St. Paul school board member John Brodrick has had a range of emotions over the past week as he learned of the city’s school superintendent’s attempt to ditch her recent three-year contract for a more lucrative job in Florida.
When Brodrick first heard that Valeria Silva was a top candidate for a job in sunny Palm Beach, he said he was surprised. Then, he was disappointed. By Thursday, when Silva surrounded herself with supporters to announce that, “after reflection,” she was staying in St. Paul, Brodrick admitted he was a “little livid.”
Though not invited to the meeting with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Silva and her backers Thursday, Brodrick showed up for the short “press availability” anyway. Coincidentally, he’s the only board member to have voted against extending Silva’s contract.
Afterward, “I thought I better get out of there before my Rice Street side came out,” Brodrick said. “An MPR reporter caught me and I think I said I was befuddled.”
Brodrick did not look like he was the only one wanting to flee that debacle. Coleman’s dour expression was priceless. I couldn’t tell if he was scanning the room looking for the closest exit, or if he was acting as Silva’s bodyguard, suspiciously eyeing the crowd for pitchforks.
To recap, Silva told some board members and apparently Coleman that she’d considered the job before she sealed her new $213,000 contract. But the newspaper found that she’d actually submitted her application April 2, after her contract was extended. While on vacation, she e-mailed board members to say that her name was going to surface for the Florida job, then helpfully offered up some “talking points” so they would praise her to the media:
“Superintendent Silva has been committed to St. Paul Public Schools for more than 25 years and we trust that she will continue to put the needs of our students and families at the forefront of any decision she may ultimately make,” she wrote about herself.
Meanwhile, she was telling the folks in Florida: “I have the energy, unconditional commitment and strong passion that you are seeking.”
It’s kind of clear what was in the forefront of Silva’s decision.
By Friday, I caught Brodrick, a retired American government teacher and hockey coach, “sitting on my faux chair watching my fake fire” in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.
“After reflection,” his mood was spirited.
“The last three days, I just don’t get it,” said Brodrick. “I haven’t been this excited since we went into the third period tied with Hill-Murray. I’m just an old schoolteacher and hockey coach. It seems we are giving superintendents this royal treatment. She obviously thought she could do whatever she wanted while we sat around and waited.”
“I’m the Rodney Dangerfield of education,” he said.
Well, it’s about time Brodrick started getting some respect for speaking his mind about St. Paul schools, and he’s not alone.
Louise Seeba, another school board member, found out about Silva’s withdrawal from the Florida job on Twitter, apparently now seen as a valid way to tell your bosses about your job intentions.
“The way Ms. Silva handled the subsequent withdrawal wasted time, energy, and resources,” Seeba said in an e-mail. “It took focus off of St. Paul students and put the focus on Ms. Silva. I’m disappointed. Since she hastily withdrew, her decision to apply now seems impulsive.”
If it wasn’t impulsive, some think it was worse: coldly calculating.
Al Oertwig, a former school board member and current candidate aligned with a Caucus for Change movement that seeks to replace three incumbents, said previous superintendents have used potential jobs elsewhere for leverage.
Silva may have been trying to galvanize her supporters to help the board members who favor her in the upcoming election, Oertwig said. Even though her bungled acknowledgment of her job search, and subsequent proclamations of love for St. Paul, seemed to outsiders like a disaster, “I think it was a win,” Oertwig said.
Oertwig explained that those who already oppose her will simply shrug, while her supporters will start working diligently on her behalf. He also said it was possible consultants told Silva she had little chance at the Florida job, making her decision a no-brainer.
Silva’s reputation is mixed. She’s been nationally acclaimed for her work in English language learning and equity issues, but many parents have criticized her for failing to control students’ behavior in school. She’s been in the St. Paul system for 27 years, so no one begrudges her a chance to advance to a district twice the size.
When I heard that the terms of Silva’s contract allowed her to leave with 90 days notice, but forces the district to pay her if they want her gone, I couldn’t help but think: Who does she think she is, a college coach?
Even Brodrick said Silva “has done some good things” and deserves every penny of her salary. But he criticizes a system that “has brought in a corporate model with CEO-style superintendents, where we treat them almost regally. There’s this idea that these folks have all the answers.
“Education doesn’t take place in the boardroom or think tanks,” Brodrick said. “Education takes place with teachers who do their jobs, who wipe kids’ noses and put on their overshoes, if they even have overshoes.
“It seems the last group of people we ask for advice are these teachers,” Brodrick said.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin