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St. Paul’s education cooperation model offers a big contrast to Minnesota’s usual confrontations

Listening to St. Paul school superintendent and teachers union head converse is a night-and-day contrast to the recent ego-laced bouts waged between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Education Minnesota leader Tom Dooher.

The relationship between Mary Cathryn Ricker and Valeria Silva stands in sharp contrast to the common education confrontations that have dogged public education in Minnesota in recent years.

Ricker, head of the St. Paul teachers union, and Silva, the St. Paul school district’s superintendent, meet often and banter easily.

“Mary Cathryn asked me to attend a workshop (sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers),” recalled Silva.

“It was on a weekend,” Ricker said.

“I told her I’d go, but if I’m going on a weekend, it proves I must love you,” Silva said.

The two women laughed.

Valeria Silva
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Valeria Silva

Silva said she believes she was the only superintendent at the workshop, but quickly added that it was worthwhile.

“What I got out of it was the teachers’ perspective of pay for performance,” she said. “From the teachers’ standpoint, it’s really how do we measure a teacher’s performance. If we all have the right training, then, we could agree on a system.”

Listening to the two talk is a night-and-day contrast to the ego-laced bouts waged between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Education Minnesota leader Tom Dooher. Those two excelled at name-calling, door-slamming and political points-scoring with their respective constituencies. Unfortunately, they weren’t so good at sitting down in the same room and trying to understand each other and, in the end, Minnesota was not a player in Race to the Top money or any sort of meaningful K-12 education improvements in the state.

Lost possibilities bemoaned
Both Silva and Ricker bemoan the possibilities that were lost. For example, both had hoped that some Race to the Top funding would have been available to help Minnesota school districts purchase a data system that would have made information on student performance available at a fingertip. As it is, Silva said teachers “waste so much time using a system that is just patched together.”

Students transfer from district to district, but it’s difficult to know, in any sort of detail, the relative academic strengths and weaknesses of those students.

“It’s like running a hospital without patient records,” said Silva.

There had been many other innovations the administrator and the union head had hoped to be able to finance with Race money as well. Now, they’ve been working together to apply for other grants that would help fund innovation at a time when the district is facing multimillion-dollar deficits and more cuts.

The big application is for $33 million in Investing in Innovation grants from the federal government. The money would be used for investing in a teacher-led professional development program and a teacher-supported teacher evaluation system.

Mary Ricker
Mary Ricker

Ricker, a sports-lover herself, finds what she describes as a “jock mentality” in federal programs under President Obama and his basketball-playing buddy, Arne Duncan, the Department of Education secretary.

“Everything is a competition,” Ricker said. “Everything is about winners and losers.”

Winning defined the relationship between Pawlenty and Dooher. Pawlenty pushed his agenda by bashing teachers at every opportunity. The union, he claimed, was “an anchor,” pulling down every push for reform. Boards of education that offered even minimal raises to teachers were attacked by the governor. Dooher countered by resisting virtually all efforts at reforms.

Not surprisingly, there were no “winners.”

Picking up the pieces
People such as Silva and Ricker are left trying to pick up the pieces.

An alliance between the union and the superintendent’s office is no easy thing to maintain. Silva admits that even some members of her high-ranking staff are leery of how quick the superintendent is to pick up the phone and call Ricker. And Ricker suspects that at least some teachers are uncomfortable with a union leader who spends considerable time at district headquarters.

Yet, they push on in an effort to accomplish things together. For example, when the district was forced to lay off teachers as part of the approach to closing the district’s deficit, Silva incorporated ideas brought to her by Ricker and the union that would make the cuts more equitable.

“A culture change,” says Ricker, who has been the union head for five years and has worked with five different superintendents.

“I’m not bending to please Mary Cathryn,” Silva said. (The two always call each other by their first names.) “But I’m not ignoring her needs, either. I’m trying to establish a relationship with all of the unions.”

“It’s a huge difference,” said Ricker of the relationship she has with Silva as opposed to her many predecessors. “We sit down and try to iron out our problems.”

Silva, laughing, said, “We brought new irons into our relationship. Sometimes, we need a great big steam iron. We use that when we need to vent some steam.”

Selling St. Paul accomplishments
The big efforts will be to sell the idea in St. Paul that, even in the midst of cuts — including such controversial decisions as the closing of Arlington High School — the district is moving forward with efforts to deliver high-quality education. While Pawlenty — and some media — have focused on handfuls of “problem teachers,” Ricker and Silva together are out selling the idea that the district is full of teacher “superstars.”

Silva is distressed by the public attitudes toward teachers — and the teaching profession. It’s hard enough, she said, to attract people into the profession, given the relatively meager starting paying, compared with other professions. But after years of bashing, fewer and fewer people even believe the profession deserves respect.

“Any other culture,” Silva said, “a teacher is greatly valued. That’s been lost here.”

Silva and Ricker together will work to get all district employees to speak to the positives of the district.

“I don’t care where it is,” said Silva. “If you’re standing in line to get a cup of coffee, people [district employees] need to understand if they’re complaining about something, others are going to pick up on that.”

They talk, they fret, they argue, they laugh.

“We’re not working together because we’re naïve or conflict-averse,” said Ricker. “I really believe we have a great deal of respect for each other, and we have the same deep, deep commitment to students and St. Paul.”