Voters poised to remake St. Paul school board as worries mount

Eight candidates for the St. Paul schools at forum
Eight candidates for the St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education participated in a candidate's forum with a sparse audience at Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul last week.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Anita Dualeh read recent reports of fights at St. Paul high schools with alarm. While her oldest child is only a first-grader, the stories got her anxious about the future of St. Paul schools.

"When there's mention of a teacher potentially getting trampled while intervening with a fight, I was surprised about that," she said.

Dualeh wonders what's going on — not just at Como Park or Humboldt high schools, where those fights were reported, or Harding, where police found a gun in a student's backpack last month. Parents citywide, she said, shouldn't have to worry if it's safe to send their kids to school and "I have been a little bit surprised and concerned, and maybe disappointed" about St. Paul's approach to school discipline.

Discipline concerns are a common refrain lately when neighborhood discussions turn to schools. District disciplinary policy shifted several years ago to cut suspensions and keep kids in school where they could learn. That's roiled the staff, students and parents. And after several years of slow growth, enrollment turned down slightly this fall as kids left the district.

Now voters are poised to overhaul the St. Paul school board at the polls Tuesday in historic fashion.

Only one incumbent, vice chair Keith Hardy, is seeking re-election. The other three who were up for election to the seven-member board declined to run, including two who dropped out after the DFL city convention in April rejected the incumbents and endorsed four challengers at the urging of the district's powerful teachers union and angry parents.

St. Paul school board candidate Mary Vanderwert
St. Paul school board candidate Mary Vanderwert, left, talks about support for early childhood development as fellow candidates Steve Marchese, center and Keith Hardy listen during a candidates forum at Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul last week.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Skeptics wonder whether a change at the top will bring real change to classrooms. Observers, though, say the widespread unhappiness that broke through during the April convention hasn't ebbed.

"There was a widespread revolt, with people all over the city, various races, various cultures, various neighborhoods, saying enough is enough. Things have to change," said Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change and a leading proponent of publicly funded charter schools.

Nathan supports the so-called "Caucus for Change" candidates — Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert — the four challengers running together on the ballot.

He acknowledges there is a legitimate concern that kicking kids out of school, particularly minority students, contributes to a persistent achievement gap.

"It's not about the goal," he said. "There's widespread agreement about the importance of closing the achievement gap. But what we're having is a huge debate about how we get there."

Incumbent board member and candidate Keith Hardy
St. Paul incumbent school board member and candidate Keith Hardy paused before he got the mic to answer a question about school financing during a candidates forum at Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul, on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. Eight candidates for the St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education participated in the forum.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

School board elections aren't usually controversial. Current St. Paul board chair Mary Doran, along with Anne Carroll, a four-term incumbent, and Hardy, the lone black member of the board in a city where 30 percent of the school kids are African-American, initially seemed headed for easy re-election.

Doran had the endorsement of Mayor Chris Coleman and the incumbents initially faced nearly a dozen challengers, diluting the potential opposition in the city-wide election for each seat.

But the "Caucus for Change" effort pressed by the teachers union upended that conventional wisdom. DFL party and union backing are crucial in St. Paul school board elections. Few win without those endorsements.

But the demand for change is not about the union, said Ellis, one of the insurgent candidates and the parent of a St. Paul second-grader.

Ellis says that she's frustrated by other disparities she sees in schools, resources available to some, but not to others, like early childhood programs and teachers' aides. And she says she felt she couldn't get straight answers out of the district.

"We trust our students to be here in St. Paul Public Schools, and yet, when we're asking questions or we want more information, it's like, 'Don't ask us any questions. We'll tell you what we want you to know when we want to tell you,'" said Ellis, who works as a parent trainer in the district, paid for in part by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

The district said Superintendent Valeria Silva was not available for an interview until after the election.

As the new candidates appear poised to become the board's new majority, some St. Paul leaders are apprehensive.

Jeffry Martin, head of the NAACP in St. Paul, said he has some concerns about the district's new approach on discipline.

But he notes that the district's prior stance wasn't working either for black and other students of color who received "knee-jerk suspensions ... If someone disagreed with you or talked to you in a different tone, and you automatically viewed that as being a violent act toward you and therefore leading to a suspension is ridiculous. Our children do need to be in the classroom."

Martin wonders whether the school board change is meant to serve kids or the teachers union that backs the new candidates.

"There's nothing wrong with changing a board over, and there's nothing wrong with bringing new ideas in there. But let them be your own ideas," Martin said. "Don't come in with a set agenda by the people that are pushing you forward, because I think that limits your effectiveness."

Outgoing board member Carroll says she doesn't think Tuesday's vote is going to bring the change people hope for. She thinks black kids have been treated differently than white kids in St. Paul schools when it comes to discipline and that their education is suffering as a result.

"We're building the future of this city, and we're being fought tooth and nail by people who are in denial. Who's that hurting? That's hurting our kids, that's hurting our future, that's hurting our community. And that's the immorality of it," Carroll said.

"The commitment now is to throw the bums out and then get, what?"

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