Sweeping change comes to St. Paul school board

St. Paul school board candidate Mary Vanderwert
St. Paul school board candidate Mary Vanderwert talks about support for early childhood development during a candidates forum at Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul in October.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Voters swept four newcomers onto the St. Paul School board in the city's municipal elections Tuesday. A slate of DFL and union-backed candidates grabbed the board's open seats.

At the Urban Growler tap room in St. Paul, newly elected school board members Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert watched as their lock on the four open board seats clamped down.

Mary Vanderwert
Mary Vanderwert
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Vanderwert addressed the crowd soon after it became apparent she and the others candidates had all brought in at least 16 percent of the vote, enough for each to easily win.

"We're going to continue to work with all of you because our kids deserve that," she said. "We need to be there for our kids and our schools need to work for our kids. So we're ready to go to work. Let's all go to work!"

The two women and two men — all St. Paul Public Schools parents — were the only candidates out of nine on the ballot backed by the by St. Paul Federation of Teachers and the DFL party.

Among the district's chief concerns this time around: Discipline, and falling enrollment.

Steve Marchese
Steve Marchese
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Steve Marchese said he entered the race because he disagreed with the district's reorganization plans, placing sixth grade students in middle schools and moving students with behavior problems and English language learners closer toward the mainstream.

"The kinds of decisions that were being made, while being made with good intent," he said, "were not reflecting the kind of planning and smart thinking that needed to happen so they could be implemented in a way to be successful."

Zuki Ellis
Zuki Ellis is the mother of a St. Paul second-grader.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Marchese said the newly elected candidates will serve to challenge St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva more.

"Obviously, we're not going to be miracle workers — this is a large system," he said. "But having new voices and new leadership at the board level will make a significant difference in the tone of the district."

Zuki Ellis said several issues prompted her to run for a seat, but one issue in particular came up frequently during her campaign: the district's disciplinary policy, which had been implemented to cut down on suspensions and keep students in schools.

Jon Schumacher
Jon Schumacher
Richard Marshall for MPR News

"There is great concern about that," she said. "As a parent and as a community member, I have heard the multiple, multiple concerns about what is the district doing? How are we supporting students and schools? How are we supporting staff? And what resources are available?"

Silva released a written statement before the election results were finalized.

"With new board members comes the new opportunity to gain additional perspectives on the work that is happening in our district," she wrote. "I know that we all share the same goals of offering the students of Saint Paul Public Schools a world-class education."

Two-term incumbent and board vice chair Keith Hardy lost his seat in Tuesday's election. He said the campaign against incumbents didn't give credit to his role on the board — he says he often took issue with the district.

Incumbent Keith Hardy
Incumbent Keith Hardy lost his seat Tuesday.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Hardy congratulated all the newly elected board members, but offered a challenge of his own to everyone involved in the St. Paul public school system.

"If this movement, this change, so to speak, is supposed to be benefiting our students, then we need to be laser-focused on accountability of all seven members of the board," Hardy said.

The newly elected members of the board are scheduled to have their first meeting on Jan. 5, 2016.

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