while Silva stays on in an advisory role.

John Thein
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
As the interim superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, John Thein’s expertise will be put to the test as he keeps the district moving forward during this transition period.

“Valeria is a very passionate and creative person. I know that I will gain from that passion and experience. We have a good working relationship and I don’t expect that to change in any way,” Thein said at a press conference last week.

In addition to the mutual respect Thein and Silva have for each other, Schumacher highlights Thein’s commitment to racial equity as added assurance that this important work will continue under new leadership.

The school board has yet to announce a timeline or process for the superintendent search and for filling O’Connell’s seat on the board. Some of those details may be hashed out during the board’s upcoming July 7 retreat.

At this point, Schumacher can’t confirm whether the board will hire a search firm, or give a deadline. But he’s adament about the role the community will play in the process.  

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“We have to work with the community to figure out ways to make sure there is community engagement,” he said. “That’s going to be an important element for us. We have no interest in having some sort of a closed process.”