Match, set, point to Valeria Silva?
Silva’s announcement last week that she will retire from her position as superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools when her current contract ends in 2018 was a supremely shrewd move. As were the equally savvy remarks she made to the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ editorial board over the weekend.
“The new board is the right board at this time,” Silva told the paper, adding that its priorities “fit very well” with work underway in the district.
Yep, you read that right. The “new board” is the one that is now dominated by four members who were elected last fall with major support from the district’s teachers union and on platforms that lambasted Silva’s leadership.
The four are the same newcomers who, at the first board meeting of the year, took their oaths of office and moments later delivered Silva a list of demands and a schedule on which to meet them. (That the demands include a number of items the district has been at work on for some time went wholly unacknowledged.)
The new board members were caught completely off guard by the superintendent’s positivity. Steve Marchese, the board member who presented Silva with the to-do list at the January 5 meeting, told Minnesota Public Radio her retirement announcement was a surprise to him.
“I’m still evaluating my working relationship with the superintendent,” he said. “It is important that I get a sense of whether or not her leadership is something the district needs as it moves forward. I’m looking to the superintendent’s actions over the next several months to form my opinion.”
Um, peevish much?
Silva’s upbeat posture creates some problems for a slate that was elected in part by depicting her as inflexible, dictatorial and unwilling to listen. And buying out the remaining two years of the contract of a leader who voices support for you and your agenda might end up seeming more like a waste of tax dollars than a decisive move—particularly if you can’t articulate how your implementation will be different.
Atop all of this, the new board’s first challenge is likely to require some painstaking line-walking when it comes to establishing its independence. The district is in the process of negotiating a new contract with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, which opened the talks with a proposal that would vest the union with broad authority.
One of the new board members, Zuki Ellis, is a federation employee. The federation raised much of the estimated $250,000 spent to influence races where candidates, with one exception, ran essentially unopposed. The campaign coffer received major infusions from the state and national teachers unions.
A final complication: The four newcomers won in part by organizing St. Paul parents around a number of issues, such as school climate and arts and music instruction, that will require money. Which is in short supply in part because of class-size caps and other concessions the union won in the last contract.
Among other things, the organizing strategy galvanized community interest in St. Paul Public Schools. Which raises the likelihood that people will notice if the new contract creates a host of new jobs.
And hereabouts isn’t the only place the outcomes are being watched. Silva is something of a rock star in national education circles, in particular for her work with English language learners and in race equity. Former federation leader Mary Cathryn Ricker is now executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is translating the strategies that made the St. Paul campaigns a success to affiliates elsewhere.
As board members in Minneapolis and other large urban districts who were elected on “throw the bums out” platforms can attest, unless you can get your board-mates and the community pulling in the same direction, those yawning achievement gaps will resist narrowing.