Gail Ghere appeared to be a step ahead of the competition when she applied this year to be permanent head of special education services for St. Paul Public Schools.

Parents and advocates, when asked for qualities they wanted in a leader, felt they’d made themselves clear. “A lot of what we thought we needed, we thought Gail had,” said Lynn Shellenberger, co-chairwoman of the district’s Special Education Advisory Council.

But Ghere, then the office’s interim leader, never got a final interview. Instead, Superintendent Joe Gothard changed the position from that of a director to an assistant superintendent — reopening the search and increasing the likelihood that the district and its taxpayers will be paying more for its new head of specialized services.

Gothard, who has led the state’s second-largest district for about 16 months, now is building his own team, with changes that include two other new and potentially high-priced administrative positions. The leadership moves are happening while the financially strapped district is asking voters next week to approve $18.6 million a year in new funding to stem a recent run of annual springtime budget cuts.

This week, Gothard said that the district is funding the positions with existing resources, that three other administrative vacancies will go dark, and that the administration is being thoughtful and strategic with its staffing decisions.

A Star Tribune review of district expenditures points to it reining in leadership costs in the schools and at district headquarters.

Plans for the new hires first were announced in August. At the time, Gothard told school board members he was mindful that the positions cost money but said they were a priority in launching a new strategic plan that is still is being sharpened.

The positions include a chief of schools who will oversee leadership development and the assistant superintendents who guide K-12 operations, as well as a director of equal employment and opportunity whose duties will include investigating allegations of sexual harassment and racial bias. The chief’s position would pay between $126,500 and $171,500, and the director’s job would pay between $94,700 and $135,000, the district said.

In August, Gothard’s new leadership chart still showed the special education leader at a director’s level that would have paid between $94,700 and $130,000. Now, as an assistant superintendent, the salary range increases to $100,600 to $160,000.

Last month, the Special Education Advisory Council members met with Gothard and learned he switched gears on the special education leadership position because he wanted something more in a candidate, Shellenberger said. She added that while “a bunch of us would have wanted Gail … it’s his job, it’s his call and it’s why the school board hired him.” But she wanted someone permanent in place by now.

“Our kids don’t have extra time,” she said.

Ghere, one of nine applicants for the director’s job, has since retired effective Dec. 1. She declined an interview.

Administrative spending

The St. Paul school district has faced deficits, and cut budgets, for four years running. Spending on administration, always a sensitive subject politically, has been targeted for trims as school board members have sought to minimize cuts to classrooms.

According to state Department of Education data, the district’s administrative expenditures rose each year in the four years between 2013-14 and 2016-17, and then fell by 3.3 percent to about $23.5 million in 2017-18. The district has budgeted about $23.4 million for the current school year, with the bulk of the expenditures, about $17.6 million, slated for school administrative costs, a district document shows.

Also part of the administrative cost category are school board and superintendent’s office expenditures. In 2017-18, St. Paul was the biggest spender among the state’s 10 largest districts — at $1.65 million. Minneapolis was second at about $1.5 million and Osseo a distant third at $894,223.

This year, St. Paul expects the school board and superintendent’s office expenditures to drop to about $1.3 million.

Gothard envisions the new chief of schools to be a point person between himself and the assistant superintendents who oversee school operations. He said the person will be tasked with holding administrators to the highest standards possible and with lifting aspiring leaders.

Last week, Gothard informed the Coalition of Asian American Leaders — a group that has accused the district of shortchanging the Asian community, its largest constituency — that the new director of equal employment and opportunity would work with the community and others to develop a plan to “increase our staff, teachers and leaders of color.”

In correspondence with special education parents, he described the assistant superintendent position as a “top priority” and invited them to join him in thanking Ghere for her “exemplary service.”

Asked this week about elevating the position to assistant superintendent, he said: “Effective leadership in a large urban, diverse school district requires us to think differently. Gone are the days that we simply replace an open position to ‘fill a seat.’ ”

He added that the job once was classified as an assistant superintendent but was reclassified to a director — in part, he said, for budget reasons.