Three candidates — one from the south metro and two from large urban districts outside Minnesota — were announced Thursday as finalists to be the next superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools.
They were among 13 semifinalists identified by a national search firm as possible successors to former Superintendent Valeria Silva — who was bounced by her school board bosses last summer.
On Wednesday, board members narrowed the list of finalists to Joe Gothard, superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District; Cheryl Logan, chief academic support officer for the School District of Philadelphia; and Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools.
“I feel that the candidates are really quality candidates, and we are really excited to bring them to town,” board Chairman Jon Schumacher said Thursday.
Last summer, the school board split with Silva by way of a controversial $787,000 contract buyout. Members felt a change was needed after her ambitious restructuring of the state’s second-largest district fell flat, enrollment-wise, and after unruly behavior in the schools escalated into brawls and student-on-staff violence. Silva also, however, enjoyed a national reputation for her work in English language learning and helped raise graduation rates and attention to racial and gender equity.
The search firm Ray and Associates of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, received 67 applications for the job posted in February — with a possible $238,000 starting salary. This year marks only the third time in nearly 20 years that the St. Paul district has embarked on a national search for a new leader.
Board members went into Wednesday’s meeting with a list of desired qualities identified by community members during an intensive outreach effort that began with meetings in December and January and included two online surveys. Schumacher went in hoping the board would have tough choices to make, and it proved to be the case.
The finalists, he said, “are not carbon copies. They are different people. But they are all qualified to lead the district.”
A look at the finalists
Gothard arrived in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District in 2013 after serving as assistant superintendent in Madison, Wis. “I’m truly a teacher at heart,” he told the Star Tribune then. Boosting staff morale was a goal. He added then that he had just seen the movie “42” about Jackie Robinson, and that as the son of a white mother and black father conscious of his racial identity, it proved “very emotional for me.”
Last summer, Logan garnered notice in the national publication Education Week for the Philadelphia district’s efforts to encourage young children to read on vacation to avoid the summer slide. About 37,000 students had been given books, with an emphasis on “reading for leisure,” Logan was quoted as saying.
Also in Education Week, Ramos wrote in 2013 of being a former high school dropout who went to college after receiving his GED certificate. The subject at hand was the perils of mandated testing, about which Ramos concluded: “It pains me to know that we have turned off the drive for success of many of our kids because we labeled them failures based on tests that do not predict how well they will do in life.”
In surveys, St. Paul respondents identified a safe, supportive learning environment; budget challenges, and racial equity and its impact on learning as the major issues facing district schools. The new superintendent also faces the ongoing challenge of trying to narrow achievement gaps that are among the worst in the nation.
Competition for St. Paul students is fierce.
In October, the school district had 37,042 students, down from 37,605 in October 2015, the biggest yearly decline in the three years since Silva launched her Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan. That coincides with a rise in charter school enrollment.
The loss of students, and the revenue that goes with them, contributed to a $15.1 million budget gap for the current school year.
This month, the board learned it now must resolve a potential $27.3 million shortfall for 2017-18.
John Thein, the district’s interim superintendent, said he is working toward a smooth transition for the next leader.
Suspensions were down in the first quarter, but the district still is seeing a disproportionate percentage of black students disciplined.
Asked if a superintendent candidate should be apprehensive about St. Paul, Thein said: “Every day I am here I grow fonder of the district.” As for the board that jettisoned its previous leader, he added: “These are reasonable, good people who want to do good things for kids in St. Paul.”
The next superintendent, he said, is sure to find a caring staff and community.
“You don’t have to worry that you’re all alone,” Thein said.
People can meet the candidates Wednesday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Washington Technology Magnet School, 1495 Rice St.
The board is expected to interview the finalists the following day, then visit their home districts in April, with hopes of making a final choice later in the month.