Superintendent’s time in District 191 was transformational
Searching for a “healer” to lead their district, St. Paul School Board members voted 5-2 Tuesday to hire Joe Gothard as superintendent.
Gothard knows the “healer” role well.
In July 2013 he became superintendent of Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District 191, which was at a crossroads after the often-turbulent tenure of his predecessor, Randall Clegg.
Now Gothard is heading to Minnesota’s second-largest school district, which has been without a permanent chief since June 2016, when the board bought out ex-Superintendent Valeria Silva’s contract.
At a press conference Tuesday, a reporter asked if Gothard truly wants the top job in a St. Paul district known for strife, controversy and a School Board shakeup in the last election.
“Absolutely,” said Gothard, 45. “You go through a lot of reflection, personally and professionally, when faced with an opportunity of this magnitude. I’ve been very fortunate to have almost four very successful years here in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage ISD 191 — creating relationships, putting systems in place, making sure there are clear lines of communication, instilling confidence, trust, belief and hope — in a community that really needed it.”
The St. Paul board chose Gothard over a second finalist, Cheryl Logan, chief academic support officer for the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, schools.
“I know this is one of the most challenging jobs in the state of Minnesota and maybe even beyond,” said Gothard, who will go from a district with 9,500 students to one with more than 39,000. “And I, throughout my entire career, have taken on challenges. I think the results, I won’t say they speak for themselves, but I’ve been known to not shy away from challenges. I continue to learn, reflect, grow, each and every day. I will not come in and say I have all the answers, but I will say I’m committed to finding them.”
St. Paul Board Member Mary Vanderwert, who visited District 191, told the Pioneer Press that Gothard’s co-workers described him as a “healer” and “unifier.”
“In four short years in Burnsville,” Gothard has “led significant culture change and made some pretty significant structural changes without a lot of conflict,” Vanderwert said in a Minnesota Public Radio story.
Gothard’s time in District 191 has been transformational. He led successful levy votes and oversaw a redesign of district schools while earning two stellar performance reviews from the School Board.
Replacing Clegg, who had received a substandard review from the board, Gothard was tasked with developing a school reorganization plan that led to a successful referendum in February 2015.
By comfortable margins, voters approved a $65 million building bond, $52.5 million of which was used to expand and upgrade Burnsville High School, and a technology levy to raise $2.5 million annually over 10 years.
The redesign dubbed VisionOne91 came to fruition this year, with a four-year high school and new middle and elementary school grade configurations. Instructional technology was expanded and new career pathway programs were introduced at the new-look high school, among other changes.
Gothard said one of his next tasks is working with the District 191 board on a leadership transition plan.
“I don’t think that should be any surprise that that is very much important to me” given the opportunities afforded him by a “wonderful community,” Gothard said.
In St. Paul, controversy over school safety and student behavior mounted under as Silva as she worked to promote racial equity and reduce the suspension rate of black students.
“Throughout my entire career I have dealt with students who have misbehaved, as a teacher, as an administrator,” said Gothard, who came to Burnsville-Eagan-Savage from Madison, Wisconsin. “I’ve learned a great deal through some things that went very well and some things that we struggled with. “
He’s a proponent of “restorative” discipline practices and said some pilot programs are already underway in St. Paul.
“But it does take time, it does take training and it does take trust and belief,” Gothard said.
His top priorities for the district are creating stability and a “success-based culture” while promoting “what public schools mean to our communities,” Gothard said.
“It’s a wonderful time for us all to put our hands in and say we’re all in for making SPPS the best it can be,” he said.
Gothard was assistant superintendent for secondary schools in Madison before coming to Burnsville-Eagan-Savage. He was also a teacher, coach, high school principal and middle school principal in Madison.
The St. Paul board and Gothard hope to finalize a job contract around May 1.