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

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

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.

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.”

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.”

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.  

“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.”

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 06/30/2016 - 11:26 am.

    School Boards

    There has to be a better way to run a school district than politically backed school board members. I have lived in 3 states, and about 9 different school districts and all seem to have the same problem with infighting among themselves, the superintendents and the teachers, all the while spending millions of dollars of taxpayers money to reach there agenda’s, which never seem to be met because many times they are voted out in the next election, or resign and the cycle starts over again. It is my belief that we need to find a better way to run school districts and eliminate the wasteful spending of minor politicians who in a lot of cases have no management experience or experience in education at all.

    If a public company changed directions as often as a school district does, the stockholders would start demanding replacing the board of directors. I have no dog in this fight as I currently live in Wisconsin, but in the city I am living in the school board has the same infighting going on. My children are grown adults and have kids of their own, none live in MN. My observation after years of watching is that their has to be some type of change in over all management in running a school district. It would be interesting to know how many millions of dollars have been wasted by school boards firing superintendents for nothing more than a political agenda.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/30/2016 - 11:43 am.

    First things first

    The board chairs thinks one needs to put students first, and not pay the same attention to any other issue. That sounds a lot like “patient centered care” that healthcare leaders talk about … but have a lot of trouble putting into practice and achieving without the doctors, nurses and other clinicians on board.

    I think the first priority is a concept – great learning outcomes for all students, which means they are prepared to work, have friends and families, take good care of themselves and be lifelong learners, which will make them prepared to all the disappointments and gut-wrenching changes they will experience.

    That only happens when students, parents, teachers and communities are working together in safe learning environments. Students cannot face racism, sexism, bullying or violence. Parents have to have and use their time and resources to support education. Teachers need to be qualified, rewarded, motivated and supported – feeling safe to do their jobs. Communities need to quit making excuses and increase funding of education. There is no better investment for our future.

    Most of our current challenges reflect a population that is too frustrated to manage their challenges. In fact, our students are for the most part very bright and motivated by the things that matter to them. When they see teachers assaulted and the adults not know how to handle it, what lessons are they learning.

    We are all teachers in our own way, but how many of us function without a lesson plan. We really need as adults quit arguing and start working together to build a better system with profoundly better outcomes for students. That will prepare these students to do more of the same when they are the adults.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/30/2016 - 12:02 pm.

    I hate to say it but…

    This article doesn’t really clarify anything because it avoids the main issues. If the board has become politicized you need to discuss the politics in play. If the board hasn’t become politicized then you need to discuss why some people think it has, either way you can’t avoid the actual politics altogether and still provide substance.

    The story only gets murkier when Schumacker defends Silva’s dismissal by claiming that an “interim” retired guy who will do the same job for same time period (until 2018) will provide more continuity than Silva, why would you make that assumption? Why would you assume that changes enacted under Thein will more durable than changes enacted under Silva? Nor does it makes sense that canning the existing SI who’s already committed to change and bringing a new guy will jump start the change process unless Silva was resisting change and the article doesn’t make that claim. What kind of vetting process selected Thein as the new SI anyways? The fact that the school system is at a critical juncture with dwindling resources just makes the act of bringing in a new guy from a different city for two years even more bizarre on the face of it.

    You don’t fire an SI for theoretical reasons so either politics played a role in this or some weekend seminar on management theory has run amok in the St. Paul School district. It would nice if someone wrote an article about it.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/30/2016 - 12:12 pm.

    And by they way…

    Why do they have dwindling resources? Why don’t they have adequate resources?

    • Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 06/30/2016 - 04:45 pm.

      Something is terribly wrong

      The severance deal with Valeria Silva will cost the district about $787,500 in salary and benefits. I think this calls for a more in depth investigation. nearly 800 million for a severance package?? What is going on, sounds not only fishy, but criminal.

      • Submitted by Tim Milner on 06/30/2016 - 06:24 pm.

        to be clear

        Silva had a 3 year contract. That contract specified that she would be paid in full should the Board relieve her from her duties without cause. This is a common contract cause incorporated to protect superintendents from school board politics.

        She was asked to resign, declined, and was relieved from her duties. There is no severance payment – just payment for the signed contract.

        The real elephant in the room, one that continues to be avoided, is why did 5 members of the school board feel so strongly that Silva, recently evaluated and rewarded with a new 3 year contract, needed to be relieved of her duties now, without cause, less than 9 months later at a cost of $787,500?

        Waiting for a clear answer on that one.

      • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 06/30/2016 - 08:02 pm.

        Former St. Paul board cost district millions

        The former St Paul School Board, led by Mary Doran, cost the district millions. Doran, Anne Carroll, Keith Hardy, and Jean O’Connell didn’t question Silva’s strategies even as thousands of students (2/3 of whom were students of color and students from low income families who live in St. Paul decided to attend other public schools, rather than SPPS.)

        Then this unfortunate board ignored growing city-wide frustrations in the spring of 2015 and gave Silva a 3 year contract. They should have given her at most a 12-18 month contract. Instead they gave her a 3 year contract with very expensive buy out procedures. They did a terrible job of protecting students and the public.

        This helped lead to the rejection at the city-wide DFL convention (none of the incumbents received more than 25% of the vote)

        Some of the parents and students who challenged Silva wrote a column that the Star Tribune published yesterday. None of them/us are members of the teachers union.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 07/01/2016 - 08:39 am.

          The Union cost the SPPS Millions.

          The “failures” that Mr. Nathan comes up with in every posting are a new set of “horror” stories manufactured by Union supporters to create this impression that right after Ms. Silva started running the schools everything went down the toilet.

          1) Enrollment at Minneapolis and St. Paul have been declining due to charter schools. For that I reference you to an article written by …….Joe Nathan in 2012. Yes Mr Nathan spoke of the trend in 2012. But suddenly now enrollment declines are due to Ms. Silva.

          2) “city-wide frustrations” are nothing more than Union manufactured frustrations. Sure the Union wanted to create the impression that something is bad, so they start manufacturing the “horror” stories. However, when you examine each “horror” story or “horror” article it does not pan out.

          3) Read the article linked Mr Nathan post. It’s another set of “horror” stories. Mr Nathan is one of the authors, It has flawed assertions similar to ones posted on this site. However when you challenge any or each of those assertions, you’ll get no response from the “education experts”.

          All this points to one thing. Ms. Silva was subject to a hatchet job. And now the Union and its supporters are trying to shift the blame for millions of dollars in wasted money onto her.

          • Submitted by Richard Rowan on 07/01/2016 - 10:52 am.

            If you look at the facts

            If you look at statistics from 2009, you will see that a number of schools that had been making progress and were no longer counted as failing schools are once again failing. Dayton’s Bluff is a prime example. You want to blame the Union but the facts say the issues are not manufactured. What did the previous Board and Ms. Silva accomplish? Not much, and their policies contributed to a real deterioration of conditions. The Union had no problems with contracts between the Board and the Union – why would they manufacture horror stories and risk their negotiating positions on contracts they were basically happy with? The reason is that conditions in the schools had reached a point that parents and staff felt was intolerable.

            To Mr. Maddali’s points:

            1. Although not the only reason, recent enrollment increases in charter schools was in part due to Ms. Silva’s and the previous Board’s policies, as was the increase in numbers of SPPS students attending other districts. Although anecdotal, I know a number of parents to took their kids out of St. Paul schools because they did not feel that their kids were safe.

            2. Having spent the last 4 years volunteering in an SPPS school, I can assure you the horror stories were not manufactured. I saw the chaos and impossible conditions first hand. And if you truly examined the horror stories, you would see that they do pan out. I saw teachers and students assaulted and until last year it was not uncommon to see the assaulter back in class an hour later and committing another assault the next day.

            3. What flawed assertions? Provide some facts that show they are flawed assertions rather than just asserting that they are flawed.

            Throwing around accusations like ‘hatchet job’ and blaming ‘the Union’ is an attempt to deflect from the real issues that were causing the problems that resulted in a wholesale makeover of the Board. I believe the issue was trying to implement a vision without adequate planning for implementation. It was irresponsible of the previous Board to extend Ms. Silva’s contract when they knew that 3 of those Board members were not running for re-election and a 4th was in a contested election and Ms. Silva’s contract would not expire until after that election. A one year extension would have been a much more responsible action from a fiduciary point of view. I question the previous Board’s motivation.

          • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 07/01/2016 - 10:58 am.

            Exodus of thousands of students

            Exodus from the district was not made up by the union – it’s a fact.

            SPPS district could have moved ahead to give district teachers an opportunity to create new schools, as the Boston Public Schools did (Pilot Schools). The old board passed a policy saying the district could do this but Silva said she did not want to. So it didn’t.

            When the only board member to regularly question Silva pointed out that she had set a goal of increasing enrollment by 5,000, she denied it. He said she had, and both Silva and her “fellow CEO”, Michelle Walker rudely asserted that they had not done so. I was at the meeting & did a quick google search. I found two articles one in the Strib, one in the Pioneer Press, that said she had set such a goal. Then the Star Tribune printed a story about the incident:

            Having talked with families all over the city who left in frustration because of policies Silva demanded, I’ll respectfully disagree. There are many reasons that families left, but the district has refused to explain what percentage of families that are leaving it interviewed or surveyed to see why they are leaving.

            My expectation is that the new board will work hard to increase enrollment. It already sent a clear message by over-ruling Silva’s recommendations for more than $7 million in cuts to schools and instead made more central administration cuts.

            Incidentally, I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with teacher unions (having worked to make both Post-Secondary Enrollment Options and charters, as well as district options, available to families)

            Happy July 4th weekend.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/01/2016 - 09:18 am.

        Thousand, not million

        That’s 800 thousand, not 800 million.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/30/2016 - 09:48 pm.


      Reading the article, I see no evidence of dwindling resources, except for payouts to people no longer working for the district. I believe that the St. Paul school district students receive more than the average “per pupil” funding than other districts and the recent raise to teachers probably “dwindles” most of that gain, but the thought that this whole mess is based on a lack of money is–silly.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 07/01/2016 - 07:58 am.

    What dwindling resources are they talking about?

    SPSD spends more per student only rivaled by Mpls public schools. By the way, both districts have poor results and unhappy parents. Any chance the SPSD looks at changing their curriculum to put a bigger emphasis on math, reading, writing, trade skills and preparing students for life after 13 years in public schools…. That is not currently happening…conjugating French verbs is fantastic after you are grade level in reading, writing (english is required in most jobs) and efficient enough in math/problem solving to hold a job.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 07/01/2016 - 09:25 am.

    Simplistic Math

    I will admit that this is a simplistic explanation of the funding dilemma but here goes. In 2014 both Minneapolis and St. Paul were getting over $14,000 per student. Assuming each student would stay for their full 12 years they would give the district over $170,000 each in revenue for that time period. If a district lost 100 of those students it would decrease their budget by $17 million over that time period.

    The loss of student enrollment is the biggest driver of budget cuts particularly when the state does not fund inflationary costs for school districts. If you can get kindergartners and first graders to come to your public school – and stay until they graduate – you will be maximizing the revenue you can use for teaching and learning.

    What I have noticed for many years is that Minneapolis and St. Paul parents vote with their feet. If they don’t like where their school is located, if they don’t like discipline and suspension policies, and if they don’t like budget cuts that affect their child’s education they will move and go to another district or a charter school. That downward spiraling factor is hard to overcome.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/01/2016 - 11:04 am.

      Yeah but…

      Assuming the actual costs incurred by the district are a result of the expense of teaching students, the cost should decrease with enrollment? It should cost less to teach fewer students shouldn’t it?

  7. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 07/01/2016 - 01:05 pm.

    Cost less – not necessarily

    It does cost less to educate less students particularly if they are special education students or ESL students in very small classes. However, many expenses do not go down.

    Central administration does not go down at all with the loss of students unless you do some major restructuring. Operations, facilities, heat, lights, transportation – none of that is affected by the loss of a few students. Those costs remain.

    Even with the loss of 30-40 students one would assume that you could cut a teacher as a result of less students. They are seldom distributed in a neat fashion and enrollment losses rarely occur even at the same grade level.

    As a result you may have to lose many, many students before you can cut one teacher. You would have to lose 30+ students at one grade level before you could release one teacher at that grade level.

    For that same reason when you gain students you can have many new students arrive and you don’t have to add staff – resulting in a real budget gain for the district. Schools with growing enrollment experience significant budget gains.

    Most school budgets are built on staffing ratios of 28 students to 1 teacher or something similar. So to add or cut one teacher you would need a plus or minus of at least 30 students in one classroom.

    The larger the buildings you have and more sections at a grade level the more efficient you can be with staffing. Most urban schools run smaller buildings with less sections and are therefore less efficient.

  8. Submitted by John Appelen on 07/07/2016 - 10:09 pm.

    Seems Pretty Simple

    The DFL and Education Minnesota wanted increased compensation for the Teachers and reduced accountability for the Teachers, so they backed a board that would execute this plan. The new Board Members then paid them back for their support.

    I am always fascinated that Boards are allowed to sign Teacher Contracts right after the Teachers pay to get them voted in. Can you imagine the conflict of interest case that would result if something like this occurred in the Private business world.

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