A cautionary note for St. Paul school board newcomers – The teachers union isn’t the only important voice for school reform.
Editorial Board, Star Tribune, November 4, 2015
It’s a much-touted feature of one-person, one-vote democracies: School board members not listening to you? Upset with city council decisions? Just use the next election to “throw the bums out.’’
That’s exactly what happened in the St. Paul school board election on Tuesday. Four incumbent board members are out and a group of newcomers will be in. Beginning in January, the union-backed foursome will make up the majority of the seven-member governing board for Minnesota’s second-largest district.
Political newcomers Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert were swept into office with the backing of the Caucus for Change — a movement of mostly teachers and some parents who were critical of district leadership. The movement recruited the candidates to replace incumbents and was largely organized and funded by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
The four were elected on a “change” platform, but what that will mean for district students and taxpayers remains to be seen. They’ve vowed to be better listeners, arguing that the board has lost touch with its constituents. They’ve faulted Superintendent Valeria Silva for top-down decisionmaking and poor communication about district initiatives. Specifically, there has been vocal pushback against reduced school options for families, racial-equity training, mainstreaming special-needs students, student behavior and discipline, and school start times.
The board is likely to face pressure from some quarters to oust Silva, but that would come at a high cost, given that she signed a three-year contract earlier this year. It’s also possible that the new board will have a say in ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers union.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board endorsed three of the four winners, choosing to back current board Vice Chairman Keith Hardy rather than Ellis. We argued that Hardy would have provided the board with a better mix of experienced and first-time members.
At least two of the new board members could face conflicts that bear watching. Ellis has worked for the teachers union’s parent-teacher home visit program, and Schumacher runs a community foundation that funds programs in St. Paul Public Schools. Both will need to be transparent about those relationships and may need to recuse themselves from some decisions.
All four newcomers will bring energy and new ideas to the board. But they’ll need to resist the pressure to listen to only one set of constituents — the teachers and the union that helped them get elected — and do what’s best for St. Paul kids while also representing the interests of taxpayers.
Like many urban districts, including Minneapolis, St. Paul faces an array of daunting challenges. Improving St. Paul schools will take outstanding leadership from district leaders, including the newly elected board members. We wish them well.