The St. Paul school board plans to name semi-finalists in its search for a superintendent in the coming weeks, as well as host public meetings for those candidates and possibly name a preferred finalist by Thanksgiving.
Currently, there are already at least 40 applicants for the job. The board has said it wants its new, permanent leader in place by the end of this calendar year. Suzanne Kelly has been interim superintendent since Meria Carstarphen left this spring to head the Austin, Texas school district.
For now, applicant names are secret and won't go public until the list is whittled to semi-finalists, but that whittling is imminent. The first round of interviews for those candidates is scheduled to start a week from this Friday. Those interviews are open to the public.
"I believe this is going to be a very strong field that the board will find themselves choosing from," said Ted Blaesing, who used to head the White Bear Lake district. He now works with the search firm HYA, which is recruiting candidates for St. Paul.
He's not sharing names, but Blaesing said the 40-plus people who have applied so far are of high quality. He said applicants have come from within the district, as well as from other districts across Minnesota and the nation. He estimates half were recruited to apply - the other half applied on their own.
Blaesing said 40 is indeed a large crop for an urban superintendent's job. He cites two reasons for that: the good national reputation St. Paul enjoys and its manageable enrollment.
"To many superintendents, the size of 38,000-39,000 students is not intimidating. It's difficult to envision working in an environment with 100,000 or 150,000, 200,000 or more students," Blaesing said.
The next superintendent will face a budget crunch and an achievement gap. That's the gap between how well white students perform, versus students of color.
After meeting with the public for input this summer, the search firm also determined 'morale' is an issue that will loom for the new leader. Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul teachers' union, agrees.
"I think morale has steadily been eroding, and I'll be honest, the search firm actually taught me that the division was far more than the typical labor-management division," Ricker said. "I hadn't realized to what extent divisions had started to occur between administration groups, or even between buildings. That's absolutely going to have to be addressed."
St. Paul's next leader will have to face one additional dilemma that was caused by its last leader, according to Dave Jennings. Jennings is a former state House Speaker who just announced his retirement as Eastern Carver County's superintendent, a district that includes Chaska and Chanhassen. He's not applying for the St. Paul job.
Jennings said St. Paul's next leader will have to figure out what to do with Meria Carstarphen's agenda.
"Because Carstarphen was there for such a short time, and because her initiatives are so new, there's no data yet to verify whether they're going to work or not work," Jennings said. "There will be some internal tension about 'do we stay on the course we set for ourselves, do we change course in some way?' So they're going to face that issue."
Carstarphen held the St. Paul job for three years, a fact not lost on plenty of people who spoke during those input sessions this summer.
The search firm's report said there's a strong desire that the next superintendent embrace the community and become 'one of us,' as it is worded. That doesn't automatically mean the candidate has to be internal, or already from Minnesota, but if the board does pick a candidate from outside the state, he or she should be ready to come here and stay a while.