Two newly elected St. Paul School Board members will be installed early so they can take part right away in the ongoing quest for a new superintendent.
Jean O’Connell and Vallay Varro will be sworn in at tonight’s meeting and participate with other board members and consultants in formulating questions for finalists in the superintendent search. It’s possible, officials said, that there will be an announcement of six semi-finalists for the job at the end of tonight’s meeting.
O’Connell’s early installation comes thanks to the early resignation of Board Member Tom Goldstein, who was defeated Nov. 4 in his re-election bid. O’Connell and two other incumbents won election for full terms. Technically, O’Connell will fill out the remainder of Goldstein’s term before starting her own in January.
Varro was elected Nov. 4, too, for the empty seat vacated last summer, when Tom Conlon moved out of state and resigned from the board. She was scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 17 but now will be installed with O’Connell tonight.
O’Connell said today that she had been in contact with Goldstein after the election, and planned to be engaged with the search even before her official start.
“His first overture to me came when we knew the consultants were coming in tonight to finalize the questions, and that the interviews will start Friday. Tom invited me to send him my questions so he could include them with his,” she said. “I’d been planning to be at every meeting, sitting in the front row and ready to pass notes to him, if needed. And he was OK with that.
“Then he called me [last weekend] and suggested that he resign so I could be seated. But he said he didn’t want to do it if I wasn’t ready to jump in,” she said.
Is she ready?
“I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. And this works out much better. I didn’t want to irritate anyone by trying to be engaged too early, before I was seated,” she said.
The board must replace former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who left last summer to take a job in Austin, Texas. In the meantime, Carstarphen’s aide, Suzanne Kelly, has been interim superintendent, even though state education department officials have challenged her appointment because she lacks a superintendent’s license.
The school board has continued, though, to back Kelly, who was a Star Tribune reporter before going into school administration.
“This has been one of the smoothest interim periods,” Board Chair Kazoua Kong-Thao told the Star Tribune. “She’s been a thoughtful and wise leader.”
O’Connell and Kong-Thao praised Goldstein’s decision to step down early.
“I want to take an opportunity to thank Mr. Goldstein for his service to the St. Paul Public Schools and for this gracious gesture that will allow the board member who will be working with the next superintendent to make the decision about the selection,” Kong-Thao said. “It is an act of leadership that should be acknowledged and appreciated.”
Said O’Connell: “Tom has been incredibly gracious. When he first suggested it, I was dumbfounded.”
As for what she’d like to see in a new superintendent, O’Connell — a retired 3M executive — said:
“I’ll be looking for someone with good experience; that’s my bias going in, to hire someone who’s been a superintendent before. It’s a huge leap in any organization from any job to the CEO position. That being said, I don’t think we have to go too far afield; it would be good to have someone who understands the region, Minnesota Nice and those kinds of things.
“But most important, is how would they deal with an organization, like this one, that is pretty distraught. There are a lot of issues around morale. So we need someone who says they’re inclusive and can demonstrate that they have been.”