The news that St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva is on the shortlist for a similar position in Palm Beach County, Fla., is troubling for those who think someone in such a position should be an icon for her staff, teachers and particularly students. (“Silva on list for school job in Florida,” April 7)
Rather than iconic, her overture to leave St. Paul for Florida looks like an unseemly inveiglement.
This is not a new phenomenon in academics. Former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson bolted in the middle of her contract to take the helm of the Memphis schools, a couple of years after flirting with a similar position in Nashville. Shortly thereafter, one of Silva’s St. Paul predecessors, Patricia Harvey, had a dalliance with a superintendent position in Oregon while she was under contract with St. Paul, although she ultimately withdrew her interest. University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof left for the University of Texas in the middle of his contract, although his arrangement in Minnesota contained a narrow window allowing him to leave.
Such wanderlust is understandable. All of these top administrators had good reasons, financial and personal, to depart. So does Silva, who would enjoy a professional upgrade by taking over a much larger district in Florida — 180,000 students, compared with fewer than 40,000 in St. Paul — along with a substantial boost in salary of between $70,000 and $150,000. The weather, they say, also is more congenial along Florida’s east coast, which may appeal to the Chilean-born superintendent.
But what is particularly irksome about these educators leaving in mid-contract, or threatening to, is their high level of performance. Johnson was a luminary in school administration, named superintendent of the year while in Minneapolis. Yudof’s loss was a blow that set back the university for years. Silva, for her part, has had a somewhat contentious five years with the district, but the school board extended her contract by three years just a month ago, noting her efforts to close the achievement gap for students of color, among other achievements.
The circumstances of Silva’s seeking the Palm Beach position are murky. But she reportedly applied before the recent extension of her contract, which contains a clause like Yudof’s that would allow her to leave with 90 days’ notice.
Silva’s situation is rife with legal problems. If she leaves, she could be subject to suit for breach of contract. The Palm Beach School District might be susceptible to a claim of interference with contract if it knows, as it certainly does by now, that she is contractually bound to St. Paul. But the 90-day window in Silva’s contract probably would doom any litigation.
There is little likelihood of a lawsuit. School districts are too mannerly to sue their top managers or other districts that raid them. They have a vested interest in assuring the unfettered flow of talent. The highly paid recruiting consultants who are involved in these machinations also seem impervious from suits, as a practical matter, for enticing high level administrators to jilt one system for another. The 90-day “out” in Silva’s contract also is flawed. It makes her argument with the St. Paul School District one-sided: It is obligated to keep her employed for three years but she can leave in any 90-day span.
One way that some employers try to prevent contract-jumping by key employees is the use of noncompete contracts. They are often abusive and overbroad when imposed on an employee who does not have job security, but are more equitable when they pertain to employees like Silva, who have long-term contracts. Generally confined to sales and technical personnel, they probably would not cover public-sector employees like her and, even if the district had included one in her latest agreement, it would not extend to prospective employment in a remote jurisdiction.
Another device, used occasionally in the public sector, is to attach “buyout” clauses to contracts, requiring employees to pay for the privilege of skipping out during the term of their relationship. These provisions are used with increasing frequency in the high-priced world of college sports coaches. The University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach, Richard Pitino, has one that calls for a buyout by him of up to $1.5 million if he leaves. These arrangements really do not lead to payment by departing employees; the obligation is picked up by their new employer, which can deter the hiring of employees subject to these provisions. But Silva does not have such a clause in her contract in St. Paul.
Perhaps school districts should consider using some form of these devices to instill loyalty in top management personnel. The St. Paul School District issued a statement in response to Silva’s interest in the Florida job, proclaiming that under her leadership, the district has “been a model for other districts in many ways.” But her threat to break a contractual commitment does not provide a good role model.
Marshall H. Tanick is a Minneapolis employment law attorney.