Veteran St. Paul teachers say they were bullied out of work to save money

A coalition of aging teachers say they were unceremoniously forced out of St. Paul Schools when the district was trying to save money.

A coalition of aging teachers say they were unceremoniously forced out of St. Paul Schools when the district was trying to save money.

Last week, St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva received a golden parachute of nearly $800,000 to vacate the district’s top seat.

It came as a sort of irony to a number of aging teachers who say they were bullied and harassed to the point of being forced to leave St. Paul schools over the last several years of her administration.

With no cash, just PTSD.

They believe it was because they were paid more than the district wanted to spend.

St. Paul teachers are some of the highest paid in the state, according to a Star Tribune analysis. That’s because many teachers tend to stay for a long time, and because they have advanced degrees. These qualifications entitle them to higher scales negotiated by a relatively powerful teachers union.

At the same time, St. Paul has been having money problems. Shortfalls prompted Silva’s controversial proposals this year to cut arts and music programs, while teachers called for a weeding of the district’s top-heavy administration.

But instead of renegotiating their salaries, administrators suddenly began to give them scathing reviews on jobs they’d done well for decades, the teachers say. Bad reviews would then land them on “improvement plans” with impossible goals – the first step in firing them.

Stephen Severance, who’d taught for 36 years, says he was put on his first improvement plan only after the principal overheard him talking about marrying his longtime partner. At the time, Minnesota had just legalized gay marriage, and Severance was excited that his soon-to-be spouse could benefit from his health plan. That’s when the principal called him into her office, Severance says, to chat about his upcoming nuptials.

In his final year, Severance’s students earned the highest scores of all the fifth-grade classes. Still, he wasn’t taken off the improvement plan, and the accruing stress convinced him to simply retire.

Carla Renz taught for 29 years. She never had a bad review until a new principal, Jayne Ropella, was transferred to Heights Community School in 2012.

Within two months of arriving, Ropella started walking through classrooms, observing teachers for about three minutes at a time, Renz says. She used these observations to put longtime teachers on improvement plans, including third-grade teacher Renz, third-grade teacher Bev Hanson, first-grade teacher Megan Emerson, and librarian Leslie Radloff.

According to Renz, Ropella told her that she couldn’t teach. She reprimanded teachers for producing low test scores without showing them those scores. When students performed well, Ropella commented that it was just because teachers had smart kids that year, and not because they had done their jobs. She canceled Heights' multicultural assemblies, which were put together by students after they'd researched world cultures.

Unable to cope with the strain, Renz left on medical leave. She received a letter forbidding her to talk to anyone at school about work issues while she was away.

“When I walked out of that building, I didn’t leave my house for five weeks,” she says. “I didn’t know what had happened. Why would anyone do that to your career? To your livelihood? You don’t get the chance to teach in a district for 30 years more than once. I spent nights, weekends making lesson plans. I took time away from my family. That’s personal. I gave them a lot of that. And then just to treat me like expendable. You have to go to college, get more credits. When you achieve that, they penalize you for it.”

Ropella has since been transferred to Randolph Heights Elementary School, where she continues to serve as principal.

Claire Press, who'd worked in a jumble of positions in St. Paul Schools for 22 years, was originally hired to run a welfare-to-work program, helping students access services like daycare and healthcare. She counseled pregnant teens. Eventually she was transferred to Frost Lake Elementary, where she ran the library. 

A year and a half in, Press received a caustic improvement plan, painting her as incompetent across the board, accusing her of not being positive enough, not accounting for economic or cultural differences, failing to follow safety procedures, and failing to support teachers.

"I saw it and I was like, 'Who is this person?'" Press says. "It was like I would never hire this person. This person is lower than a one-celled amoeba."

It was the first bad review she'd received in her career. The principal was unhappy with the time she took to stock the shelves, Press says. Before she started at Frost Lake, students helped re-shelve in their free time. She didn't think they should have been doing that.

Press also kept a number of boxes in her work space full of books and trinkets donated from Barnes and Noble, which she gave to special education and homeless students, whom some teachers barred from checking out library books just in case they misplaced them.

"I put out an email without going through any official process to get it okayed. I said tell them to come to me, kind of with a wink," Press says. "I had two big boxes under my desk. I know a lot of it had to do with all the extra boxes of stuff and how there was no room for storage." 

The improvement plan threw her for a little loop, Press says. It painted her as such an incompetent that she started keeping a daily log of everything that kept her busy, minute by minute. At some point, she broke down and went on short term disability. 

Soon, she chose to retire early. "I was told that once you get on these [improvement plans], you don't get off them," Press says. "And if I didn't get off it, if I wanted to fight it instead, it would cost mega money. I didn't want that, and I couldn't afford to lose any retirement benefits that I had."

Nina Boyd, a former teacher at Expo for Excellence, began teaching in St. Paul in 1993 while raising two children as a single parent. In 2003, she returned to school to get her master's. Her reviews were consistently glowing, she says, until the fall of 2010.

That year, about one-third of her class consisted of students with special needs and behavior issues, so she asked for backup. 

"It was very surprising to me when this principal responded by placing me on an improvement plan," Boyd says. She focused on trying to meet the goals by working with a classroom management coach. Videotapes of her class showed improvement, but the principal wasn't satisfied, Boyd says.

She was continually criticized until she left school in the middle of the day in an ambulance after suffering a heart attack. 

One week later, she returned to class — and to a surprise observation by the principal. The day after that, a district representative arrived to do another observation, after meeting with the principal. Both were negative.

Boyd was pushed to the next level of her improvement plan, one step closer to termination. Her colleagues called a meeting with the principal to argue that he shouldn't have increased Boyd's load so soon after her heart attack, especially when she had been making strides in classroom management. The principal didn't change his mind. 

There wasn't much left to do but go on medical leave and retire at 55, Boyd says. She was diagnosed with PTSD, major depression, and anxiety. 

"I taught for three weeks after my heart attack. I wanted to be there for my class," Boyd says. "I believed then and still believe now that I am effective teacher ... I did everything that was asked of me and it still wasn’t good enough."