Nearly a year after the St. Paul school board broke up with former superintendent Valeria Silva, it has decided on a new leader for the district. Joe Gothard, the current superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, is expected to begin serving as the superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools July 1. The board is aiming to finalize a contract by May 1, with starting pay in the range of $238,000.
Gothard come out ahead of the other finalist in a 5-2 vote. Board members Steve Marchese and Chue Vue both voted for the runner up — Cheryl Logan, chief academic support officer of the School District of Philadelphia — but stated prior to the vote that they felt both were strong candidates and would support either.
The search began with 67 applicants and was narrowed down to 13 semifinalists by the search firm. The board had intended to deliberate over three finalists, but Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools, withdrew his name from consideration.
In a press conference after the special meeting Tuesday, Board Chair Jon Schumacher acknowledged that the district is still sorting through some deep divisions caused by recent changes in leadership. But he’s hopeful that Gothard — who’s been described as a “healer” by those he’s worked with in Burnsville, as reported by board members who visited his home district on a site visit — will be able to help move the district forward with a more unified vision.
“It was only a short year ago that there were some dramatic changes and transitions in this district. Our staff … have done a tremendous job leading us though what was a very difficult time. It was a brand new board, by and large,” he said, noting they’ve been able to make strides toward coming together this past year. “To have someone who understands how people think and feel, here in this area, and what’s needed to bring those people together with consensus in solutions and visions, is critical.”
As reported earlier by the board, Interim Superintendent John Thein has offered to help the new superintendent settle into the position. After Silva’s $787,500 buy-out, Thein had agreed to come out of retirement temporarily, after last serving as superintendent of Roseville Area Schools, to help bring some stability to the district. Under his leadership, the board has been grappling with some longstanding issues, including multimillion-dollar budget gaps, dwindling enrollment figures, tensions around the use of school resource officers, racial disparities in discipline practices, and — most recently — a reignited debate over school start times, which has been queued up as a first order of business for the new superintendent.
Responding to questions in a Skype interview after being named the board’s preferred candidate, Gothard indicated he’s up to the challenge.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have almost four very successful years here in Burnsville … creating relationships, putting systems in place to make sure there are clear lines of communication, instilling confidence, trust, belief and hope in a community that really needed it,” he said.
Turning his attention to the St. Paul superintendent seat, he continued: “I know this is one of the most challenging jobs in the state of Minnesota, and even beyond. I’ve been known to not shy away from challenges. I continue to learn, reflect, and grow each and every day. I will not come in and say I have all the answers. But I will say that I am committed to finding them.”
‘Track record in close proximity’
While all board members spoke highly of both finalists, it appears that Gothard’s credentials as a native Midwesterner — having grown up and started his career in Madison, Wisconsin, plus almost four years of experience in the Burnsville district — and experience serving as a superintendent may have given him the competitive edge.
Schumacher said his decision came down to these two critical factors: “experience on the job and understanding of our community.” The community awareness piece emerged as a priority through the extensive community engagement process conducted during the search as well.
“Some of the strongest feedback we got from our community groups was: ‘We want someone who understand us, who gets us.’ I think Dr. Gothard is someone who has had a visible track record, ” he told reporters during a press conference following the special meeting. “I think that there’s a comfort level that you have in trying to assess and understand how a person is going to perform when you have mutual acquaintances or you’ve seen a track record in close proximity. I guess for me, that was a critical factor.”
Board member Mary Vanderwert said that she was impressed with Gothard’s work building leadership within his current district, especially in mentoring leaders of color. Through an organization they’re both involved in, she said, she’s seen how other leaders in the local education community respect him.
“He has experience as a superintendent. I think that’s an important piece for our decision making,” she said, noting he created strong community ties to help pass their last referendum with ease. “He, in four short years in Burnsville, has lead significant culture change and has made some significant structural changes in their district without a lot of conflict.”
Vice chair, Zuki Ellis, who participated in site visits for both candidates, also drew attention to Gothard’s success in creating and implementing a shared strategic vision for the Burnsville district that was a point of pride for those she talked with.
“There’s this need for a vision and to support that vision however we can,” she said, reflecting on St. Paul. “There is a need for us to come together.”