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St. Paul board removes Silva as superintendent

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St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva
St. Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva addresses the media Dec. 9, 2015.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2015

 Updated: June 22, 2:50 p.m. | Posted: June 21, 8:38 p.m.

Valeria Silva has less than a month to lead St. Paul's public schools. The St. Paul school board removed the district superintendent at a tense meeting Tuesday night. 

Silva's superintendent contract ends July 15. She'll stay on with the district in an advisory role until September 2017, pulling down her full current salary. The board voted 5-2 in favor of the severance package, which will cost the district $787,500. 

Board Chairperson Jon Schumacher said he believes the change will save the district money in the long run.

"We need to take a major look at how we deliver education, so we accelerated the transition process so that we could in fact start that, bring in some fresh perspectives," he said. 

Schumacher talked with reporters after a packed board meeting with an audience that was clearly divided. Pockets erupted in cheers and boos as Silva's fate was debated. 

Principal Adrain Pendelton of St. Paul's Obama Elementary supports the longtime superintendent. She said Silva's leadership and racial equity work has helped her give students a bigger voice.

"My thinking changed from 'Here are the children, I got to pour all this stuff in them, these empty vessels' to 'Our children bring a lot of assets to our building, and it's up to me as a leader to find those and help those shine and help those grow,' " Pendelton said. 

On the other side, a group of community members showed up with signs reading "You're Fired," and loudly approved of anyone urging Silva's removal.

The conflict mirrored tensions that have mounted over Silva's tenure. Enrollment in the district has fallen and is projected to drop again next year. St. Paul saw several incidents of student violence against teachers last year that prompted the teachers' union to move toward a strike. Earlier this year a former St. Paul teacher started an online petition urging Silva's removal.

Board Member Steve Marchese said the leadership change will move the district forward.

"It's about pointing us in the direction of the future. It's about giving our community hope that we can rally around leadership that we trust and we can get behind. It's around including everybody in the community in the conversation that needs to come about who will be leading our district in the future permanently."

But the fact that the superintendent's buyout came on the same day as approval of the district's $715 million budget did not go unnoticed. St. Paul has a $15 million deficit for next year. The board-approved budget includes a reduction in money for schools as well as cuts to districtwide departments like family and community engagement and the office of equity.

Bridget Moore, chairperson of a district parent advisory council, questioned the spending.

"To use money to buy out a contract when you're already doing deep cuts is beyond ridiculous," Moore said. "I don't believe you would balance your budgets at home the way that you're balancing the budgets at our schools."

Schumacher said money for an interim superintendent and other severance package expenses will come from changes in administrative positions.

As the votes wrapped up, the drama continued. Board Member Jean O'Connell declared she was resigning her seat. O'Connell was on the board that renewed Silva's contract last year.

"I am personally taken aback by the way the current chair and treasurer of this board have worked in secret and frozen other members of this board out of major issues, up to and including the decision to buy out the superintendent," she said. 

O'Connell called the current board environment "disrespectful, distructive and cynical." 

Schumacher denied the accusations of secrecy and said the agreement has been under discussion for more than a month.

The board named retired Roseville superintendent John Thein as the district's interim leader beginning July 18. Schumacher said the board hasn't started discussing a search timeline.

Silva wrote in a letter to the St. Paul schools community that she had intended to serve in her role until 2018, when her contract would've expired.

"However, the Board of Education has decided to accelerate that schedule by transitioning to new district leadership sooner than that," she wrote. "During this upcoming transition, I am committed to supporting the students, families and staff of our extraordinary district."

Clarification (June 21, 2016:): The story above clarifies that Silva's contract ends on July 15.