Election 2019: St. Paul School Board

It’s election season! But only in St. Paul — Minneapolis is not voting on anything. Here in St. Paul, we’ve got the following:

  • Saint Paul School Board (vote for 4)
  • Saint Paul City Council
  • Garbage pickup referendum

This means {heavy sigh} that I’m going to have to actually write about the trash pickup issue. Spoiler: I come from Minneapolis, always thought it was ridiculous that St. Paul didn’t have municipal pickup, and have minimal amounts of sympathy for people who don’t think they should have to pay for a municipal service just because they use less of it; that way lies “why should I pay for libraries when I don’t read.”

Anyway, I do feel like I need some information that I still need to research before I can do a truly comprehensive write-up on that one, so in the meantime, I’ll take a whack at the school board race. Here’s who’s running:

Charlie Castro
Omar Syed
Jennifer McPherson
Elijah Norris-Holliday
Jessica Kopp
Tiffany Fearing
Steve Marchese
Zuki Ellis
Ryan Williams
Chauntyll Allen

You get to vote for four. This vote is not ranked. It’s a non-partisan race, but the DFL City Convention endorsed three candidates (Zuki, Steve, and Chauntyll) and then couldn’t settle on a fourth.

Charlie Castro

Charlie is also Charlotte, and this name is on her website and FB page, but I think she’s on the ballot itself as Charlie. Her website is pretty bare-bones; you can find short issues statements on her Facebook page and her answers to the DFL endorsement questionnaire are in a PDF on their site. (Oh, hey, while I was failing to finish this, she added the DFL questionnaire plus another questionnaire and you can download those from her issues page.)

She strikes me as a committed person with very good intentions and no particular sense for what sorts of decisions the school board actually makes. In her “About Me” post on her Facebook site she says, “I’m running for St. Paul School Board because more needs to be done for students” — no one gets on the St. Paul School Board by saying “we spoil our students and overfund our schools, let’s do less,” but the school board doesn’t get to set its own budget, they get money from the legislature and the bonding bill and have to make decisions about priorities because they will never get money for all the worthwhile things they could be doing with it.

Charlie’s issues page on Facebook is really terse in a way that underscores my sense that she doesn’t really know a ton about what questions the school board actually gets to answer about some of this stuff. For example:

School Safety
School safety needs to be managed from all levels – our primary concern as a community is to keep our students safe. Safety is about all students feeling safe and supported every day.

So okay. No one anywhere is going to say that keeping students safe is not important. Some questions that have been raised about school safety over the years: how does our disciplinary process intersect with school safety — like, how do we keep students safe from each other on a day-to-day basis while still keeping safe the student who might be perceived as the aggressor? Should we do lockdown drills or are they more trauma than they’re worth? Should schools be locked, and what should be the process for getting in, and is it worth paying for one of those systems that scans driver’s licenses vs. just letting the school secretary eyeball visitors and buzz them in? How do we handle food allergies and common allergens? How do we screen volunteers to make sure that dangerous people don’t end up volunteering with young kids? What procedures do we implement to make sure that students aren’t at risk from predatory adults who might be volunteering or working within our school system?

These are all questions that have multiple potential answers, and I can’t tell from her answer whether she’s even aware that some of these are currently really controversial.

Similarly, in her questionnaire for the DFL she talks about the importance of closing the achievement gap but doesn’t say anything anywhere about how she’d do this. I’m pretty sure everyone running thinks the achievement gap is a problem; there’s been widespread consensus for years that it is a problem.

Anyway. Not awful but not impressive.

Omar Syed

If Omar Syed has a website or Facebook page, I couldn’t find either. His campaign kickoff photo was shared on Tony Her’s campaign Facebook (Tony Her is running for Ward 6 City Council — I haven’t researched that race yet.) He did fill out the DFL endorsement questionnaire, which is the source of pretty much everything I know about him. He also has a Twitter account but hasn’t used it much.

He is from Somalia and thinks that the increasing number of East African immigrants need representation on the school board. He’s got a legitimate point. In the questionnaire, he talks about soft skills (communication across cultural lines) in his “what will St. Paul students need for the future” answer, and he talks about building trust between teachers and parents and how important that is across cultures. He’d like to change the hiring process to make the teaching corps more diverse and representative but doesn’t say how he’d do this.

The final question on the questionnaire is about budgets: “A budget is a moral document that reflects our DFL and community values. What values do you believe our St Paul Public School budget should reflect and how would you exercise fiduciary responsibility of the St Paul Public Schools budget to ensure that the budget we envision is realized?” I would describe his response as a dodge, because he starts with, “The budget should reflect the value of doing our absolute best by our students,” but doesn’t say what he means by that (and of course we want to do our best by our students, see my comment on Charlie Castro). The question is, how do you set priorities? What would your priorities be? and he doesn’t answer it.

Again: not awful, but not impressive. Incumbent Mary Vanderwert didn’t get the DFL endorsement in part because she deadlocked with him, so he’s clearly a serious contender. So why no website?

Jennifer McPherson

Jennifer McPherson has a campaign Facebook, but doesn’t seem to have set it up as a campaign Facebook, so instead of an “Issues” page she has a “Services” page where she lists out her idea and then Facebook helpfully adds, “Price Varies.” She links to an actual web page but the site’s been suspended.

Her most interesting/complex proposals are as follows:

Transportation safety
Bus drops off at correct stop and has to contact the family when the child has to be dropped off at another stop before the child gets off. Road conditions/ visibility take part in school closure

Speaking as a mother whose KINDERGARTNER was dropped off four blocks from where she was supposed to be (in Minneapolis, but this is a problem a lot of places): I feel you on this one. (The first week of school, a bus from a charter school in Brooklyn Park went randomly missing for three hours and repeatedly lied to parents about what was going on.) “Let me know if you dropped my child off somewhere you’re not supposed to” really seems like the least they could do? (I’m pretty sure road conditions are already a significant piece of school closure decisions.)

3 strike policy
Staff and administration will face consequences when policies are broken. 1. Saturday course on policy 2. Final notice ethics training 3. Termination

I am really curious what it is she wants someone fired for, but just as a general rule I hate three-strikes policies. They almost always lead to bad decisions, in both directions — people getting second (or third!) chances who should have been fired the first time, people getting the hammer dropped over minor bullshit because hey, minor bullshit x3 = HAMMER.

New school
K-12 trade school with 8 careers 1. Vet 2. Criminal justice 3. Medical 4. Teaching 5. Cosmetology 6. Business/ management 7. Arts 8. Culinary Arts 

I am not opposed to vocational training for high schoolers but the question of “who gets steered toward vo-tech” has historically been thorny enough when we’re doing it with high schoolers — the thought of a K-12 trade school is frankly pretty horrifying to me because everyone, early on, should be getting instruction in reading, writing, math, art, music, and science — K-5 education (and even 6-8) should be broadly applicable across anything you might later do. At the very least, I’d need a lot more information than she gives here to think this would be a good idea.

I don’t think she’d make a very good school board rep, but I stand with her on the “why are school busing companies so unaccountable to parents?” question and would like to see the board address it.

Elijah Norris-Holliday

Elijah was ruled ineligible to run due to a past drug conviction. I think this is bullshit, but it’s not bullshit that’s going to be resolved in time to make him relevant in this year’s race. (He may still be on the ballot, despite being ruled ineligible. Or maybe not! WHO KNOWS. The Secretary of State site still lists him. He’s suspended his campaign.) If you’d like to make a donation to a group lobbying against the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions, check out Restore the Vote Minnesota. (I’m not sure if “the ability of people with convictions to run for office” is part of what they’re lobbying for, but they’re at least working on a related issue.)

(And yet last year Amy Klobuchar had a primary opponent who is currently serving a life sentence for murder? THIS MAKES NO GODDAMN SENSE TO ME.)

The article about his disqualification (and if you don’t have a PiPress subscription but do have a St. Paul library card, you can probably view it through the library website here) also notes that Omar Syed got charged with a felony for writing a bad check (he pled guilty, went through a diversion program, paid back the $786 plus restitution, and blamed the whole issue on bad communications with his business partner);  Chauntyll Allen has a whole lot of minor driving offenses and a pile of unpaid fines (she blames being pulled over for driving-while-black and says it’s hard to pay fines when you’re making $17/hour. The Press rather snottily notes that she earns $22.64. I am not going to fault Chauntyll for citing her take-home, rather than on-paper, pay); Steve Marchese has a huge number of traffic and parking tickets but he’s a lawyer so he just pays them; and Jennifer McPherson still owes part of a speeding ticket. They also note that Ryan Williams’ name was too common to suss out whether he had a record, so let that be a lesson to you, potential petty criminals who would also like to run for political office. Fundamentally, I don’t really care about any of these. Elijah’s felony offense was selling weed — this shouldn’t even be illegal, IMO. Chauntyll is absolutely not wrong that Black drivers get pulled over more for petty bullshit and that fines are disproportionately punitive for people on the economic margins. Omar’s was a screw-up but anyone with criminal intent would at least have bounced a check to a private citizen rather than the actual government. If any of these genuinely make someone look bad I’d say it’s Marchese, because they make it look like he’s one of those people who just parks wherever the hell he wants because the tickets are not any real hit financially, and that’s sort of a jerk move. (It’s a jerk move that’s incredibly common among lawyers, mind you, because parking near the courthouse is such an enormous pain in the ass.)

Jessica Kopp 

OK, I like her! She was apparently endorsed by the St. Paul teacher’s union but not by the DFL. (The other three SPFE endorsees were also endorsed by the DFL. I tried to suss out what happened here without success.) She’s a former teacher and now a St. Paul parent; her kid attended Hamline Elementary, a diverse school where 75% of students qualify for free lunch. She helped to make Hamline a “full-service” community school, a concept that’s explained in this article she wrote for the neighborhood paper. Her answers to the DFL’s questionnaire show a detailed knowledge of the district and some of the things it does, and she’s been heavily involved in a variety of neighborhood and community organizations.

I’ll note that if you read her questionnaire, she’s a very good writer, and I’ll admit right now that will always bias me in someone’s favor. Her response to the budget/values question is, “Our SPPS budget should reflect a commitment to rigorous, relevant, and engaging learning opportunities for all students in a welcoming and compassionate learning community. While the cost overruns make it clear that something needs to change, I would need to know more about how the capital budget project bidding and contract process is currently reviewed by the board before describing specific proposals.” Which is kind of also a dodge. But it’s a very well-written dodge. If you’re starting up a nonprofit and she offers to write your mission statement, take her up on it.

Overall: strong maybe.

Tiffany Fearing

Tiffany looks really startlingly young in the photo that’s up on her website. Like, “not old enough to be out after 10 p.m.” young. There’s a picture of her at her workplace where she looks more mature. (She’s apparently 33.) She works as a legal assistant.

On her campaign Facebook page, she comes across as cranky. She wants to kick long-time member John Broderick off the board (he’s not up for election this year) because he’s been on it for too long and she blames him for the fact that her daughter’s school is under construction and he’s pro-facilities-spending. Her post on why she’s the most qualified person running made me roll my eyes: one candidate didn’t grow up in St. Paul, “but they want to make decisions about our schools, as an outsider?” (As someone who grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, attended college in Northfield, and lived in Minneapolis for 17 years before moving to St. Paul, I find the whole “if you were born in Eagan you’re FOREVER AN OUTSIDER, get thee behind me, etc.” attitude from some St. Paulites one of the least charming things about this city.)

Over on her website, some of her ideas are decent, or at least reasonable. She wants students to have monthly check-in meetings with counselors (I’m not sure if she means guidance counselors here, or someone more like a school psychologist) — we’d need to add staff to do this, and I’m not convinced it’s worth diverting the funds, but it’s not a bad idea in itself, especially for high schoolers. She wants “bar codes” (pretty sure she means QR codes) on assignments that will take you to a YouTube video to explain them, which … is definitely not something I would require teachers to do, although I might try to run a workshop on an inservice day to show teachers who want to do something like this how to do it. She wants to supply sanitary supplies in all school bathrooms, which is an excellent idea. She wants more “life skills” classes and more vocational classes available in high schools.

Overall: I’m definitely not convinced that she’s the most qualified person running and I’m not going to vote for her.

Steve Marchese

Steve is one of the two incumbents running. I liked him four years ago and I still like him. (Despite the parking/traffic tickets.) Four years ago, the Caucus for Change was as successful as it was because the St. Paul schools were really a mess and things seemed to be getting worse; things now seem a lot more stable. He’s got a list of accomplishments and the first thing on the list is the new superintendent, who seems to be providing a degree of stability that’s at least providing a base to build on.

Here’s his DFL endorsement questionnaire.

Overall: maybe/probably.

Zuki Ellis

I liked Zuki Ellis a lot four years ago, and again, I’ll note that things seem to have improved markedly in four years. Also, her website specifically mentions as a goal providing “trans & non-binary inclusive sex-ed, consent ed, and comprehensive sex education.” Decent sex ed is a bit of a pet issue for me and it’s kind of boggling how many sex ed curricula don’t include the concept of consent.

She lists the change in start times as an achievement, which says to me she’s willing to stand behind good but unpopular decisions. (There are mountains of research saying that if someone’s got to have an early start time, it’s better to stick the younger kids with it: at the most basic level, your metro-area death rate will fall because your teenage drivers will be better rested. Nonetheless, the swap annoyed the hell out of all the elementary school parents. And as someone who had her kids at an early-start school once upon a time — I hear you. There’s no solution that doesn’t suck for someone.)

In her DFL endorsement questionnaire, she makes it clear she’s opposed to the use of School Resource Officers. (If you’re not sure why putting police officers in schools is a problem, here’s one place to start.)

Anyway, overall: she’s high on my list.

Ryan Williams

Ryan has an interesting background: he works in the Minneapolis schools as support staff and lists his past jobs as “Special Education Assistant, School Bus Monitor, Associate Educator, Child Care Provider, MN Reading Corp Intervener.” He also notes that he himself was a special ed student growing up. I think people who work as support staff in the schools bring a really useful insider view of things (that is nonetheless not the same as the more typical “I’ve worked as a teacher” viewpoint), and “I was a special education student” is a vastly different perspective from “I have a child in special ed.”

He’s not quite a single-issue candidate but definitely has a primary issue, which is the use of restraints in the schools (and in particular, their use on special ed students, and the extent to which this isn’t documented when it’s supposed to be.) This is a concern shared by some of my friends, one of whom wrote about the use of prone restraint in Minnesota schools five years ago. (The use of prone restraint was finally banned in Minnesota schools in 2015.)

He’s very pro-labor but somewhere (saw it yesterday, couldn’t find it today) says the SPFE wouldn’t include him as a candidate for consideration — I don’t know enough about how that process even works to know where the ball might have been dropped. (DFL endorsement: I know way too much about how that works.) Here’s his DFL endorsement questionnaire.

He’s still a maybe.

Chauntyll Allen

Chauntyll is the non-incumbent who got endorsed by the St. Paul DFL. She’s worked as an EA in the St. Paul schools and has led a Black Lives Matter group. (That second link goes to an article where she’s quoted about standing in solidarity with the Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood where Justine Damond was killed by a police officer.)

Given her background, I’m surprised that her stance on School Resource Officers (link goes to her DFL endorsement questionnaire) is “they should be trained to provide real resources” instead of “just get them out of the schools.”

Overall, her experience (both work and personal) impresses me and I think she’d be a great school board rep. I’m pretty much sold on her.

Having written all this up, I then sat on it for a while because I wanted to watch the school board forum held on September 11th, which I didn’t go to. First I had to wait for SPNN to get it online, and then it just took me a while to get through it. You can watch it here. Jennifer McPherson wasn’t there (nor Elijah Norris-Holliday); Tiffany Fearing had intended to come, there was a chair for her, but she wound up having to stay home with a sick kid. The rest were present. My top take-away was that they were all committed and serious people. It was kind of interesting to hear Zuki Ellis talk a bit about how different the job was from what she’d expected; she ran four years ago essentially on the platform Jessica Kopp is running on this year. (She was a PTA mom, heavily involved in solving problems at her kid’s school, frustrated with the problems she saw at the district level.) Although Jessica Kopp talked about how many school board meetings she’d attended, so she might have a slightly better sense of what the job’s going to be like.

There was a question about school resource officers at 1:22, and the answers to that were interesting.

Ryan Williams raised some good points but several times, especially during his closing statement, I was struck by the sense that he was running to run more than because he actually wanted to do the job. Listening to Zuki talking about how different the job was from what she’d imagined, I think you can get a sense for just how difficult a job it often is; it’s really not a job for the faint at heart.

Anyway. Here’s where I am at this point:

  • Chauntyll Allen – yes
  • Zuki Ellis – yes
  • Steve Marchese – probably
  • Jessica Kopp – maybe, leaning yes
  • Charlie Castro – maybe, leaning no
  • Ryan Williams – maybe, leaning no
  • Omar Syed – I’m open to possibly being convinced but not having a website with information about you really is a strike against you and watching him at the debate did not blow me away enough to get me to rethink this
  • Tiffany Fearing – no
  • Jennifer McPherson – no
  • Elijah Norris-Holliday – it’s almost tempting to vote for him as a protest against bullshit drug law enforcement but he’s not in fact campaigning at this point so no

I may revisit this before the election in November.

So hey, did you know that in addition to writing an election guide, I write science fiction and fantasy? I have a BOOK coming out in November! Pre-order from AmazonBarnes & NobleUncle Hugo’sIndiebound (if you pre-order from Uncle Hugo’s, you get it signed before they ship it).


4 thoughts on “Election 2019: St. Paul School Board

  1. I tried to leave this comment and it disappeared after I logged into WordPress, so apologies if it shows up twice:

    Thanks for all the work you do on these!

    It’s an interesting question about Jessica Kopp not getting the DFL endorsement despite having the SPFE one. I think it mostly had to do with the presence of an incumbent whom the SPFE didn’t endorse. I was at the convention and I don’t recall Jessica saying anything about the SPFE nod, although the day was so long that I could well have forgotten about it. In any case, once the first three endorsements were made, it was a showdown for the fourth between Mary Vanderwert’s base of support as an incumbent, the strong turnout for Omar Syed from Ward 1, and everybody else trying to scrap for the rest of the votes, and Jessica didn’t manage to pull much if any support from either of the top two. She dropped out of the balloting when she still had enough votes to stay in–she wasn’t gaining much ground on each successive ballot and I think she wanted to call it a day, futile though that wish turned out to be. (We left the building sometime around 10 p.m.)

    Omar Syed, I thought, sounded better on his DFL questionnaire than in person. He came across as unprepared and answered in generalities: he supports restorative justice practices, but he didn’t seem aware that those are already being implemented in Saint Paul schools. I think he has more work to do before he’s ready for this job.

    • I’d agree on your assessment of Omar Syed, though admittedly I haven’t followed it as closely since the convention. Ryan Williams seemed to basically have his one talking point the entire convention as well, and I didn’t feel like he had the breadth of knowledge in his answers (at least at that time) to be a strong school board member.

      The more I learn about Jessica Kopp, the more I feel like she’s the best fourth candidate (after the three DFL-endorsed ones, who I think are all strong/worthy of my vote.) The biggest thing that tipped me into her camp was the endorsement from Mitra there – I know endorsements aren’t perfect, but Mitra’s is important to me, and I think that endorsement paired with her policies and experience makes her the strongest fourth candidate.

  2. Huh. The trash hauling thing really sparked my interest.

    I gotta say, there’s so many different trash collection policies; I had no idea anyone did it the way Minneapolis does.

    For a comparison point, things are done totally differently where I live. Here, the City of Ithaca and Village of Cayuga Heights have had municipal pickup (with municipally owned trucks and city employee drivers) forever, with a monthly trash-pickup fee, but in the mid-1980s, to discourage excessive waste, they started charging per bag — you have to buy “trash tags” and attach them to the bags or standard-size trash cans. By now, as tag prices have slowly gone up, substantial portions of the trash collection are paid for by the trash tags, rather than out of general taxes. Part of the tag fee, along with the monthly fee, covers collection and delivery to the transfer station; the rest goes to the county to get the trash out of the county.

    It’s obviously true that competing trash collection companies are stupid and wasteful. We have this stupid wastefulness in the form of two competing private companies in the Town of Ithaca, again with a monthly fee plus a per-bag “tag” charge. There’s also a third truck coming through on a different day with municipally run, but subcontracted, recycling collection.

    The twist is that a bunch of people including myself don’t hire EITHER of them. If you don’t want to hire a hauler, it’s legal for anyone in my county to haul your own trash to the county-owned waste transfer station (which is where the City, Village, and both Town haulers take the trash anyway) and pay the county directly on a per-bag basis, which is what I do since I don’t generate a whole bag per week most weeks. All the haulers, private or municipal, are required to use trash tags which include the county fee but can add a cost to cover hauling. (Different ones split the hauling cost differently between the per-bag fee and the monthly fee.) If you haul it yourself, you just pay the county fee. You can also take your recycling to the transfer station yourself, for free. Interestingly, all haulers are legally required to take trash only to the County Transfer Station.

    I see that Minneapolis has no per-bag fee, and instead imposes a hard limit on how much you can throw out each week, and actually *issues* “trash carts”. That’s kind of unique, and probably the most command-and-control economic system I’ve ever heard of for trash collection. Rationing and state-owned tools which are your obligation to maintain!

    This is a… pretty unique and weird policy. I’ve never heard of such a thing. While it’s obvious to me that St. Paul should have a central municipal trash collection, because having three or four companies driving trucks all over town is just a stupid waste, copying the way *Minneapolis* does it (which seems to be what they did) was probably not the smartest thing to do. There are other more modern systems in other parts of the country, and maybe someone should have researched them before writing their ordinance.

    I suspect that a system with “trash tags” (user pays), with the option of personally taking trash to the transfer station / landfill / incinerator, and without mandatory city-issued carts would have gone down a lot easier for the St. Paul public. However, the politicians clearly were unable to look any further than across the river.

    Also a surprising contrast: it looks like the waste transfer stations in the Twin Cities are mostly privately owned?!? Hennepin County does own its own incinerator, but I see no equivalent in Ramsey County.

    The waste transfer stations are mostly government-owned around here in upstate NY. The county government accepts recylables for free (paid from property tax) and charges for trash as a matter of public policy. The non-recycling trash system is almost entirely paid for by user fees, with the exception of maintenance of old landfills which closed before I was born, and hazardous waste.

    Out of curiosity, I started searching, and these government-issued trash cans seem to be a thing in all of Minnesota. Totally weird. It isn’t done in upstate NY — you buy your own trash can (specification-compliant). However, some of the smaller cities in Minnesota seem to have managed to look far enough to come up with the idea of trash tags.

    Anyway, this is probably more than you wanted to know about comparative trash hauling economic designs. I think it’s sort of sad that this is going to referendum and becoming a big conflict; I suspect if St Paul’s government had done more research into alternative systems and communication with the public rather than blindly copying Minneapolis, they could have had a municipal trash collection system which didn’t create the same pushback, since the pushback seems to be mostly about the mandatory carts and increased property taxes for people who don’t generate much trash.

    • I just moved to Belmont, Mass., which has municipal trash and recycling hauling, also with limits on how much they’ll pick up. Each household gets two large bins, one for recycling and one for regular trash.

      If you have more trash than will fit in the bin, you can use special extra trash bags the town sells. If you have too much recycling, you’re more or less out of luck unless you have a neighbor with extra room in their bin that they’ll let you use. Oh, recycling is only collected every other week, and the town *audited everyone’s recycling bins” in August.

      I’m annoyed about this partly because I was incorrectly told that I could use the extra bags for recycling as well as regular trash, and found out otherwise after I’d bought them. And we have a lot of cardboard boxes left over from moving, which we’re only getting rid of slowly. I’m at the point that if a friend of a friend’s cousin’s hairdresser needed moving boxes, I’d be “OK, great, when can you come over?”

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