About that Loyal Opposition

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.


4 thoughts on “About that Loyal Opposition

  1. Joe Nathan

    It’s barely the first “set”, Beth – much to early for anyone to declare victory in ST Paul – especially in a week where the state showed high school grad rates declining in ST. Paul – even though the state no longer requires students to pass reading or writing tests, as it did until just a few years ago. Sadly most media ignored this fact (because MDE press release ignored this fact.

    As to resources – watch what board does this spring in terms of insisting on more specific goals, measuring results, and reallocating $ from district bureaucrats to schools where the most important work takes place. Watch what happens with increased resources at the building level.

    Beth, it’s much too early to declare “game, set, match.”

    1. Beth Hawkins Post author

      I think you’ve missed my point, Joe. No one *is* declaring victory in St. Paul.

      Indeed, I think the fact that you are confident the board will succeed in implementing specific items buttresses my suggestion that the new members appear to be doing more mandating than collaborating or governing.

  2. Joe Nathan

    Beth, with respect, I don’t think you are seeing a lot of what’s happening in ST. Paul.

    I think it’s far too early to say how well the supt and board will get along. I also think the supt’s assertions that she will be around until 2018 are, to be gentle, premature. That clearly is her preference. But it’s not clear yet whether that is the preference of the board.

    Despite the supt’s recent rhetoric, she is trying some of the same old tricks, such as having her staff give lengthy reports that lack clear goals or a timeline. She tried having staff pass out new stickers and signs re “safe schools” in January – the new board (quite properly) was not impressed, especially since she asserts that $ are short.

    You ask whether it’s match, set, point to Silva? I think the more important question is whether things will get better for students. The board is quietly pushing in some different directions that Silva has opposed. We’ll see what happens.

    1. Beth Hawkins Post author

      We may have to agree to disagree here, Joe–despite agreeing often and on many topics. I don’t think there’s anything “quiet” about the way the new board members have conducted business since their election. Which is precisely my point. Given your disdain for Silva I am not sure what she could do at this point that you would see as constructive.

      Stickers? Really? We’re going to complain about her having stickers made?


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