Election 2015: Incumbent school board member Keith Hardy

So the last candidate of the bunch is Keith Hardy.

Part of why I’ve been struggling with these writeups so much this year is that voting for Keith Hardy doesn’t feel like just voting for Keith Hardy but for Valeria Silva and all the stuff the current board has done in the past four years, good or bad. This extremely sympathetic and pro-Silva article agrees that this election is a referendum on Silva, adding, “the unhappy voices can’t be neatly dismissed as entitled parents impatient with calls for equity,” while still giving it a distinct spin of, “gosh, there are a lot of entitled parents impatient with calls for equity!” This article also talks about the Pacific Education Group contract, something that’s been muttered about a lot but not talked about explicitly enough that I got into it much in my previous writeups. PEG does training for educators on white privilege, and they charge a lot for it. Even Rashad Turner the BLM activist hints that maybe he thinks it’s a stupid waste of money, and the teachers I talked to sighed heavily and said that it’s not that they were complaining about learning about white privilege but it just was not terribly useful training, that there were some much cheaper, locally-sourced trainings they had that tackled the issue on a much more pragmatic level. (And in fact, some of this gets discussed in the article.) The article ends by quoting Silva as saying, “This racial-equity work made me uncomfortable, and that’s how I knew I was doing the right work. I often operate outside my comfort zone. I choose to go to the ‘race place’ and stay there.”

So….down in the comments (it’s MinnPost, so the comments are readable and worthwhile), people bring up all the Silva horror stories. “Silva decided, halfway through the 2012/2013 school year that students should not be individually disciplined in ways that led to the collection of data about student discipline,” says a commentor who makes the case that the reduction in racial disparities in discipline is not because they improved disparities but because Silva’s approach meant that data just wasn’t collected. “Silva was arrogant and contemptuous of a large body of parents at our school, which is ethnically mixed,” adds another commenter. “At events surrounding this move, we also witnessed her threatening teachers who asked questions–asked questions!–suggesting they would be fired unless they shut up. … When we went to Ramsey for IEP meetings, we would see students literally swinging from ceiling steam pipes in the hallway outside the office, or playing eroticized hide and seek in the office itself, with no staff member calling them on unsafe or inappropriate behavior. Once, our horrified observations coincided with the district scolding Ramsey parents for complaining vocally. Rather than fix the problems the administration threaten to remove a behavioral specialist if enough students weren’t enrolled that year–and this would be the fault of parents striving to improve the school. This management style is distinctly Silva’s.”

A dissenting commenter says, “Those with the loudest voices such as Joe Nathan and the so-called ‘Caucus for Change’ led by the Saint Paul Teachers Union are those actually fighting change and want to go back to the old ways that mostly just served the most advantaged students and families and veteran set in their ways employees in the Saint Paul Public Schools. The current board had the courage to try address equity and implement meaningful systemic changes in the way things are done in the Saint Paul Schools. They are now experiencing an enormous amount of pushback by those who have a vested interest in keeping the existing systems in place.”

Just how bad are things? Well, they’re bad enough that Ramsey Middle School lost nine teachers in a few months; school critic Joe Nathan (he runs a group called the Center for School Change, which appears to be pro-charter-school but not pro-corporate-for-profit-charters, for what it’s worth. I couldn’t fully suss out the politics of the place when I checked out their website but they did not reek of conservatism like some school reform groups) says that of the 12,000 kids who’ve been pulled from the St. Paul Public Schools in the last few years, 2/3 are children of color or from poor families. That’s less impressive given that only 25% of the kids in the district are white — if 1/3 of the kids being pulled out of SPPS are from the white families not getting free or reduced price lunches, they are dramatically overrepresented. Although that’s hardly surprising since these families not only have that well-established sense of entitlement, but also the resources to find a different school for their kid and send them there.

Steering back toward Keith Hardy, the most recent controversial decision made by the current board involved their board meetings. SPPS board meetings are recorded and the video put online and broadcast on local cable access. (You can find them on the board web site, if you’re curious.) For years, these meetings included a period of public comment, which was recorded and broadcast/archived with the rest of the meeting. Earlier this fall, they moved the public comment period to a half hour prior to the official start of the meeting, and stopped recording/broadcasting it.

They did have a series of justifications for this move. Board Member Anne Carroll (who was up for election this year, but stepped aside after not getting endorsed) said, “What happens in that 30 minutes with two or zero or five people gets a huge amount of play in the press,” and people tended to ignore the fact that they also got comments by e-mail and phone and in other settings, so not recording the comment period would make public input to the board “substantially more transparent, substantially more accurate in terms of reflecting the plethora of public comments that we get.” Which … you know, “more transparent” when you’re taking away information seems profoundly disingenuous to me. “More representative,” I mean, okay, although there are ways to make at least the e-mail contacts more high-profile. (At the charter school my kids attend, there’s a “board packet” sent out to all parents that includes the letters sent to the board.) But saying this will make things more transparent? Uhhhhhhhhh.

Hardy, meanwhile, said that eliminating the recording of the public comment period would “decenter whiteness” by encouraging a more diverse group of commenters to come forward. Is there any evidence anywhere that being recorded discourages people of color from speaking up? The Star Tribune reporter checked the recordings: “I reviewed a number of the archived webcasts from this year, expecting to see public comment sessions dominated by rants, insults and cursing. Instead, most of the speakers were parents, staff and students who brought up real issues. Complaints about overcrowded classrooms and cuts to an elementary school music program. Recognition of a high-achieving high school robotics team. Support for a gender inclusion policy.” He also noted the regular presence of one particularly obnoxious commenter, an anti-gay bigot named Bob Zick, and speculated that the real purpose of eliminating the recording of the comment period was to get rid of that one guy (Hardy denied it was an anti-Zick policy).

Another point was raised in the comments of that article, by someone who asked, “Where is the open-ended comment period in the St. Paul City Council? The Minneapolis City Council? The Ramsey County Board? Might there be a reason these bodies have decided not to allow such an open comment period at all? Why did the Minneapolis Public Schools do away with televising their open comment many years ago? The bottom line is that in instituting this policy change, the St. Paul School Board is more closely aligning itself with its nearest government peers.” (This commenter also noted that a comment period is by its very nature going to be dominated by people with a lot of relative power: people who have the time and transportation to get to the meeting, confidence in their English language ability and speaking skills, etc. And they are correct.)

Fundamentally, though, this was an autocratic decision to embrace less transparency, and it’s really hard not to see this as, “it’s annoying enough that we have to listen to you people criticize us; we sure as hell don’t have to archive those criticisms or broadcast them on cable access.” Especially given the incredible disingenuousness of statements like the claim that it will be “substantially more transparent” not to record or broadcast something… yeah.

There was an editorial by all four of the DFL-endorsed candidates published in August in response to this decision in which they advocated for transparency, clarity (of goals), respect (for “the families who send their children to school every day and the educators and staff who work with them”), accountability (the goals should be visible and easy to find), and achievement. Keith responded in another editorial, saying, “I found that the five principles make sense. Except for one thing. They make almost no mention of the children we are educating. We can talk all we want about transparency, clarity, respect, accountability, and achievement. However, it won’t make a bit of difference if we forget what we are here to do: educate students to be contributing members of our community.”

Which was kind of exactly my frustration with the DFL-endorsed candidates, right there.

But at the same time — let’s go back to that list of frustrations that the DFL party faithful brought to the City Convention last spring. In a single year, Silva and the school board moved all the 6th graders in the city into middle school; mainstreamed wholesale nearly all the kids who’d been in separate classes, without any preparation or training or adequate staffing or looking at the IEPs of the individual kids; mainstreamed wholesale a ton of kids who’d been in separate ELL classes; implemented a bunch of new disciplinary procedures in a way that was so confusing that there are huge numbers of parents, teachers, and administrators who still do not know what the disciplinary policy is; and rolled out iPads. (And I think I’m forgetting some stuff.) Also Silva apparently shouts at parents and threatens teachers if they criticize her or even ask her questions publicly and the school board ignores parent and community input.

I mean, I think that all the candidates would agree that the central goal here is educating kids. The DFL-endorsed candidates align strongly with the goals the current board says it was pursuing: their complaint is mostly with how the goals were pursued and how the district was managed, so it makes sense that their “this is how we’re different” is not “well, unlike our opponents, we actually CARE about EDUCATING CHILDREN” but rather, “hey, we’re going to embrace transparency, we’ll actually tell you what our goals are so as to hopefully avoid incidents where we DID in fact have a goal, but when someone brings that up at a meeting, we loudly assert that this goal never existed, and we will accept accountability for succeeding or failing at our goals.”

In my Facebook-based live-blogging about the endorsing convention last spring, I wrote, “We’re tired of our children falling through the cracks!” says a Keith Hardy supporter who just reminded us he’s running for a 3rd term.

Yeah. People are really tired of it. I think that might be the source of the entire throw-the-bums-out approach this year. Because chaotic classrooms, badly planned rollouts (either of technology or new policies), and teachers so miserable that you lose nine in one month from one school: that hurts all the kids. The privileged families are going to be loudest about it, because they have that sort of bone-deep middle class entitlement that tells them that their voices matter. But what they’re complaining about isn’t, “we’re getting a smaller slice of the pie.” They’re saying, “this pie is ENTIRELY FUCKED.” They’re saying, “GUYS, we want there to be a pie, and instead you threw a bunch of things into a pie plate and shoved it into the oven for a while. Now I have a crescent wrench and a handful of Lego bricks on my plate, and putting a scoop of ice cream on top DID NOT TURN THOSE THINGS INTO FOOD.” Inedible metaphorical pie doesn’t feed anyone, but it is 10x worse to get inedible metaphorical pie if you don’t have parents with the skills and equipment to bake you nourishing metaphorical pies at home.

Anyway. I am strongly inclined to vote for the four DFL-endorsed candidates this year.


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