Elections 2015: St. Paul School Board, DFL-Endorsed Candidates

I have been putting this off and putting this off and then I realized today that the election is in less than a week and I do in fact need to make a decision about who I’m going to vote for in it.

The four DFL-Endorsed candidates are Steve Marchese, Mary Vanderwert, Jon Schumacher, and Zuki Ellis.

Steve Marchese

Steve is a lawyer who emphasizes his blue-collar upbringing in his bio. (“Steve is the son of a union truck driver and was the first in his family to go to college. He graduated from Yale University with a B.A degree in history and earned his law degree from New York University.”) I appreciate that sort of background, although it’s no guarantee that you’re plugged in to current concerns. In recent years he’s served as Pro Bono Development Director for Minnesota State Bar Association, so yay for that, and earlier in his career he represented parents in both Special Ed and desegregation cases.

The thing that sort of concerns me on his web page is the extent to which he centers parents and teachers. Instead of, you know, students. “[The current approach] leaves the people who live every day together ā€“ teachers, parents, school principals, and support staff ā€“ with little influence over what happens in their own buildings.” Where are the students in that list? “Parents must be consulted as the experts on their own children. Teachers must be engaged and supported to bring their best work to the classroom.” And … students? Do they get some input as experts on themselves? Maybe my attitude here is because I’m coming at this from the POV of a parent of a high school student, but Steve is also the parent of a high school student (a 9th grader at Central) and ought to be aware that high schoolers are quite opinionated. They are definitely “stakeholders,” to use the jargon from another page, where he says, “Parents, teachers, staff and community members all have a stake in the St. Paul Public Schools. However, too often, district leadership makes decisions without substantive input from stakeholders.” Seriously, why are students not mentioned there?

I mean, I’m not saying we should embrace the model where students get to vote on whether or not there should be a math class, but the complete failure to mention students in this context is just weird to me. I’m trying to decide whether it would have seemed as weird back when Molly was in third grade (she’s now in tenth). I feel like even then I would have recognized that she was a central stakeholder in her own education, even if I didn’t let her make certain major decisions. I did solicit her input on stuff, and use it to make the decisions for her, because fundamentally, my children’s education is not about me.

Other than that, most of what he says is fairly generic. From his issues page:

An Independent School Board
School board members are elected by the residents of St. Paul to represent the community’s interest in and ownership of the school district. The duty of a school board member, first and foremost, is to set a vision for the district consistent with the community’s needs and to hire a superintendent who will enact that vision. Superintendents may come and go, but the ultimate responsibility for having a school district that is meeting the needs of St. Paul’s children rests with the school board.

So…this is all pretty basic, and nowhere does he outline his vision or talk about what he thinks they should do about the current superintendent.

Engaging all Stakeholders
Parents, teachers, staff and community members all have a stake in the St. Paul Public Schools. However, too often, district leadership makes decisions without substantive input from stakeholders. Sometimes, parents and teachers learn of major changes, such as the recent decisions to mainstream certain special education and ELL students, after the fact. We need district leadership committed to transparency and open input as part of all major decisions.

That’s a little more substantive, and echoes one of the big, big objections to the current school board. Many decisions have been rolled out as a fait accompli, with minimal input from anyone (and while I still object to the absence of students from the list of stakeholders, I will grant you that consulting with parents and teachers would be a significant improvement even if they continued to ignore student input.)

Excellence with Equity for all Students
Our school board and administrative leadership should be committed to bringing excellence with equity for all students in the district. This means going beyond the district’s racial equity public relations campaign and making concrete policy and resource decisions consistent with increasing student outcomes, such as increasing staffing and reducing class sizes, addressing concentrations of race and poverty within district schools, and leveraging community resources as part of an overall strategic effort to reduce educational disparities. Every family should be able to believe their children can receive a top-notch education in a St. Paul school regardless of location.

This all sounds good in a rather generic sort of way. (You’d be hard pressed to find a school board candidate who’s not in favor of smaller class sizes.)

There’s a bit more specific information on the Caucus for Change website, on the questionnaire he filled out for them. He gives some long, thoughtful answers that show some deep understanding of the issues. For instance, they asked him about testing and how he will make sure there is less of it, and after agreeing that there’s too much he pointed out that a lot of this comes from state mandates: “As a board member, I would still need to ensure the district is in compliance with state mandates and standards regarding testing. In addition, I believe we still need to have regular measurements of student progress to determine whether students are meeting learning goals. We still need to document how well different student populations are learning in our schools so that we can target resources and offer relevant instruction.” (Like everyone else, I loathe testing. But … I mean … if we want to hold administrators and the school board accountable for outcomes, we need some sort of measurement tool for knowing what the outcomes were. That’s what testing is. It’s a terrible tool in so many ways, but so are all the other options.)

In a question about racial equity in the district, he talks about getting more focused and pragmatic, and also says, “I believe we also need to look at models of successful schools around the country with high enrollments of students of color and students in poverty. What are the practices that are being used and how can we adapt them for use within the district? Can we start with pilots in each attendance zone to experiment with different school configurations that give principals and teaching staff more flexibility and the opportunity to use different pedagogies? Finally, I would push district administrations to access and incorporate the knowledge of community members, in particular, members of communities of color, in the development of programs and strategies.” I like this.

Mary Vanderwert

Mary is a former Head Start Teacher and a single mother whose kids are now grown. Her personal biography notes, “Time and resources were very scarce in our household; my children had only me and the school. I had no choice but to trust that the schools would provide them with the education they needed.” The schools did an excellent job, given that her kids graduated from St. Olaf and Macalester and have successfully launched into adulthood. Mary moved on from Head Start teaching to become the Director of Childcare for the Wilder Foundation, and later worked on a number of state committees for early learning. Her community service resume includes a long-term fundraising project to support homeless families, and a lot of other work around homelessness, plus she worked as a Guardian ad Litem for a decade.

At the end of her bio she says, “I decided to run for school board because my entire career has prepared me to serve the community in this role.” And you know, honestly? Yes. I would be hard-pressed to hand-craft a more compelling set of experience for a school board member. The fact that she entered the job market as a displaced housewife who needed to support three young children and wound up managing 32 staff members and a $3 million budget? That suggests someone who is incredibly competent.

On her Issues and Actions page she lists three top priorities: parent engagement, supporting student physical and mental health, and supporting teachers in building relationships and professional development. It’s interesting that student achievement isn’t on the list, but then, the way they measure student achievement is largely through testing, which there’s already way too much of, and those three priorities all support student achievement in ways other than “we’ll just make them sit at a desk for more of the day.” Supporting teachers in building relationships is a really interesting one — I’ve seen teachers succeed or fail in part based on the relationships they form at their school, and a school is a really complicated place to form relationships, since for much of the day the teacher is the only adult in the room.

In her Caucus for Change questionnaire she addresses testing and says, “While we need a way to determine a child’s progress, I don’t believe that testing measures the kind of progress we are most interested in promoting. I would support parents who opt out and would advocate for selecting a way of determining a child’s progress that is appropriate for the age of the child, is conducted daily and is used to determine the direction of the curriculum. There are a number of tools that gather data in the form of a sample of a students work, observations by teachers and interviews with parents. The data should be used to direct the curriculum in each classroom with periodic reports to leadership to determine the extra supports needed in classrooms.” As someone who had a teacher refuse to send home one of those two-seconds-to-fill-out daily behavior assessments because she just did not have time, I am skeptical of the entire concept of daily assessment. Also, observations by teachers are subject to tremendous amounts of bias — as flawed as testing is, there was that article that went around a few months back about the city that tested all kids for giftedness and how this dramatically increased the number of black kids identified for their gifted program. It’s not like I’m a huge fan of testing as it stands, though, so.

Jon Schumacher

I’ve got to say, Jon’s website is kind of content-free, other than a long list of supporters (that has Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s name at the very top). His splash page has a quote from him saying, “I have 23 years of experience in our schools as a parent, volunteer and executive director of a community foundation supporting the arts and innovative learning solutions. I know every single member of our school community wants the same thing: for our children to be loved, supported and on a successful pathway. They deserve it, our future depends on it and we can do it — we’re St. Paul.” And then he has a campaign slogan, basically: “Jon Schumacher: Bringing people together for our kids and our schools.”

The “Meet Jon” section also mentions the community foundation and says that he’s a “writer, producer and performer of corporate communications and media.” I was curious about the community foundation so I looked him up on LinkedIn. He’s the executive director (and sole employee) of the Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, which raises money and awards grants. (There’s an article about it here.) This is a small, quirky, not-terribly-high-budget organization. Other than that, I guess he works as a consultant.

He’s also got a statement, which includes, “It’s time to take an honest look at what is and isn’t working in our schools so we can develop successful strategies for our important goals of racial equity, inclusive classrooms and achievement. We can start by listening to our teachers, parents and staff to better understand how to unlock the potential in all of our students.” Like Steve, he wants to listen to teachers, parents, and staff to find out what’s working for students but … not so much with talking to the students. Is this really that radical an idea?

There was actually a youth forum last week but frankly the reporter covering it doesn’t seem to really take the kids particularly seriously, either, nor does he give Jon or Steve’s answer to the question about why students were expected to respect teachers who don’t respect them. (“It breaks my heart that you have to ask that question, D.J.,” was Mary Vanderwert’s response, which I thought was a pretty reasonable answer.)

You would think that since the Caucus for Change questionnaire asks a lot of really specific questions, that, we’d get more specific answers out of him there. But after reading it over I still don’t really know what specific things he’d like to do on the board. In answer to the question about racial equity, he says, “The intersectionality of racism and poverty is an issue that needs to be addressed in partnership with our public and private institutions,” which sounds to me like he knows intersectionality is an important word but isn’t entirely sure what it means. In his statement on the role of the board, he says, “Our district needs first and foremost a clear and detailed prioritized blueprint for success for all of our students. Secondly, it needs a well thought out and actionable implementation process.” And yet there is nothing anywhere about what specifics he’d put in the blueprint. Sooooo yeah.

I don’t know what I think of this guy.

Zuki Ellis

When I went to the City Convention back in April, I wound up supporting Zuki Ellis in part because of the passionate volunteer of hers I talked to. I wish I could remember the full story, but part of why she got into the race was that there was some program at her kids’ school that was slated to be cut, and she organized a fundraiser to pay for it so they could keep it, and after encouraging her to do the fundraiser, the district cut the program anyway and used the funds for something else. I don’t remember the details, though.

She’s a current parent of relatively young kids (her youngest is a first grader) and the only candidate on the DFL slate who’s not white. (She’s black.)

Her site includes some solid specifics about what she thinks should be done differently: “By cutting entire programs for the sake of ‘mainstreaming’ students, without any regard for the needs of individual students, the district has shown a total disregard for those students’ potential to succeed. (They’re called Individual Education Plans for a reason.) By providing additional support staff in the classroom, we can make steps toward making sure students are still getting the individual attention they need and deserve, and that our teachers are able to fully address the needs of all students.” There are additional specifics on the Caucus for Change questionnaire, including a passionate rejection of the term “stakeholder” (too corporate) and advocacy for racial equity to start by talking to people in the community.

Overall, I would say I like Mary, Zuki, and Steve quite a bit. I’m less enthusiastic about Jon, but may ultimately vote for him.

Part of my struggle in terms of just getting a grip on this race is that the four DFL-endorsed candidates have been running as a unit and encouraging people to think of them as a unit. I’ve seen few (if any) individual signs: they want you to put up a sign with all four candidates on it.

In fact, this may be sort of a party response to some of what happened in Minneapolis last year, where a DFL-endorsed candidate (Iris Altamirano?) went to a fundraiser for Don Samuels (who was not DFL-endorsed, and Iris was supposed to be supporting Rebecca Gagnon, the other DFL-endorsed candidate). I would not be surprised if somewhere in the process they all pledged to support whoever the endorsed candidates were, especially if they were also endorsed. (I was actually at the city convention, where these pledges would’ve been made, but the acoustics in that room were horrible, I was seated near the back, and I missed large amounts of what was said from the microphones, despite them regularly scolding us to “be respectful” and refrain from side conversations, which — FYI, DFL Arrangements Committee — NEVER WORKS EVER.)

But it makes it that much harder to properly think about and write about the race. In part because I really don’t WANT to elect four people who are going to march in party-approved lock-step. I want people who will bring their individual ideas and priorities to thinking about the problems of the district. I mean, sure, there are certainly areas where I want to see SPPS follow the liberal party line, but there are a whole lot of issues that schools have to deal with that are not obviously partisan.

There was a campaigner from Caucus for Change (a Minneapolis teacher who had been sent out door-knocking on behalf of the St. Paul endorsed candidates) who door-kocked me a few weeks back to talk up the four endorsed candidates. I told him I would probably vote for three of them, but was undecided on whether to vote for all four, or for three plus Keith Hardy. His pitch against Keith Hardy was that the School Board has seven people on it, with four seats up for vote, and if Keith Hardy is elected, the Old Guard will still control a majority of seats. The implication, of course, is that the old board voted as a block and would continue to do so — I find that startling as hell, because back when the Minneapolis City Council was dominated by people I deeply disliked, there were huge fracture lines and people who were the “good guys” on the council who we didn’t want to get rid of. How is it even possible that there’s no one on the board that the CfC considers a potential ally for their candidates? Were all their controversial votes unanimous?

Ed pointed out that if we vote for the DFL-endorsed candidates, then we’re handing full control of the school board to the Caucus for Change. To revisit this point — I am generally pro-union but I think it’s important to remember that the priority of the teacher’s union is to represent the interests of teachers. Those overlap heavily with the interests of students but there are areas where they conflict, and when those come before the board, I do not want the union voice to be the only one at the table. Is that what I’m going to get, with four Caucus for Change candidates? Maybe not. I mean, the overall approach with using CfC instead of doing straight-up union endorsement was that they screened everyone and gave most of the non-incumbents vying for DFL endorsement a general stamp of approval, and then said they would say “yes, them” to whomever the DFL endorsed. And for all that I feel like the CfC has presented itself in a deceptive way, it’s also the most hands-off approach to union endorsement I could have ever asked for.

Anyway, I’m going to write about Keith Hardy (the incumbent) and Rashad Turner (running as a write-in candidate) and then possibly I’ll have more thoughts on the race overall. If anyone who adores Jon Schumacher wants to make a pitch for him, by all means feel free, either in comments or by e-mail. (My e-mail address is my first and last name, at gmail. Basically if you were to take a stab in the dark based on the fact that I do all my pre-election research with Google, you won’t go wrong.)


1 thought on “Elections 2015: St. Paul School Board, DFL-Endorsed Candidates

  1. It’s worth noting that I’m the parent of a (admittedly bright and engaged) fifth grader, and I think students are stakeholders in their eduction. We make a concerted effort to engage D in her educational process and encourage her to make decisions about schooling because it’s important.

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