The most important thing any school board does is to hire and oversee the work of the superintendent. How it does this work provides a clear test of the board. This week, the St. Paul school board earned at best a D in the manner in which it chose to transition to a new superintendent.
After serving on the St. Paul school board for more than six years, I made the decision to resign my position rather than participate any longer in a board that refuses to understand its job, has pitted employees against one another and has ignored recommendations by the professionals we have hired to lead our district.
As I leave, I could talk about a litany of improvements that have occurred during my time on the school board. I hope someone will successfully tell these stories, because there is much to celebrate in the achievements of St. Paul’s students.
School boards don’t educate children. They govern an organization. The hard work of educating children is done by teachers, principals, administrators, superintendents and an array of other education professionals. The climate for learning is created by support staff, building staff and, yes, administrators.
This is something our new school board members do not seem to grasp.
None of them has a superintendent’s or a principal’s license. And yet, they have regularly — in public and, more strenuously, in private — ignored or mocked the professional recommendations of principals and administrators, who have the experience, the knowledge and the licensure to run a large and complex school district. That is not acceptable or responsible governance. How can we expect and encourage more respectful behavior from our students if the adults charged with governing them do not model that behavior?
The climate at the board table has been disrespectful, destructive and cynical. The current chair and treasurer of the board have worked in secret and have frozen different members of this board out of major issues, up to and including their decision to buy out the superintendent’s contract. Not only is that poor board governance, it is terrible leadership.
But it doesn’t need to stay that way.
Our schools are stronger and bigger than the superintendent. They are bigger than me, and they are bigger than the board members who have brought us to today. A change in the superintendent’s office creates an opportunity for a change in the way this board behaves.
The interim superintendent, John Thein, is an experienced educator and school district leader. Board members have the opportunity to listen and learn from him, and I hope they will take this opportunity.
They need to develop common goals and purpose and establish a process for hiring a new superintendent, using the community to guide them. They also need to truly represent all of the people in St. Paul rather than just the vocal minority who fund campaigns and show up at school board meetings. To ensure that this happens, our communities of color must continue to insist that the members of the St. Paul school board hear their voices and act in the interest of their children. As a community, we must refuse to allow the board to let up on racial-equity efforts.
I hope the remaining board members will find it in themselves to understand how a school board operates and work with the interim superintendent and the community to return the focus to the needs of all of the children in our schools. If they can do that, they can become the school board St. Paul’s children deserve.
Jean O’Connell resigned from the St. Paul school board on Tuesday.