This is a special election to fill the seat that was left empty by Marny Xiong’s incredibly tragic and untimely death. (She was 31 and died of COVID.)
On the ballot:
Jim Vue was elected by the rest of the board to fill the seat until an election could be held, so he’s semi-incumbent but only barely. (Link goes to the Pioneer Press news bank; should be accessible with a St. Paul library card.) Keith Hardy previously served two terms on the Saint Paul School Board before losing his seat in 2015. (He was also a finalist for the interim position). Omar Syed and Charlie Castro both ran for school board in 2019.
One source that gives some really detailed information on each candidate is Saint Paul Federation of Teachers Questionnaire, available here.
Jamila Mame works for Take Action Minnesota as an organizer of women of color. She’s an immigrant from Ethiopia and attended a Historically Black College in Arkansas, from which she graduated in 2018. When I first started researching the race I couldn’t find a website for her, but she’s gotten one up now.
In her bio, she talks about arriving in the US in 2006 and struggling to learn, fit in, and succeed academically: “It was not until I was accepted into an HBCU — Philander Smith College — and graduated with my Bachelor’s in Political Science and Psychology that I understood that the problems in my education did not stem from me, but from the Eurocentric system that struggled to see or teach me.” She went to a charter high school and says that her charter high school provided her with cultural connection and a sense of belonging but did not prepare her academically for college.
Her website lists four priorities: English as a Second Language; Transportation (“Ensure a safe Shelter to School Transportation System is accessible for Students” — FYI, here’s a page describing how it’s supposed to work now); Distance Learning (“Solve Distance Learning Inequality for BIPOC students” — I agree strongly that this is a critical goal but more details on what she wants to do specifically would be great); and Advanced Studies (“Ensure BIPOC students have the freedom and access to choose career and/or advanced courses within a supportive environment.”)
Her website lists two endorsements: one from Fatima Moore, who is a local woman who works in public policy (specifically municipal policy), and one from Zoua Vue, who I think is a third-grade teacher at Bruce Vento elementary Her (personal) Facebook page also has an endorsement from recent candidate for MN House district 59B Isaiah Whitmore. (She has a campaign Facebook page but doesn’t have much on it.)
One of the things that’s striking to me about this race is that there are multiple people in it who break from the very standard mold of school board candidates. Most school board candidates are parents — they have kids who are students in the district, or who were students in the district when they were younger. Jamila and James are running as recent students, rather than as parents of students. Charlie Castro also does not have kids. I’m not opposed to concerned citizens who are not parents serving on the school board, and “recent student” is a valuable perspective to bring to the table.
The SPFE questionnaire is really long, so I’m going to pull out some quotes from each candidate that strike me as particularly interesting.
Jamila, in response to a question about what it means to be a “public education champion”:
When I envision a working relationship with SPFE, I see a space where we can acknowledge that our public education has not met the needs of all our students. And, even though we have a ways to go, I see a district that invests in our students, creates pathways for marginalized students to become educators and fully funds our buildings.
On how to rebuild trust with the union and with parents specifically on the questions of communication and transparency:
When harm is committed, the first step is to acknowledge it. Over the years our students and schools have struggled to adequately communicate with another and we need to express that. When my family made the decision to pull me from public schools and enroll me in a charter, they did so because they felt unseen and heard by the system. How we interact with BIPOC and new immigrant communities needs to be something we center with every decision we make. When I went to a charter, I felt in community and heard, but I struggled to transition to college and graduate into the “real world”. I am frustrated that my family had to choose between a school that felt supportive and a school that would have been able to teach me the things I needed to learn to be successful. Rebuilding trust means we acknowledge the above and work to do better in the future.
On what steps she’ll take to ensure adequate translation/interpretation services:
As an organizer and a member of the Oromo community, a lot of my work is based around bridging the gap between the english-speaking community and folks who struggle with that. I want to see us invest in community liaisons that share our values and I am committed to pushing for quality translation and interpretation services. When we are sending out important information to families, we need to be considerate of how we do so. Are the languages typically oral vs written? Too often materials are mistranslated or not readable and I think my experience would allow me to speak to these issues in a way others cannot.
On a question about what school safety means:
School safety is more than just the removal of SROs. It is an investment in mental health support and a move away from punitive measures. It is investing in trauma-specific approaches (such as restorative justice measures) to make sure that all our students are safe. Too often school safety is used to weaponize our system against BIPOC students and I want to approach school safety as an investment in our students and buildings. If we come into the space with a proactive approach and invest in harm reducing measures, I think we can begin to build the schools that we want.
Jim Vue was elected by the School Board to fill Marny Xiong’s seat in July. One thing that’s striking in that article: he lost one of his children, a six-year-old girl, to drowning about a year ago, and in making his pitch to the board he talked about “walking together in grief” — his for his child, and the rest of the board for Marny, their friend and colleague.
His website focuses heavily on his bio. He’s Hmong; his family moved around a lot and he attended six different schools between kindergarten and graduation. “I never stayed long enough anywhere to cultivate a sense of belonging. No teacher ever taught me long enough for us to gain any meaningful trust.” After barely graduating, he failed out of college. Returning as an older adult, he realized that his experience “wasn’t just a result of the choices I made, but rather was symptomatic of an educational system incapable of defining success for me.” He went back to college and got both an undergraduate and graduate degree.
He goes on to say that he supports collaborative leadership, community-driven decision-making, and confronting white supremacy by “deepening the literacy of race.” Since taking office there’s been one particularly important vote, and he voted to keep the schools closed and continuing with distance learning. (Everyone on the board did, except for Steve Marchese, who (a) wanted specific information on what data points would be used to possibly re-open schools in case they were something parents considered actionable and (b) wanted to try allowing ELL students and special ed students to have in-person instruction.)
Things that caught my eye in the SPFE questionnaire:
In response to a question about how he’ll work in partnership with the SPFE:
I envision working in partnership with SPFE by identifying our parallel values and compassion as a means for which we act as interdependent agents for the benefit of our students. When we disagree, I challenge us to revisit these very same parallel values and compassion in order to navigate through our disagreements and towards common ground.
(In his answers, I was struck by the emphasis over how he sees the process of decision-making vs. what sorts of decisions he thinks he’ll make. Which isn’t unreasonable, given the perennial problem that everyone running for school board tends to agree on goals.)
One of the questions is about why the union went on strike in March. Jim’s answer:
Truthfully, I understand little as to the reasons of the strike, but I am open to hear both sides in order to better answer this question in the future.
I’m kind of boggled by this sort of answer given that this questionnaire was an open-book exam? This was not hard to Google. (The major demands were a mental health team at every school; more bilingual staff, both to communicate with students and to communicate with parents; and smaller class sizes for special ed. The strike was settled very quickly because of pressure created by the exploding pandemic — I think the union is likely to want to revisit these issues when the contract is up in two years.)
The contract included a commitment to form a work committee to look at a bunch of issues, including seeking a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes), studying the impact of charter schools and reviewing data from families that have left the district. This hasn’t happened, and — to be fair — partly that’s because of COVID. So the question asked is basically, given all that, how are you going to fulfill this commitment? Jim’s answer is pretty good:
If SPPS has not taken steps to initiate the committee, then I would identify committees with similar practice and intent that remains on going during Covid-19 within SPPS. Then, I would figure out how it is that committee is able to be maintained and try to replicate that practice through forming the work committee seeking a PILOT.
Finally, regarding a question about English Language Learners:
As much as I can, I will surround English Learners with teachers, teacher’s assistant or staff that speak their language. If there are leaders who do not speak the language, I would encourage them to say as many words in the language as they can to demonstrate that both parties are learning language from each other.
I am intrigued by the suggestion that school leadership learn at least a little bit of the languages spoken at their school, and curious if this is something people are already doing or if even principals who’ve learned a little bit of Somali, Oromo, Hmong, or Karen live in fear of sounding like Peggy Hill speaking Spanish.
His website doesn’t list endorsements but his Facebook page includes this lovely endorsement from someone who met him years ago on the Special Education Advisory Council.
James Farnsworth is another strikingly young candidate: he graduated from Highland Park high school in 2016, and according to his LinkedIn, is currently doing an internship to get a BS in Human Resources Management (so he hasn’t graduated from college yet, but is very close).
While in high school, he got his school to change their PTA (parent-teacher association) to a PTSA (parent-teacher-student association) and then served on the PTSA Board. He lobbied the St. Paul school board to add a student rep; they did not, but they created an advisory council called the Student Engagement and Advancement Board which still exists. He co-ran the GSA and was the volunteer coordinator for the Highland Fest starting his junior year. In 2015, he organized a rally against funding cuts in the schools.
He’s now the Executive Director of the Highland Business Association and was the co-chair of Highland Fest in 2019 (and then regretfully told everyone back in February that they were ending the festival, which turned out to be excellent timing, given the pandemic.) He helps run the Friends School Plant Sale, his neighborhood association, the Friends of Highland Arts Board, and … this is only the tip of the ice berg? I seriously have never encountered anyone this enthusiastic about governance.
(I was struck while writing this that the DFL should really recruit him to learn how to chair conventions. He was born for that job, I think.)
His issues page talks about declining enrollment (definitely an issue; he doesn’t have any specific strategies for solving it), an ethnic studies curriculum (he thinks it should be a graduation requirement — I don’t disagree on the value of this but I would note that any requirement you add, no matter how simple, lowers your graduation rate), teachers (he’s in favor of them), charter schools (he’d like the city to look into a moratorium on new schools, or expanding existing schools), SROs (SPPS needs a safety plan with buy-in from everyone), legislative lobbying (he’d like the legislature to give schools more money), racism (we should be willing to face the discomfort of talking about it), and homeless/unaccompanied youth (they need supports).
Some bits from the SPFE questionnaire that caught my eye:
In response to a question about the value of public education:
A strong public school system is the cornerstone of a strong community. As a proud graduate of SPPS, I can personally attest to the student experience in SPPS. I feel incredibly lucky to have benefitted from such dedicated and transformative teachers. Specifically, to the question, not only should a high quality public education be a fundamental right for every student in Saint Paul, but SPPS needs strong community partnerships in order to enhance the lives of students and teachers/staff in buildings. During these unusual and incredibly difficult times, community partnerships are essential to not only ensure the success of education delivery, but to ensure those other family supports (food, clothing, internet, etc.) so kids can engage with school/their education.
On why the teachers went on strike:
SPFE went on strike because your top priorities were not being met by the district at the bargaining table. Those included: a fully staffed mental health team in every building, increased multilingual staff, and additional educators to support students with special needs.
(Can I just note again that the questionnaire was open book and yet the only people who had a good answer to that one were James and Jamila?)
Regarding the commitment to form a work committee to seek PILOT payments and so on:
I would immediately, in collaboration with board colleagues, direct the Superintendent/district administration to take whatever steps necessary to form a diverse, representative, and inclusive task force/working group to begin this work. Every tenet of the statement of intent are things that we should be actively collaborating on and the district has a responsibility to assist in convening the group and beginning the work.
On a question about collecting data from families who are leaving the district:
Performing exit interviews, having conversations, and collecting other data points from families that have left the district is something that I’ve been advocating for as a student and community member for a long time. When a family announces intent to leave the district, there needs to be a robust exit strategy plan in place to authentically collect feedback from that family so we can learn and continue improving as a district. The plan needs to be fully culturally competent – utilizing translators, multilingual family engagement staff, technology when appropriate, etc. In terms of determining a timeline – I fully understand the urgency of the issue but due to not being fully up to speed on the latest conversations and work planning, I don’t have a specific, concrete suggestion for a timeline at this moment. What I can commit to is encouraging and ensuring a thorough, engaged, and efficient process. This work has already been delayed for long and is too
important to wait any longer.
One final note, which is that the first time I checked out his website, one of the first things I noticed was that he’s been regularly attending school board meetings for years.
Keith Hardy served on the school board for two terms, and was tossed out in 2015 in a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. (There was a group called Caucus for Change, which was basically SPFT standing behind a curtain, which didn’t endorse specific candidates so much as the general principle of throwing the bums out. They successfully defeated all the incumbents, first at the endorsing convention and then at the election.) Here’s what I wrote in 2015 about why people were so furious and here’s what I wrote about Keith.
Visiting Keith’s website, I was totally mesmerized by the slide show on the front page, which is 100% pictures taken during the Before Times. Remember DFL Conventions? God, those were so great. (Maybe that’s my BeforeTimes Nostalgia speaking.) Also parades! and meet-and-greets!
Okay, right, substance. The decision that they made prior to 2015 that they got a ton of flack for at the time that looks brilliant in retrospect was the decision to equip every single student in SPPS with an iPad. On his site, he notes that he wrote the racial equity policy, anti-bullying policy, and gender inclusion policy, but he takes no credit for the iPads.
He opted not to respond to the SPFE questionnaire. To be fair: it was a really long questionnaire, and I can’t imagine he thought he had any reasonable shot at endorsement. On the other hand, there are reasons to fill out a questionnaire that go way beyond endorsement from the group — especially in a race where information is kind of sparse.
Omar Syed ran last year, and was a serious contender at the DFL endorsing convention, but did not create a website. He has one this time! He’s an immigrant from Somalia who arrived (I’m not sure at what point in his childhood) without ever having had formal education, and went on to graduate from Arlington HS. (OK, according to his Facebook page, he was born in 1974, which means he would have arrived in St. Paul when he was 25. If these dates are accurate, Arlington must have had some sort of adult learners program.)
He wants to address issues of racial and social equity: “76% of Saint Paul Public School students are children of color. 30% are English Language Learners. The achievement gaps among our students are unacceptable. We need more resources in the schools and to hire more teachers of color to address these gaps.” He wants to invest in programs to help families (not just students) learn English: “It is not enough for children to learn English in schools when they go home with homework that their parents can’t help them with. I can act as a liaison for these families.” He wants to hire more non-white teachers and support staff and to address the problem of students of color being disciplined more harshly than white students.
Some points that caught my eye in his answers to the SPFE questionnaire:
On reasons for the strike:
The strike was a fight for our students. It was a demand to get students and educators the resources that they needed. District funding should be student-centered.
(This is such a generic response, I don’t think he knows or looked it up.)
In response to the question, “What will your timeline be for starting a community impact study on charter schools?”
(He was the only candidate who was that specific. I think several of the other candidates were trying to imply they’d get it started this fall, and I appreciate that he doesn’t try to claim he’s going to do it in the middle of a pandemic.)
In response to a question about ESL students and immigrant families:
Every community has strengths and potential; Every community is valuable, and Every kid deserves an equitable educational opportunity. Focus should shift to figuring out which standards are priorities and how do we develop instructions that meet the diverse needs of all learners. Instead of a deficit-based approach, we need to have an asset-based approach to assessment, For example, We need a new vision of the English language learner students that recognizes their strengths of being culturally and linguistically enriched and economically diverse.
In response to a question about restorative justice (what role should it play, and how will you fund/support it on the board):
The repetitive suspensions amongst minorities reinforces academic and racial disparities. Criminalizing school behavior not only can create a school-to-prison pipeline, but in theory also can contribute to school-to-death pipeline. I believe to reduce suspensions and achievement gap we need to Invest in school based tailored programs and cultural supportive services as well as policy changes such as limiting offenses deemed suspendable.
Also a student’s well-being is not the same as the next students and consists of many nonacademic factors. To evaluate and understand those factors in efforts to tailor support it requires investments in preventive, trauma-informed evidence based interventions such as social workers, school counselors, mental health professionals.
One concern I have about Omar Syed is a very specific non-school-board-related clusterfuck he’s been involved in: the Midway United Fund. Here’s a link to an article that ran in the Pioneer Press earlier in August (goes to the public library news bank, access with a library card, or here’s the PiPress link). The Star Tribune also wrote about this controversy.
The Midway United fund was originally created basically to pressure the soccer team into kicking in some community improvement money. It kind of didn’t work: “Without significant team dollars in the pot or a defined purpose, the fund drew $20,000 in donations from Concordia and Hamline universities, as well as the soccer team’s fan groups.” But then the pandemic hit. “In early May, team owner Bill McGuire and Allianz Life Insurance donated $75,000. Soon, the Union Park District Council was cutting 30 checks for $2,500 to Midway businesses situated near the stadium.” Then came George Floyd’s murder, and the riots, and donations poured in. “Soon the fund had surpassed $800,000, with little in the way of staff infrastructure to manage it.”
They proceeded to not meet (even virtually) for weeks, then had an incredibly contentious meeting in June. There are some really deep weeds here and I’m not sure how deep to wade in, but regardless of whether you agree with Interim Fund Manager Isabel Chanslor (“This is a white-led organization and my belief is that racial justice money should be going to Black organizations,” she said. “I felt strongly that these people were co-opting the movement”) or with Hamline-Midway director Kate Mudge (“It was very clear that people who were donating were donating for rebuilding efforts”), I think it’s fair to say that it is a concern that months later, the only grants the Midway United fund has given out have been the ones that were in process prior to the riots.
Omar Syed’s connection to all this: he’s on the Midway United fund board. The PiPress article mentions him as a board member but there wasn’t any other information about his input. I absolutely do not think he bears some sort of sole responsibility for the chaos here and I think it’s good he stayed on. It’s really hard to assess how much responsibility to assign him for the clusterfuck here. I do think “some” is a fair quantity, though.
Charlie Castro ran in 2019 and got endorsed by the Star Tribune, I think mainly because they hated Chauntyll Allen. I found her website to be pretty generic last year and it’s even more generic this year. Her tagline is “Putting Students and Teachers First.” In a blurb about how your vote counts, she says, “Send someone who wants to have real conversations with families, students, teachers and communities. Send someone who believes that while change is hard, sometimes it is the only path forward.”
I mean, if what I want is platitudes, those have never been in short supply.
She has a really well-produced campaign video where she says she will bring “fresh ideas and innovative approaches” but doesn’t tell you what her fresh ideas are or what innovative approaches she wishes to use.
Some things that caught my eye in the SPFE questionnaire:
There’s a question in there about whether people will commit to releasing tapes from closed board sessions about negotiations once a contract is fully negotiated. James and Jamila say yes; Jim Vue says he’s not willing to commit to that; Omar’s answer is also a clear lack of commitment to this release. Charlie’s response, which reads to me as a dodge:
I believe that it is imperative to release as much information to the public as possible so that there is transparency in the work that the School Board does for the betterment of everyone.
On the creation of a working group to create a PILOT and do a study on charters:
Every election cycle, there is talk of getting this committee to get this agreement put into motion and every other year nothing is done to effectively quantify the impact of funding, charter schools and to collect information from exit interviews by school families. I will work with other School Board members to put this agreement and task in place for SPPS. There needs to be accountability for what was agreed to, set up correct expectations/timelines for this process and ensure that fair and equitable information is provided to then create a plan to implement changes or adjustments.
In response to the question about the timeline for collecting data from families who have left the district:
To collect data, we must start with identifying the questions we will ask families – this alone could take 2-3 months to ensure we are capturing all the information needed. Once finalized, SPPS would make this questionnaire available in multiple languages for those tracers reaching out to the families that have left. This information can be captured over the phone, through e-mail survey or at home visit. There would more than likely be a follow up period to review all information that was not returned. Information would be available in raw and analyzed format to the public in 12-18 months.
I have to say, it’s nice to see someone who’s aware of the fact that figuring out what to ask is not actually a ten-minute task. (She teaches Communications at Century College — so she’s an academic, and knows what’s actually involved in social-science research.)
So, my overall thoughts here.
This is an unusually strong group of candidates. Every one of them is thoughtful, committed, and smart; they all would bring a valuable perspective to the board that includes things that are currently missing, whether it’s representation of the Hmong community (Marny Xiong was the only Hmong person on the board) or the East African immigrant community, or the perspective of someone who was attending these schools within recent memory, or an academic who actually knows stuff about social science research.
My personal favorite candidate: James Farnsworth. I remember some past races that had very young recent graduates, but James’ commitment to showing up to do the work for years and years prior to running is genuinely exceptional. I’m probably going to vote for James. If you’re not, hopefully the rest of the information here will help you identify the candidate you’re most excited about — but unlike some races, there’s really no one here I desperately want to keep off the board.
If you’ve read all the way to the bottom: I took the time to look over on Donors Choose for some Minneapolis public school teachers who could use some financial help during These Difficult Times and in particularly with distance learning. The three small projects I found have ALL FUNDED, hurray! But the big one still has a long way to go:
Ms. Stone is a teacher at Cityview Elementary in North Minneapolis. She will be teaching third graders this year, and to help them succeed with distance learning, she is requesting a set of Chromebooks for her class. To equip this class of children with the basic technology they will need for distance learning will require another $6,874 to be raised by October 3rd. Can my readers raise that much? If not, can they at least get it to within sight of the finish line so a corporation or foundation will be inspired to swoop in and match our donations? I think it’s worth trying.
(I don’t have a patreon or a ko-fi but I take a lot of satisfaction from seeing projects fund after I point people at them. Please donate!)