OPINION | Real leaders make tough decisions


True leadership requires making and implementing unpopular decisions. St Paul Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva recently demonstrated this principle. Minnesota public policy leaders should take note. The right thing is rarely the easy, popular thing.

In proposing her budget cuts ahead of a St Paul School Board meeting, Superintendent Silva decided not to release a citizen advisory panel’s budget recommendations.  She didn’t go into great detail at the time, simply noting that, no, the advisory panel’s suggestions wouldn’t be released. Silva took some heat for this decision but the budget cuts’ enormity quickly commanded St Paul’s attention.

People focused on the budget cuts’ real meat: school closings. That action was both more and less dramatic than anticipated. More dramatic because closing three schools, even in a system the size of St Paul’s, is a big deal. But, it was also less dramatic because the district did a good job of telegraphing its forthcoming decision.

The St Paul Schools, properly and responsibly, regularly convene citizen and staff advisory committees. They’re a useful feedback mechanism for district leaders designed to compliment but not supplant elected and professional leadership.

Citizen advisory groups, optimally, reflect external school district stakeholder perspectives. “Stakeholder” is organization-speak for people impacted by an organization’s actions. The term was first used in a 1963 Stanford Research Institute internal memo. It gained greater currency with business professor R. Edward Freeman’s 1983 article, “Stockholders and Stakeholders.” Today, in organizational consulting circles, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone discussing affected stakeholders.

The stakeholder framework reflects expanding inclusivity. Everyone is affected by schools therefore everyone has a stake in a school district’s decisions and activities. Using the term “stakeholder” communicates organizational awareness to stakeholders even though stakeholders may not think of themselves as such.

Moving from the stakeholder theory to putting citizen advisory panels into practice quickly becomes trickier than it might seem.

The St Paul Schools’ citizen advisory panels involve an opt-in process. Volunteers purposefully participate, overcoming at least modest barriers to membership.  Advisory panels are populated by people who want to be there. While their inclusion is welcome, different questions arise. Who are they and what’s their motivation for spending hours and hours on a volunteer task? Some people participate because they strongly feel it’s the citizen’s duty in a free society. Some folks just have an ax to grind.

Engaged appropriately, citizen advisory groups are powerful instruments for organizational growth and community empowerment. Advisory group members can easily be seduced into believing that they will exercise greater authority than their role merits. When their recommendations don’t drive policy, the ax grinders tend to take this as proof that some great conspiracy is afoot.

Minnesotans learned something about this perspective when Superintendent Silva declined to release the St Paul Schools Budget Assessment Team’s budget cut recommendations. Nearly six months later, in a story published by the St Paul Pioneer Press, Silva shared some of the volunteer group’s suggestions.

St Paul’s schools, like every Minnesota school, are facing progressively smaller budgets. The State of Minnesota has reduced real school funding by 14% since 2003, forcing school districts to raise property tax levies, increase class size, reduce staff, and cut budgets. The citizen Budget Assessment Team made some good suggestions. They also made some poor ones that Silva characterizes as illegal.

So, Silva did the right albeit difficult thing. She declined to release the internal advisory report, knowing full-well that it would needlessly complicate very difficult budget cut decisions. Silva, it’s important to remember, isn’t a citizen volunteer reflecting a stakeholder perspective; she’s the school district’s chief executive officer charged by a democratically-elected school board to manage its schools.

Silva acted as a professional, drawing on considerable training and experience. She wasn’t afraid to make an unpopular decision. She didn’t pass the buck or make excuses; she made a tough decision. It’s called leadership and Minnesota needs more of it.

Minnesota’s elected policy leaders too frequently choose popular decisions over difficult ones. Balancing Minnesota’s on-going budget deficits by withholding school transfer payments or employing accounting shifts popularly solves the short-term problem but creates a greater long-term one. Minnesota is overdue for real leadership. What we have isn’t working and, in Superintendent Valeria Silva’s actions, we find a model for Minnesota. We need true leadership, now more than ever.