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With key backers off board, Silva faces challenge in St. Paul schools

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Eight candidates for the St. Paul schools at forum
Nine candidates vied for the four open spots on the St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education this year. Eight of those candidates participated in a forum in late October.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

The new majority that St. Paul voters elected to the city's school board won't be sworn in until January, and the new members don't have drastic plans for change — at least not yet. 

  But fights at St. Paul high schools and complaints about classroom discipline made for a bruising school board campaign that ended with the ouster of four incumbents who had backed the agenda of the controversial superintendent, Valeria Silva.    

Silva said she and the new board members "have more in common than people think. We all know the future of this city is in the hands of education, and they are members of this educational team, and I am super open-minded to learn from them."  

Press conference with Superintendent Silva
Surrounded by city and school leaders at a news conference in April, St. Paul school superintendent Valeria Silva announced that she would drop out of the running for a superintendent job in Florida. Silva had been named one of four finalists a day before.
Tim Post | MPR News

Silva has been superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools since 2009, and at the center of a controversial policy shift meant to tackle racial disparities in achievement and discipline. One key method has been to cut suspensions that district officials say particularly affect black students and their class time.

"No, I don't see [the election] as a referendum about me personally," Silva said. "I believe it is a referendum about the changes that we have done. Remember, we have done more changes in the last six years than we had done in 25 years in St. Paul Public Schools. That comes with issues. Change is hard."  

  And one thing's sure: There's more of that coming.

    "So many parents have asked so many times, how are we expecting our son, our daughter to learn, when it's chaotic and the response of the district has not been appropriate?" said Roy Magnuson, a social studies teacher at Como Park High. He's an officer in the teachers' union and a founder of the political movement that overturned the board.

    "And I think that was reflected in the election, that people said, 'Enough. Let's start looking at maybe going back to where we were and taking a different fork in the road.'" 

And he can see that happening without Silva.  

She begins a new three-year contract with the district next month at a starting salary of $213,000. The contract says she can be bought out, but at full price, including benefits. That total could initially approach $1 million.  

  That's a lot of money, but K-12 enrollment has started to nose down in St. Paul, and state aid with it. An enrollment drop of 200 kids, such as the district reported to the state last month, could mean more than $1.2 million less in state per-pupil funding this year. That's based on Department of Education per-student calculations — although the amount varies, depending on who leaves a school.   

  Critics say a loss of confidence in the district and an exodus by St. Paul families could be even more expensive than a buyout.  

  Longtime school board member and retired teacher John Brodrick, a sometime critic of Silva, thinks she and the board will decide to stay together.  

  "But I think this board has earned the right to be much more assertive than boards have been in the past," he said, "and quite honestly to put pressure on Valeria Silva to answer some of the concerns that I tried to bring forward for the past couple of years and that other folks have also."  

Steve Marchese
Steve Marchese
Richard Marshall for MPR News

  Incoming board member Steve Marchese, an attorney and parent, said that rather than starting from scratch he wants the current district administration to try again. He said he doesn't think the problem is only a choice between sending away disruptive kids or sacrificing the education of their peers.  

"What are the answers to these questions?" he asked. "I think there's a lot out there that we can look into. I want to see that creativity from the administration around how to make that happen. This is a problem that is not unique to St. Paul. And we need to look at some of the other models in the country for how this has happened, and start implementing them in our city."   

So the factions in the debate over the future of public schools in St. Paul seem to be giving each other the benefit of the doubt —  for now.