The members of the St. Paul school board realized they had a problem, starting with themselves.

So as they search for a new superintendent to replace the one they forced out, they will meet in secret to figure out how to get along better.

In September, the board approved a plan to engage the public in searching for a new schools chief. Board members are eager to get beyond the acrimony of the departure of Valeria Silva, the target of the newly elected “Caucus for Change” board majority that took over in January.

Silva’s ouster prompted the resignation of onetime chairwoman Jean O’Connell, who said the board had become “so disrespectful, destructive and cynical that I can no longer be part of it.”

So the St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education decided it needs the equivalent of a group hug.

Such a gesture normally must take place in public, any time there is a quorum of board members. But the state of Minnesota has given its blessing for the St. Paul school board to meet privately with trained facilitators — as well as school administrators and teachers union leaders.

Meetings about improving “trust, relationships, communication and collaborative problem solving” do not violate the Open Meetings Law’s mandate that public business be conducted in public, according to a Nov. 4 opinion by Matthew Massman, the state administration commissioner.

Those meetings haven’t happened yet. But they’re needed for “honest conversations that are very difficult to do in a public place,” said Jon Schumacher, the school board chairman and part of the Caucus for Change.

I thought that was curious coming from Schumacher, who, as a candidate for the board, spoke out against its policy of turning off the webcams during public comment periods.

The trust-building sessions were proposed by the Minnesota State Office for Collaboration and Dispute Resolution and the Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s Dispute Resolution Institute. Those organizations are covering the costs, aside from incidentals.

Here are some of the conversation starters for the proposed team-building sessions:

“One of the most formative experiences in my life was …”

“Something that only my family and good friends know about me …”

Those sound fairly benign. Then it gets a bit more pointed.

“A way that I have felt misunderstood by other board members is …

“If you could change one thing about the way the Board functions, what would it be?”

Schumacher said that the facilitators will stop the conversation if there are “even hints” of actual board business brought up.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the conversations staying on the kumbaya level, especially when the administrators and union leaders join the meeting. Massman’s opinion made no distinction, however, when asked whether including the union and staff changes the mix: As long as they stay away from “official business,” it’s not a meeting subject to the law.

There is a place for private meetings by elected bodies, and they’re laid out in statute: evaluating an employee’s performance, discussing a real estate deal, getting a security briefing, for example.

But there’s a disturbing trend now of politicians deciding they can’t govern in public.

Steve Marchese, another newly elected board member, uses words like “open and honest” and “the opportunity to speak frankly” as justification for the private sessions.

“Let’s have some realistic expectations of what human beings are capable of doing together,” Marchese said.

Figuring out how to get along, with the public watching, is an unrealistic expectation. At least for St. Paul Public Schools.


Contact James Eli Shiffer at or 612-673-4116.