St. Paul school board looks to engage search firm to find new superintendent

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Vice president of the Faribault school board, Jerry Robicheau, and interim St. Paul Superintendent John Thein at Thursday night's meeting.

The agenda for yesterday’s St. Paul Board of Education meeting — set to explore next steps for the superintendent search process — only listed one presenter: the vice president of the Faribault school board, Jerry Robicheau.

The search process is one Robicheau has become quite familiar with over the course of his career, having experienced it as a candidate, a school board member and a search consultant.

But it was a personal connection that brought him from Faribault to St. Paul. He’s friends with John Thein, the interim superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools. The two were Bush Fellows together — long before they had any grey hair, they joke — and even though they’ve both dabbled in retirement, they’re still in leadership roles and calling on one another for advice. “I’m not here advocating for any one process,” Robicheau told the board before delving into the pros and cons of hiring an external search firm.

By the end of his presentation, however, several board members had voiced their preference for hiring a search firm. The group spent some time discussing the logistics of hiring a search firm to help recruit, vet and interview candidates.  

It’s a move that could cost the district around $100,000, Robicheau estimates, and that’s not counting the extra work some district staff will be taking on to help move things along. (The actual consulting expense won’t be set until the board puts out a call for bids, a step that could happen as early as Oct. 10.)

Expenses aside, given the level of transition in the staff following former superintendent Valeria Silva’s ouster in June and a number of retirements — along with the part-time nature of the school board — Board Chair Jon Schumacher said it’d be nice to have somebody dedicated solely to the search come on board.

While the board has previously cautioned that the search could take over a year, the timeline discussed Friday focused on having a superintendent in place by next summer, in time for the start of the 2017-18 school year.

Robicheau stressed the importance of transparency during the search process, as well as engaging the community in building the job description and interviewing candidates.

While, ultimately, the final decision of who is hired resides with the board, the members discusses the importance of seeking a wide range of input from teachers, principals, community members, unlicensed staff and others in the district. “I can’t overemphasize the fact you are looking for a community leader as much as an educational leader,” Robicheau said.

It’s an area the board has already begun to explore, by engaging Sharon Press, the director of the Dispute Resolution Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and Mariah Levison, head of the Minnesota State Office for Collaboration and Dispute Resolution, to bolster the community engagement element of the search process. 

Over the last two months, the two facilitators surveyed the community — including school board members, union officials and parent groups — to identify current challenges and priorities for the district. In addition to concerns surrounding the achievement gap between white students and students of color, many of those interviewed mentioned the need to address school safety, the unique needs of English Language Learners, tense labor-management relations, significant turnover on the board and the recent departure of Silva and many administrators.

In response, Press and Levison will be facilitating a multi-year project — at no cost to the district — in which they will take the lead on the community engagement portion of the superintendent search and then follow up on ways to keep lines of communication open as district leadership look to address longstanding inequities. 

Press and Levison proposed starting that process by facilitating a series of conversations that will involve board members, district administration, Parent Advisory Committees and St. Paul Federation of Teachers leadership.

From there, a team comprised of representative from every group with a vested interest in the district will figure out how to best gather community input. Additionally, a candidate review committee will be formed to help the board vet candidates. 

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/30/2016 - 12:41 pm.

    Same Old Same Old

    1)Hire a consultant (someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is)

    2) Conduct a national search

    3) Bring in a new super from another state, hail the new arrival

    4) Wait approx. 3 years for super to leave for a bigger district

    5) Lament the loss of a great (Dear?) leader

    6) Repeat above steps, because no one in Minnesota is competent to run a school district

    When Bill Finney retired as St. Paul police chief, he was asked about the transition, and how the 3 finalists to succeed him were all St Paul officers. Finney replied that that was the way the organization conducts itself, so that there would be several people qualified to take over the organization. This was in contrast to what had been a long time practice in the MPLS PD to conduct national searches for leadership, only to find their chief leaving to lead a bigger force elsewhere.

    If the police can figure that out, why can’t the schools district? Every time an outside super is brought in, we have to wait a couple years to get the battleship turned around. Then about the time we expect to get results, a larger district makes a better offer and we’re back to square one.

    What’s that definition of insanity?

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