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What’s the deal with Valeria Silva’s back-to-back headlines?

Valeria Silva
St. Paul Public Schools
Valeria Silva

As theories go, it’s a pretty good one.

On Wednesday the Palm Beach County School Board announced that St. Paul Public Schools’ Valeria Silva was a frontrunner to be its next superintendent. On Thursday, flanked by Mayor Chris Coleman and other city leaders, Silva announced she would stay here.

Though there was speculation that she was one of the top two candidates, Silva pulled out before interviewing. And though the announcement she’d be staying was couched as the product of an afternoon meeting with Coleman, the attendant press conference was announced Thursday morning.

With 30 years in the district, she is a few weeks into a contract that will run until 2018. Her decision to stay did not involve a raise, though the job in a much bigger district in Florida certainly would have.

So why the back-to-back days of headlines?

The Oertwig hypothesis

Al Oertwig, who left the St. Paul board in 2007 and is seeking to return to it, offered a hypothesis. Silva could be rallying support, he told reporters. That and sending a signal that if the community’s leaders don’t have her back in challenging days to come she has options.

Despite an achievement gap that rivals Minneapolis’, in terms of schools St. Paul has typically been depicted as the land of milk and honey. And the city fathers’ decision to back Silva last week stands in stark contrast to the recent resignation of Minneapolis’ embattled Bernadeia Johnson.

Urban superintendents are exceptionally difficult to find and even tougher to hang on to. In most communities today their job is to make change, which frequently puts them at odds with board members, teachers and families.

If they don’t end up getting bought out, they are subject to being poached away. The churn inevitably ripples through district leadership.

Both were products of their districts

Hired within a few months of each other, Silva and Johnson were both selected in large part to try to move away from this dynamic. Both were products through and through of their districts. Both were seen as the perfect combination of familiar and change agent.

And they faced remarkably similar challenges. In addition to persistent socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, both districts have seen families vote with their feet.

In Minneapolis, 20,000 students are enrolled in private, suburban and charter schools, compared to 34,000 in district schools. Last year 12,000 St. Paul children enrolled outside the district, which serves some 37,000 students.

But St. Paul simply hasn’t experienced the incendiary climate that preceded Johnson’s departure. Yet.

And Silva hasn’t been confronted by the kind of board division and divisiveness Johnson endured. Yet.

Nor has Silva faced the threat that her city’s legislative leaders might abandon her. Yet.

Angry teachers, angry parents

A year ago a St. Paul board meeting erupted into a mini-version of the free-for-alls Minneapolis is known for. Exhausted by trying to manage classrooms in the wake of a district policy laid down by Silva to include students with behavioral problems in mainstream classrooms, teachers packed the meeting.

There were angry parents, too, as well as civic leaders who urged Silva and the board to stay the course. Excluding mostly poor minority students from the classroom was the start of the school-to-prison pipeline, they argued.

Things have not gotten better in the intervening months, and the city is heading into what promises to be the hottest school board contest in generations. What was initially a teachers-union-backed assault on incumbent board members — Oertwig is a candidate on the labor slate — has gained traction.

Silva and Johnson are close personal friends. During their tenures they would frequently call on each other for advice.

No doubt Silva knew long before Minneapolis brass that Johnson was leaving. Indeed after the news got out, Johnson was only half joking when she said she wanted to negotiate an exit provision Silva had in her contract: That if things went awry she would have the right to a principalship in the district.

It doesn’t seem likely that Silva will need that particular parachute.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/13/2015 - 09:35 am.

    Much Ado About Nothing

    My turn to play contrarian…

    My suspicion is that the superintendent has far less effect on classroom outcomes than the superintendent her/himself and the relevant school board would like to think. Individual school culture, classroom environment, teacher, parental success as “first teacher,” and socioeconomic position of the family are all facets of education that strike me as significantly more important, and with a more direct effect on the desired educational outcome, than someone whose job and specialty is merely administration.

    There are exceptions, and I worked for one during the first decade of my classroom career, but on the whole, the impact of a superintendent on the everyday school experience of a particular student is usually pretty minimal. Superintendents end up spending a lot of time on public relations and schmoozing legislators – tasks that are a necessary part of the job in order to garner resources that educationally-deficient legislators often think of as “optional,” but many superintendents haven’t been in a classroom (except as a very occasional visitor) in many years, and just as many went into educational administration to get *out* of the classroom, either because they were inept as teachers, or because administration seemed to provide the only path to promotion and a higher salary in the odd universe of education in this country.

    Perhaps Ms. Silva is simply being self-serving – a trait common among business executives, professional athletes, and many others, in many other lines of work. Not especially admirable, but not especially unusual, either.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/13/2015 - 11:49 am.

    “…said board candidate Al Oertwig”

    Please tell me that is a typo.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/13/2015 - 11:53 am.

    If there was any doubt the teachers union couldn’t care less about students, backing Al Oertwig puts it to rest. Sheesh

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/13/2015 - 12:21 pm.

    i agrre with …

    the thought that Superintendents have little if any role on classroom outcomes. Also the role of Superintendent seems to be public relations. with that line of thinking and the huge hits educational funding has taken here in Minnesota which it has not even marginally recovered we have a guide to whom to hold accountable. Very little self advocacy from a series of big distrct Superintendents is more than apparent. I want my city’s Superintendent out loud and proud And above all accurately informative. I have not seen that happen in Minneapolis since maybe Richard Green.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/13/2015 - 07:30 pm.

    My guess?

    Coleman pointed out just what kind of hell her life would be in this district if she didn’t get the job in Florida.

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