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What people in St. Paul want from the next school superintendent — and the search process

Parents, teachers and advocates all agree that the first, most important thing the St. Paul Board of Education should do during the pending superintendent search is finally listen to, and learn from, its constituents.

Interim Superintendent John Thein, a popular former school superintendent in Roseville, came out of retirement to temporarily replace Valeria Silva.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Given the sense of urgency surrounding St. Paul School Superintendent Valeria Silva’s ouster last spring, it may come as a surprise to outside observers that there still isn’t a search process in place to find her replacement.

Among those community members most invested in the search, however, the fact that members of the St. Paul Board of Education and interim Superintendent John Thein are taking the time to solicit more input regarding what’s needed from a new leader, as well as how to go about choosing him or her, is welcome news. Not only because the state’s second largest school district, with more than 39,000 students, faces a set of daunting challenges — including a $15 million budget gap, unprecedented racial equity issues, and safety concerns among staff and students. But also because one of the most consistent criticisms of Silva during her tenure was that her administration lacked transparency and, even worse, failed to consider the opinion of its constituents.

“The school board is starting to show the willingness to listen a bit more,” says Nick Faber, vice president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. “It will take some time – because this represents a cultural shift. Thirty years ago if there was a problem with students, we blamed the students. Then we started blaming teachers. Now we’re starting to realize that we should stop blaming each other and create some systems that take into account everyone’s concerns and ideas.”

School board Chair Jon Schumacher understands that time is a finite resource. (Thein, a popular former school superintendent in Roseville, came out of retirement to temporarily replace Silva, after all.) Still, Schumacher allows, it “may be ambitious to think we could get the feedback from various community sources by early next year, do some searching and interviewing, and actually have someone in place to start 2017-2018. That would be great. But choosing the right person is paramount.” 

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At the July meeting of the board the state Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution (OCDR) and the Mitchell Hamline School of Law Dispute Institute (DRI) were authorized to explore how best to involve community members in the search process. Those organizations will report to the board on Sept. 20 with recommendations — a step that, in and of itself, Schumacher hopes will begin to heal divisions in the district.

Nick Faber
Nick Faber

Thein, who says his “main focus is to help the next superintendent hit the ground running,” believes it’s of paramount importance that whatever methodology the board ultimately adopts, previously under-represented community members – who work second shifts, for instance, and can’t make it to statically scheduled meetings outside their neighborhood – be given opportunities to gather and be heard. 

Faber is hopeful that parents and teachers are similarly empowered, not only to interact with district leaders, but with each other, since they’re the people “who have the most contact with our students.”

And former board member Jean O’Connell, who quit in protest after Silva’s removal, hopes a meaningful discourse evolves in the wake of last spring’s tumult to inform a longer-term strategic vision for the district.

“We haven’t had a conversation with the community about what they really want for a long time,” she says. “If the conversation were about that, then you’d have something to share with superintendent candidates about what direction the community and board want to go in the future.”

Regardless of how exactly the search process plays out, it seems likely that St. Paul parents, teachers, administrators and advocates will have an extraordinary opportunity to ask questions, air their concerns and help create standards for selecting a superintendent. It’s also clear, after speaking in advance to a few of these stakeholders about the district’s most vexing issues, that this admirable exercise will be equal parts edifying and inconclusive. And whoever ultimately replaces Silva is certain to have a cadre of supporters and skeptics from the word go. 

Discipline & safety

A primary reason citied for Silva’s $800,000 buyout was a spate of student-on-staff incidents of violence during the 2015-16 school year. Things were so bad the district’s teachers union threatened a strike, which was narrowly avoided in February when the board agreed to help find new ways for schools to handle recurring behavioral problems, such as restorative practices. Still, when parents brought a petition to the April meeting of the board, demanding Silva’s removal, the issue remained top of mind.

“For me, when it comes to choosing the next superintendent, the most important thing would be the safety in the schools,” says Michelle Hodurski, who has a daughter in elementary school. “The teachers don’t know what happens at home, and the parents don’t know what happens at school. Everyone has to work together to make it work. And that requires better communication overall. Because, yes, parents sometimes let things slide. But if they don’t’ know anything about what’s going on with their kids or what the solutions are, they can’t help do anything about it.”

Jean O’Connell
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Jean O’Connell

Melissa Dangaran, who has two kids in grade school, says one of her boys was recently threatened on the playground. She informed school officials, but she didn’t feel they communicated the problem to the appropriate parties or followed up satisfactorily. “He didn’t feel safe and I didn’t feel safe,” she says.

Joe Nathan, founder and senior fellow at the Center for School Change, says there’s no one single strategy for dealing with discipline issues, which is why he’s encouraged by the board’s recent willingness to consider various solutions and believes the next superintendent needs to do the same. “We have to create environments where more students succeed. There are some schools that are smaller that almost never have fights. The district should try to learn from those schools and other programs that have shown measurable success. We can’t isolate kids or be punitive. We have to involve them in the solution.”

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Money & enrollment

Oredola Taylor works in product development at 3M, has three kids enrolled in the St. Paul schools and is a longtime advocate for L’Etoile du Nord, a French Immersion School in the District. It’s important to her that the new superintendent not balance the budget on the backs of its students, but instead look for innovative ways to save money on bureaucratic overhead and replicate its most successful, efficient art, music and science programs.

Oredola Taylor
Oredola Taylor

“They will have to have the belief that every kid can succeed. They will have strive for world-class academics in the public schools,” she says. “The last board meeting I was at, they talked about academics for five minutes. They totally have this upside down; we send our kids for our education, not to maximize our tax dollar.”

Dangaran, who spent time in the private sector after 10 years working for the Ohio Public Schools, agrees education is the district’s most important charge, but also hopes the new superintendent has business savvy. “It’s not a budget issue, it’s a revenue issue – it’s a sales and marketing issue. We need someone who is going to get us more students.”

What Dangaran is referring to specifically, and what is cited frequently as a primary reason for the district’s economic woes, is the decrease in student enrollment – caused in large part by competition from charter schools. Nathan thinks the next superintendent has a unique opportunity to leverage the situation, however. He not only believes, like Dangaran and Taylor, that the board could learn from and emulate those charter schools that are most popular and successful, but envisions scenarios in which the two entities could work together.

“In St. Paul there are opportunities to both compete and cooperate,” he says. “The charter community isn’t always running around saying, ‘Our schools are better. Our schools are better.’ What’s happened in St. Paul is that the charters are willing to work with the district schools. So there’s an opportunity for real innovation.” 

Equity & testing

The most important difference between public schools and charter schools, Faber stresses, “is that we take every kid who comes to our door, and embrace them and meet their needs the best we can.”

The problem is that the district, like its metropolitan neighbor across the Mississippi, has long struggled with an achievement gap and challenges related to racial equity issues. Many of Silva’s detractors allow that she did make equity a priority and the new superintendent needs to do the same. (Interim Superintendent Thein, who joked on MPR that if “you looked up ‘white privileged guy’ in the dictionary you’d see a picture of me,” agrees that equality of opportunity should be a top priority for him, the district and new leadership.)

The first step for a new superintendent, though, according to parents like Taylor, who is black, and Dangaran, who says she’s “half Latino,” might simply be to more specifically describe the parameters of the problem.

“They need to define what equity is,” Dangaran says. “I think if you ask 10 different people, you’re going to get five definitions. They need to write down what it is and decide how they’re going to achieve it.” 

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Dangaran and Taylor also believe that the district’s emphasis, financially and philosophically, on testing is shortsighted, especially when it results in the elimination of other programs that expand students’ knowledge and experience beyond math and reading.

Faber agrees, and stresses that the situation won’t improve until a leader empowers parents and teachers from various circumstances to find a way beyond cold measurements of success and failure.

“We should have parents who look like the kids in our schools engaged in real conversations about what’s going on in the classroom and at home,” he says. “We’re not dealing with widgets, after all, we’re dealing with kids. Every classroom is different, and quite often we’re given a standardized test and it doesn’t reflect the success the kid has made or what’s happening in the classroom. We tend to forget that there are kids beyond those test scores.”

Leadership & communication

When asked, everyone we talked to agreed that the superintendent’s primary role is to set the tone, policies and direction of the St. Paul Board of Education and the system it oversees. There was also broad acknowledgement that, fairly or unfairly, Silva was perceived to be to cloistered and inflexible, which left the impression that neither she nor the board she answered to could be entirely counted on. What’s more, while there seemed to be hope for the future and a belief that the board (which had four new members seated in January) has the potential to make strides, the district itself is in rocky, unchartered territory on a number of fronts. As a result, and not surprisingly, what various stakeholders believe to be the most important personal and professional attributes for a new leader varied radically.

Nathan and Taylor, for instance, were looking for someone with a background and proven track record in education. “In terms of equity, it won’t be enough for a candidate to say I’m for equal this and I’m for equal that,” Nathan says. “I’m looking for someone who has been successful at working with others to make major, measurable improvements in learning among a diverse population of students.”

Dangaran, on the other hand, was on the lookout for a CEO-like leader, who can look over the district’s “portfolio of products.”  “After all,” she asks, “Does anyone think that Steve Jobs or Barack Obama couldn’t run the St. Paul Public School District because they don’t have a particular teachers license or school leadership role on their résumé?”

It’s a good guess Faber would answer yes to what Dangaran assumes is more or less a rhetorical question. “Nationwide,” he says, “we’ve seen a corporate model going into our school and classrooms” that hampers creativity and often leaves teachers and students on the sidelines when important decisions are made.

Taylor hopes for more experimentation in the schools. Hodurski says that when it comes to a number of issues, consistency is needed to succeed. Thein says first and foremost whoever takes the job must love kids. Nathan, no doubt all for love and happiness, believes the most important trait a new leader must possess is the ability to inspire staff.

“It’s a tough job,” former board member O’Connell says. “It’s where the buck stops. The board makes policy and then the superintendent and their team has to implement it. And what he or she implements might not be what the board had in mind when they supported that policy in the first place.

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“It’s his or her job to get everyone focused in the same direction. And that requires a lot of great interpersonal skills and a willingness to really listen to not only the staff, but also to the community. And all the while there’s not a day that goes by when the organization doesn’t have to fight some sort of fire. So the superintendent has to engage without getting off course. It’s just hard.”

David Schimke is a Minneapolis-based journalist and former editor at City Pages and of Utne Reader magazine.