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by Pioneer Press Editorial Board
in the Editorial: St. Paul schools change comes at a high price on Saturday, June 25, 2016

St. Paul voted for change when it elected a new teachers-union-backed school board majority last fall.

The board delivered some change last week, but at a high cost.

  • The district, which struggled to close a $15 million budget gap, will pay outgoing superintendent Valeria Silva nearly $800,000 it can ill afford in salary and benefits.
  • A valued veteran voice on the board is gone with the resignation during last week’s meeting of Jean O’Connell, first elected in 2009.

The board’s action leaves St. Paul with a steady hand at the helm — with retired Roseville Superintendent John Thein serving as the district’s interim leader — at a pivotal time.

A key point to make about this transition, said Kent Pekel, president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, is that the stakes are high. “This is a profound moment of decision, not just for the school district but for the city.”

Pekel, also a former administrator in the St. Paul district, warns: “These are moments when  people can really chart a new course or dig themselves into holes that it takes a long time to get out of.”

Sizing up the developments in a conversation with the editorial board, O’Connell notes that “leadership transition is inevitable in an organization; leadership transition can be done with integrity.” But as events transpired, “I really wonder what we’re teaching our kids.”

“Because of the way this was done by a couple of board members,” said O’Connell, who is critical of former colleagues Steve Marchese and Board Chair Jon Schumacher, “this was much more expensive than it needed to be in my mind, and it’s going to hurt our kids as a result.”

Her decision to resign from the board wasn’t made lightly, insists O’Connell, who alone among candidates running in 2009 won specific endorsement on these pages. We reasoned then that bringing the retired 3M executive to the board represented a rare opportunity to add results-oriented business leadership expertise to a body sorely in need of such qualities.

She’s never quit a job before, but the board was a very challenging group — “more challenging than any other group I’ve ever worked with,” O’Connell said, noting with a laugh that she’s no stranger to such a test: “I was the first woman engineer in a sandpaper plant.”

To be respectful of the outgoing superintendent, there was recognition of the sensitivity of the issues involved, Marchese told us. Still “everyone on the board had access to information. Everyone on the board had an opportunity to provide input, and everyone on the board had the legal responsibility to decide how they wished to proceed.”

Decisions about “what can and can’t be said” were made with advice from legal counsel, Schumacher told us. “There’s been an attempt to be as open as possible. That’s our intention moving forward.”

But facing the future, Board Member Mary Vanderwert told us, “We need to have some different thinking on the board, and we need to have an environment where people can disagree and feel like they can be heard.”

That brings us to another pointed assessment: It’s clear “that there’s some dysfunction on the St. Paul school board,” Daniel Sellers, executive director of the education reform group MinnCAN, told us.

With the bungled Minneapolis superintendent search as a cautionary tale, it should be noted that “the best candidates don’t want to work for a dysfunctional board,” he said, noting that members must “figure out how they can clean some of that up in order to attract the very best candidates.”

Top prospects, Sellers told us, “will want to work for a strong board with strong leadership and good governance.”

Mayor Chris Coleman  isn’t responsible for district operations but has made education, including out-of-school-time initiatives, a priority of his administration.

He emphasizes that the district is strong and continues to have his “faith and confidence.”

Now, “the critical piece to me is getting this district stabilized” and a new leader — one who has the ability to think long-term — in place “as quickly as possible.”

We thank and respect Silva for nearly three decades of service to the district and for fighting hard to see that it educates all the children in its care. She did so while facing divisions over racial equity policy, school discipline and contentions that the district wasn’t responsive to parents.

Loud voices got attention, and necessarily so.

But, “instead of reacting to particular loud voices, we need to really take that step back and look at the whole system,” O’Connell told us. You need to know the direction you’re headed “before you start changing things.”

The community is counting on the board to conduct the deliberations ahead with care, clarity and the will and skill to listen. Members should aspire to make the work ahead a “teaching moment” for St. Paul.



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