A vote to oust a schools superintendent, and to do so with a nearly $800,000 contract buyout, might lead some to believe there would be urgency to find a new permanent leader.
But the St. Paul school board has taken its time in determining its first big step after parting with Valeria Silva.
If it decides next week, as expected, to accept a plan to engage the community in the search for a new superintendent, the hiring of a permanent replacement is not likely to occur until next year.
This is an engagement model on steroids.
The effort, as detailed in a 15-page proposal discussed by the board on Tuesday, calls for a series of community conversations in December and January. The meetings could include as many as 10 public forums plus targeted sessions with parents, students, principals and community groups. In addition, the board, the administration and St. Paul Federation of Teachers are urged to hash out concerns and lay out goals for the search over three, three-hour sessions.
The proposal comes from Sharon Press, director of the Dispute Resolution Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and Mariah Levison, head of the Minnesota State Office for Collaboration and Dispute Resolution. They have been quick studies on what’s ailed the state’s second-largest district.
Stubborn achievement gap. School safety concerns. Board upheaval. Administrative departures. Lack of trust. It’s all there in their proposal. But so, too, is a stated willingness by a majority of district stakeholders to turn things around.
The hope is for a multiyear project beginning with the superintendent search and followed by attempts to build consensus around the bigger issues.
Cedrick Baker, an interim school board member sitting in at his first meeting Tuesday, said that the proposal had promise so long as the engagement is authentic — that people truly are heard and they come away feeling this is “not just a ‘check the box’ with community engagement.”
Board Member Mary Vanderwert said that she was concerned, however, about creating unrealistic expectations within the community about how much say they’d have in the hire.
Said Press, “The hiring of the superintendent — that’s your job.”
Board Chairman Jon Schumacher said that the board has been in contact with some local search firms, but that no decisions have been made on who it might enlist to help find a new leader.
“We want to coordinate that process with the community engagement plan,” he said Wednesday.
Built to last
Over the past two decades, St. Paul has bucked the trend among urban districts by avoiding steady turnover at the top. Meria Carstarphen was the only superintendent in that time to depart after the standard three-year contract period.
But Carstarphen and Silva, who replaced her, also shared the distinction of being relatively quick hires for St. Paul. It’s been 17 years since the district has faced the prospect of having to wait more than six months for a new permanent leader to be chosen.
Board Member John Brodrick, noting the importance of the engagement effort and aggressive timeline attached to it — a timeline that he said could easily be thrown off — raised the possibility that a new superintendent might not be in place for the 2017-18 school year.
Other members expressed time-commitment concerns. But Vanderwert sounded a hopeful note.
“It sounds like a big order, but we can do it,” she said.