When it comes to rescue efforts, John Thein is a seasoned hand.
As the Roseville School District superintendent, he moved fast in 2013 to save an east-metro magnet school at risk of being shuttered. He met with the state’s education commissioner one day, and later that night, won school board support for his district to manage Harambee Community School in 2013-14.
“We’re going to take care of these kids,” Thein said.
Now, Thein has taken on a higher-profile challenge, coming out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent of the St. Paul Public Schools. His tenure may end up being measured in months, and while he’s prepared to help try to turn around school climate and enrollment woes in the state’s second-largest district, his value may be in his calming presence.
He steps in after the school board ousted Valeria Silva, who is staying on in a consulting role. Last week, Thein said in an interview that he spoke with Silva to make sure she was comfortable with him coming aboard and to assure her that he had not sought the job — that it was an “ask.” In fact, Thein was in Nashville taking in a Johnny Cash museum exhibit when he received the call from St. Paul.
Now, he occupies the superintendent’s office, enjoying a beautiful fifth-floor view of the Mississippi River bluffs. He is excited by what he calls a great opportunity. But he noted, too, the nervousness he senses in people who may be worried about their jobs or about who he is and what he’s going to do.
There are trust issues within the district, too, he said, citing former Board Member Jean O’Connell’s decision to quit — in part over the board’s handling of Silva’s dismissal. In her exit, O’Connell, a former board chairwoman, decried the “disrespectful, destructive and cynical” nature of a board whose majority was elected a year ago on a mandate for change.
Leadership on Harambee
Thein sees his role as not being about fixes, but about helping the district heal.
To that end, St. Paul could not have chosen a better man for its top job, suggested Eric Celeste, who was on the front lines of the Harambee fight as a school integration advocate.
“Thein, personally, he was a nice tonic in those times,” Celeste said.
Harambee, in Maplewood, falls within the Roseville district’s borders. In 2013, when its future was in doubt, Harambee was one of two year-round schools operated by the East Metro Integration District (EMID), and it was designed to promote the integration of students in St. Paul and its suburbs.
Parents at the two schools watched with frustration as the EMID’s member districts — St. Paul and Roseville among them — pulled back funding. The districts were growing more diverse, and as their budgets tightened, they sought to shift money to local efforts to narrow achievement gaps between white and minority students.
It was then that Thein raised his hand, offering to take over and preserve Harambee’s focus on multicultural education and environmental sciences. When legislators failed to act on a transfer of the building to his district, he worked with the state and the EMID on a management agreement that would keep the program alive until the state finally backed the plan a year later.
“Thein provided a different kind of leadership than we were seeing from EMID at the time,” said Celeste. He was warm and reassuring, Celeste added, “and willing to stand and talk with families.”
Thein had faith in Harambee’s programming, but he was pragmatic, too. The last thing he wanted, he said, was to see a charter school take control of the building and siphon students from his district.
“I wanted to make sure those kids are our kids,” he said.
Then, realizing where he was sitting, he added: “I feel kind of bad now because a lot of those kids came from St. Paul.”
He’s ‘more measured’
A year ago in August, Thein retired after 27 years in Roseville — the last 17 as its superintendent. He set off for Europe with his brother Tony, a retired professor, visiting Normandy and Versailles in France and the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. His wife, Pam Thein, an attorney, bought them a partial season ticket package to Minnesota Twins games — “great seats,” John Thein said, “right near the mini-doughnuts.”
Family is important to the self-described introvert, and his new office is full of reminders. There is a picture of his two sons in football uniforms on one wall. A mug on his desk has a picture of his wife and one of their granddaughters, Clara, who recently wrote on a whiteboard across the room: “Have a great day, Clara,” and “You make me smile.”
For now, Thein isn’t offering up any big answers to St. Paul’s school climate and enrollment concerns.
He takes his work “very, very, very seriously,” but not himself, he said. Now 66, he’s comfortable with drawing on his experience.
“There is an advantage to being older,” he said. “You’re a little more relaxed. You’re not in a hurry. You’re more measured.”
Asked if he’d reached out yet to the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, which often was at odds with Silva but whose president, Denise Rodriguez, maintained a year ago that the union was not out to get rid of her, Thein said: “The president, Denise, yes, very nice. She’s a lovely lady and I felt really comfortable meeting her. Our agreement was to keep meeting and keep talking. Everyone wants to make it work, I think.”
Rodriguez agreed, calling it a “great meeting.” Thein’s presence, she said, had the potential to improve relations between her union and the administrators at 360 Colborne St.