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St. Paul supt. finalists talk school climate, budget shortfalls, achievement gaps and collaboration

St. Paul Public Schools public forum
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The event was held at Washington Technology Magnet School, where more than 250 people gathered in the cafeteria to listen to an introduction offered by each candidate, along with their answers to four preset questions.

The St. Paul Public Schools district moved one step closer to selecting a new permanent superintendent Wednesday evening, offering members of the community an opportunity to hear from the two finalists for the position at a public forum: Joe Gothard, superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District; and Cheryl Logan, chief academic support officer for the School District of Philadelphia.

The event was held at Washington Technology Magnet School, where more than 250 people gathered in the cafeteria to listen to an introduction offered by each candidate, along with their answers to four preset questions. These questions were generated from community feedback collected in a survey distributed earlier as part of the extensive community-engagement process that has characterized the search.

The school board had intended to have three finalists for consideration at this point in the search process, but Orlando Ramos withdrew his name Tuesday, shortly after the Star Tribune reported that he had not disclosed the fact that he’d filed for personal bankruptcy protection in 2009. In media reports, Ramos — a regional superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools, who’s reportedly still a finalist for the superintendent job in Cincinnati, Ohio — apologized for the oversight and said he didn’t want it to be a distraction.

Given the turbulence the district had experienced leading up to the search, Ramos’ last-minute departure from the candidate pool serves as a reminder of the level of public scrutiny the next leader will be under.

Interim Superintendent John Thein has been leading the district since July, after the school board broke ties with Valeria Silva. Her buyout, at $787,000 — along with the cost of hiring the search firm Ray and Associates of Cedar Rapids, Iowa — came at a time when the district was already coming up short on finances. The district is operating under a $15.1 million budget gap for the current school year and is facing a $27.3 million shortfall for the next school year. Declining student enrollment has contributed to the budget gap and continues to be of concern.

The district is also still grappling with an onslaught of bad publicity and public angst generated from a run of violent student-on-staff incidents that took place during Silva’s tenure. Isolated incidents aside, much of her racial- and gender-equity work has been commemorated. But persistent achievement gaps — along with discipline disparities — continue to define the state’s second largest district.  

In line with these issues, the four questions each candidate answered Wednesday evening touched on the issues of school climate, underfunding, closing the achievement gaps and fostering collaboration —  a skill they’ll have to demonstrate right away, with the new school start time debate that the board has teed up as a first order of business for the coming school year.

The school board officially began the search process in October. The Bureau of Mediation Services and the Dispute Resolution Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law teamed up and offered to help facilitate a public engagement process, which involved creating a design team to help gather feedback from surveys and community meetings. These efforts continued with the added assistance of the search firm Ray and Associates, which helped narrow the pool of 67 applicants down to 13 semifinalists for the board to review. Based on feedback from board members, the search firm narrowed it down to three finalists, which were announced last Thursday.

This evening, at a special board meeting, board members will be interviewing both candidates at 360 Colborne Street from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Next week, board members will conduct site visits to further vet the two finalists in their home districts. Board members Zuki Ellis and Steve Marchese, along with the board administrator, will be making the trip to Philadelphia.

Board Chair Jon Schumacher announced they’ll hold a special board meeting April 11 to recommend a candidate for the position. Once the contract negotiations have been settled — with a $238,000 possible starting salary posted in the job description — he expects the new superintendent would start July 1. Thein, he added, has agreed to help with the transition.

Joseph Gothard

Gothard has been serving as superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District since July 2013. The district has 9,247 K-12 students, 57 percent of whom are minority students.

He was born and raised on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin, where community pride meant that those in his neighborhood “looked out for each other,” he said. As he grew up in a household with five siblings, with a black father and a white mother, he says, school wasn’t always easy for him.  

“There were times I wondered: ‘If my white friends knew that my dad was black, would they want to be my friend? Was I treated differently? Can I be friends with different people?’” he said.

His sixth-grade teacher, who’d taught him three years in a row, put much of this inner turmoil to rest, he said, by asking him how it felt to be a minority. “With one simple question, she finally allowed me to speak out about it and be OK with it, and be proud of it,” he said.

He went on to carve out a career for himself in the Madison Metropolitan School District, where he held a variety of positions — from elementary-level education assistant to high school biology teacher and head football coach to principal at a number of schools, including his alma mater, and then an assistant superintendent position.

“I understand the complexities and political structure of St. Paul. I come from a city … that has many similarities. It’s a challenge that I will thrive in. It’s a challenge I want to be a part of. It’s not only a challenge, but an opportunity to empower a community around our students,” he said, emphasizing the need to restore pride in the community.

Joseph Gothard
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Joseph Gothard: “When we are working with students that sometimes have multiple-year gaps in achievement, we need more time. Students need more time.”

In his current position, he helped lead the development of a new strategic vision for the district, “Vision One91.” It involved a great deal of community engagement, he says, noting it’s resulted in the creation of a leadership academy for staff, with a focus on cultural proficiency, strong community partnerships, and a new curriculum guide with four career pathways.

Addressing the issue of school climate, he listed a number of strategies, starting with student engagement. “Engaged students behave,” he said, adding that work extends to involving families as well. He also believes in looking for patterns, when it comes to misbehavior, so that interventions can be put in place.  

He's also a proponent of restorative practices and youth court — both of which empower students to hold each other accountable — along with offering mental health services, job training and sharing positive stories to increase visibility in the community.

In regard to taking on a budget deficit, he talked about the need to look at district priorities and possibly narrow that list to focus on what’s working. He also mentioned the need to look for ways to increase revenues, starting with boosting enrollment because dollars follow students into, and out of, the district they enroll in. Working with businesses in the community is another way to address budgetary gaps, he said.

In terms of addressing achievement gaps, he spoke about his work implementing the AVID program, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, in his current district. “When we are working with students that sometimes have multiple-year gaps in achievement, we need more time. Students need more time,” he said. “There has to be something different that a student receives in terms of an intervention, time outside of school day, or over the summer.”

Circling back to his work on creating “Vision One91,” which got community support through the passage of a referendum last year, Gothard says he keeps index cards with community feedback — both good and bad — displayed in his office as a reminder that “when you ask and people tell, good work can happen together.”

Cheryl Logan

Logan is both the daughter of a teacher and the mother of a teacher. Starting in her hometown district in Maryland, she worked as a educator at every school level prior to becoming an administrator. That work included things like teaching elementary students how to count in Spanish, refereeing middle school debates over who was better — Batman or Spider-Man, and taking high school students abroad to Spain and writing college recommendation letters, she said.

Her years serving as a principal, she says, were some of the most rewarding. Recalling her first day on the job as a principal, she said she found out there were 31 teacher vacancies at 10 a.m. that morning. “True story. I’m not even that creative to make that up,” she said, eliciting laughter from an empathetic crowd. “I trudged through and was elementary principal for 10 years.”

During her last stint as principal, she led the adoption of a one-to-one technology initiative for 900 ninth-graders. “It was daunting, but I had an amazing team of teachers,” she said. “We established everything from security protocols to happy hours for teacher trainings.” And in 2013, she was recognized by the Washington Post as a distinguished leader.

In her current role as assistant superintendent of school for the School District of Philadelphia, she directly supervises 45 school principals and works closely with the budget. The district serves 134,041 students, 86 percent of whom are minority students.

“Leading at the central office is hard,” she said. But she’s drawn to the challenge and thinks St. Paul would be a great place to live and work. Offering attendees a glimpse into her leadership philosophy, so they could better judge if she’d, in fact, be a good fit, she talked about equity.

“My stance on equity is nothing can happen to decrease the achievement gap if there isn’t an opportunity. I personally believe that intellect is spread equally in the universe, but opportunity is not,” she said, triggering a round of applause. “All students have gifts, and the job of educators is to help them unpack them. They can’t do that if they don’t have a seat at the table. In many ways, we as educators, are gatekeepers. How we keep those gates open determines how well all of our children do.”

Addressing the issue of school climate, she talked about leveraging “the hard work that’s already been done in racial equity” and collecting and using student data to better inform district-wide behavior expectations and supports. This work also includes offering mental health services for students who have experienced trauma they may act out on. But that work, she says, doesn’t mean lowering expectations.

Cheryl Logan
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Cheryl Logan: “My stance on equity is nothing can happen to decrease the achievement gap if there isn’t an opportunity.”

“We should never conflate racial equity with making excuses for why certain children aren’t behaving or can’t be held accountable. That does those youngsters more of a disservice,” she said. “We can, however, address their needs [through] social-emotional learning that complements their academics and establishes a culture of restoration and progression for the kinds of adult citizens we are preparing in our schools.”

Asked about dealing with budget shortfalls, she said that “if we really do forensics on our budget,” a couple of things will come to light, including areas of overlapping services that can be better streamlined and opportunities for stronger community partnerships to help provide services. She also talked about being “good stewards” of public dollars and making sure to tell students’ stories, to make the issue of school funding better resonate with public officials.

There are also things that can be done at the school level, she said. Offering an example, she said that in Philadelphia they noticed that elementary students were much better at turning in forms to qualify for free and reduced lunch than high schoolers who also qualified but didn’t complete the form. So, they switched to a whole-family form to better capture the need, and associated federal funding.

Turning to her experience brokering compromise among a diverse group of people, she gave an example triggered by the fact that her district was losing students to charter schools who were starting the week before Labor Day. In order to stay competitive, she initiated community-wide conversations that brought religious leaders, educators and community members together to adjust the district calendar in a way that would move up the start date and honor more religious holidays without losing too much continuity.

“We were able to come to a collective stance that having our kids start and finish earlier was better for our city. It kept us competitive, in terms of school choice,” she said.

Audience feedback

After listening to both candidates speak, Judy Daniel, a teacher at Metropolitan State University with grandchildren in the district, finished writing down her thoughts on the candidate impression form she’d picked up at the welcome table when she walked into the cafeteria. She’s very enthusiastic about Logan.

“I thought she had a lot of energy, lots of good examples. Very grounded. Connected to the audience,” she said.

Fatima Lawson, principal of J.J. Hill Montessori, said “either would be good.” Speaking the lingo of an administrator, she concluded Gothard was more “business like” because his comments seemed more aligned with the political and structural frames of leadership. Logan, on the other hand, seemed to approach leadership from the other two quadrants: human resources and symbolic.

So far, she favors Logan, whom she feels addressed racial equity more head on, especially when it came to talking about the importance of access and opportunity for all students. But it was Logan’s stage presence, as well, that captivated Lawson.

“On the state of the district and what we need, when you look at the healing piece, she probably stands a little bit above,” Lawson said. “She has a sense of humor that came out in her presentation.”

Judy Daniel, a teacher at Metropolitan State University
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Judy Daniel fills out a candidate impression form.

For Esther Alarcon Sanchez, who made use of the translators at the event, Logan’s comments hit home when she talked about working as a team for a common goal. Logan has a wide vision for ways to improve the district, Sanchez said.

But, based on the answers Logan provided to the moderator’s questions Wednesday evening, Sanchez offered one critique: “When they talk about white kids and students of color, they’re only talking about black kids. In this district, there are a lot of other ethnicities, and they should be considered as well.”

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Comments (2)

Please do your background work

1) Valeria Silva's equity work, as experienced at the school level, seemed mostly for show. Real equity means allowing for more time for new language learners to learn English before they are mainstreamed. It means giving deaf students time out of mainstream so they aren't always ten seconds behind their peers, as happens with most translators. It certainly doesn't mean sticking deaf students in classes without translators, as Silva did. It doesn't mean backing a special Ed coordinator who flat out ignored parents desperate for support for their children. And it certainly doesn't mean keeping Dr. Fatima Lawson on staff after eleven parents filed special Ed civil rights complaints against her for truly appalling bullying and targeting of special needs kids By Dr. Lawson herself in efforts to force parents to withdraw those children from her school. Silva not only kept her on staff but made up a very expensive job for her and then forced her on another school's unsuspecting parents and children, with no time for them to fight it.

So interviewing Dr. Lawson about a new Superintendent is like interviewing another fox left in the henhouse about who to hire to guard the hens. Please do your background work. Doing a straight quote of the very political

Lawson?

How did you decide to interview Fatima Lawson? She is one of the problems the new superintendent. Not someone who should be weighing in on the choice.

Terrible journalism.