Election 2015: St. Paul City Council, Ward Four

So, it’s literally the day before the election and I’m feeling like I may have waited a little too long to start my term paper and trying to remind myself that once upon a time I felt no particularly obligation to blog about every damn race in the two cities and just stuck to my own ballot. And my own ballot is done! All the rest of this is gravy.

I could totally get this done if the two remaining races (City Council Ward 4 and City Council Ward 5) were like one serious candidate and a couple of flakes, but they’re both real races.

In Ward Four, the candidates are:
Tom Goldstein
Russ Stark (incumbent, DFL endorsed)

Russ Stark

Russ Stark’s very first accomplishment listed on his accomplishments page is, “championed the creation of a citywide streetcar plan.” I am not a fan of streetcars, which combine most of the major downsides of both buses and trains and cost a truly staggering amount of money. (I went to France this summer and rode buses a whole lot, and you know what, it is possible to build an amazing bus system, where all the bus stops actually tell you what stops there and have maps so you can see where they’re going and electronic signboards to tell you when the next bus is arriving, and the buses can be set up with electronic signboards that tell you what the next stop is, and all the stops can have names like on a train system to make it easier for users who aren’t familiar with the area, and you can have an app that adjusts automatically if you miss a connection — actually, that feature was sort of annoying and it would’ve been nice to be able to lock in a route, but having an app that would navigate you to your destination was pretty cool. Anyway: you can do all that for your whole metro area for like the cost of half a streetcar line. I really think we under-rate buses in part because we’ve done such a crappy job with buses for years and years and instead of saying “let’s have something cooler and more expensive!” we could do buses WELL, instead.)

He also “championed the creation of the City’s first sustainable transportation coordinator,” who led the citywide bike plan. I’m more of a fan of the citywide bike plan.

I have to say, I’m struck by how non-accomplishment-y some of his accomplishments are. He “championed” a bunch of things, he “encouraged” Public Works to apply for bike-friendly city status, he “was a leading voice” on some committee. He “championed the creation of a new City position to work solely on development along the Green Line,” which despite being solidly liberal made me think “oh good, because an additional city bureaucrat is definitely the best possible use of tax dollars” (I think the “concierge” system for making it easier to get all the necessary permits and stuff that Rebecca Noecker is suggesting might be better than someone whose job is to be “out on University Avenue every day connecting developers, property owners, and business owners, to ensure we achieve the University Avenue we envision.” (That … honestly makes me think about the Wandering Librarian system, where they’re supposed to bug you while you’re browsing for books like a retail salesperson to see if you need help finding anything, instead of being at a desk where you can find them if you need them. But maybe this works better than it kind of sounds to me?)

He “helped secure the 3 missing stations on the light rail project at Hamline, Victoria, and Western Avenues” — yeah, so, here’s the thing. Adding endless additional stations is why it takes a truly absurd amount of time for that train to get from one downtown to the other. And if we want to get to the Green Line from my house, which is just east of Hamline, we have to walk to Snelling to get to the north-south bus line that’ll take us up to University. But God forbid anyone right up by that line have to walk that half mile to get to their light rail stop. (People who ride the line seem generally happy with it, though, so… maybe those stops were a terrific idea.)

He “championed” improvements to the recycling program, and that’s a plus (I like single-sort, even though I actually still put all my paper in one box and everything else in another). He “led an effort to ensure that every vacant or foreclosed house that the City is investing in be made more energy efficient, ensuring long term-affordability for those moving into the housing and a smaller carbon footprint for our community.” This is the sort of thing that I wonder what the actual ramifications have been. I support energy efficiency; I wonder whether this means that there are vacant/foreclosed houses that have sat rather than being fixed up or sold, because there wasn’t the money to do the energy improvements and, like, putting the pipes back in after they got stolen for the copper, and whether there’s anything in this regulation that says that if a house already meets some benchmark you don’t have to try to push it even higher (there are some very energy-efficient houses! And sometimes the low-hanging fruit has been grabbed already.)

Under Neighborhood Livability he mentions leading the effort to create a new Affordable Housing Trust fund but also this hilarious bullet point: “Developed a sidewalk snow-shoveling doorhanger so that people who walk in their neighborhoods could give a gentle reminder to others to shovel their sidewalks.” Do I need to get into the hilarity of developing new ways for Minnesotans to be passive-aggressive?

His goals for a third term include changing the city’s “process for dealing with icy/snowy sidewalks so that clear sidewalks are expedited in order to improve mobility for families, the elderly, transit users, everyone!” — I’d be in favor of that, though the city is already in charge of plowing the actual streets and reviews are mixed, to put it mildly. He also wants to work on municipal trash collection. GOOD LUCK WITH THAT. I swear this was tried a few years ago and went down in flames.

Tom Goldstein

So here’s a nice quote that sums up a lot of what I’m seeing from Tom’s materials: “People in St. Paul don’t want more tax-subsidized development [like the soccer stadium], [Tom Goldstein] said. They want potholes filled and their alleys plowed.”

Tom’s website hits those two themes pretty hard. (a) You’re spending our money on stupid stuff (like stadiums) and (b) what people actually want is everday stuff like alley plowing. His goals are heavily pragmatic, which admittedly is easier to push for from the outside. He’s one of the people pushing for a citywide broadband initiative. (I’m all for it! In Minneapolis we used the municipal Wi-Fi and it was terrific. Here in St. Paul my options are Comcast and CenturyLink, i.e., the faster and more expensive evil vs. the slower and cheaper evil.) He wants alley plowing — so, in addition to not picking up our trash, St. Paul doesn’t plow our alleys. Instead, you’re supposed to get together with your neighbors and all chip in to pay for the plowing, which is problematic in all sorts of ways, like someone has to organize it, and if you don’t pay up they get stuck covering the gap, and sometimes people just freeload on their more community-spirited neighbors since it’s not like you can plow just part of an alley. (I feel like in some cities, you could probably find an alley plower who would work with you on the goal of demonstrating to the freeloaders the many disadvantages of not participating in the cost-sharing. I mean, the snow has to go somewhere, right? That doesn’t seem to happen here.) Also, I am pretty sure that the city could add alley plowing to the to-do list for a less than what we pay per year for our alley, but even if they couldn’t it would eliminate a lot of hassles.

He wants to ban free plastic bags from stores, which I would find annoying. (I re-use my high-quality paper bags with handles every week, but I like plastic bags for stuff like raw meat, and also the small plastic bags from the produce department for things like green beans.)

He wants to create “an ‘Office of Enterprise Development’ that will encourage businesses to locate in St. Paul, identify barriers to making that happen, and provide technical assistance to start-up ventures so that they can find funding sources and successfully navigate the St. Paul municipal code,” which makes me wonder if he likes Russ Stark’s guy who is “out on University Avenue every day connecting developers, property owners, and business owners” so much he wants an entire office of these people.

My biggest concerns about Tom come from reading through this somewhat contentious Facebook thread about bike lanes on Cleveland Ave. He said that he’d run into a lot of opposition to the bike lanes (but apparently was unaware that there’s been a concerted effort on the part of a few of the businesses to quash the bike lane striping). Someone posted to say, “I’m a Midway resident, I work at St. Kate’s, I bike, and I strongly support bike lanes on Cleveland. You shouldn’t be too surprised to hear that I’m supporting Russ because of his leadership on these issues.” Tom replied, “if you’re going to vote for a candidate based primarily on whether or not he supports putting bike lanes on a street that even avid bicyclists have told me they won’t ride, there’s nothing I can say to change your mind. I don’t think the St. Paul Bike Plan falls apart simply because people might need to take another look at whether Finn or Prior works better than Cleveland. That a few bike zealots are willing to take such umbrage over the fact that I’m willing to consider the opinion of Ward 4 residents that might differ from yours is a pretty sad commentary on the state of democracy in this country–and this city.”

Which….wow. I mean, if you get that bent out of shape when someone disagrees with you, I don’t think you have the temperament to be on the City Countil. (If you read the whole thread, there’s a fair amount more: “If the bike plan is a superior document and the process for selecting Cleveland Avenue without any significant flaws, then winning over detractors shouldn’t be difficult” — ugh, that’s a recipe for Madisonian-style paralysis, actually. You have to strike a balance between listening to residents and saying “yeah, you’ll adjust” and pushing something through. I mean, everyone wants bike lanes somewhere that they will never inconvenience cars in any way, and that may not be possible, and that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have bike lanes.

“Mike, this became a campaign issue because it was clearly a concern that neighbors expressed when I knocked on their doors this summer. That’s called representative government. I realize your preference would be that I should have ignored all the people who expressed concerns because they are not well informed or under the influence of ‘parking enthusiasts,’ but I give people more credit than that” — I am basically unable to read this in a non-patronizing tone.

Endorsement: Russ Stark. Not because I’m entirely satisfied with him, but because I think his opponent isn’t really ready for prime time. Also, St. Paul desperately desperately needs better bike routes, and someone who will push for them.


Election 2015: St. Paul City Council, Ward Two

Open seat! So there are a bunch of people running and no one’s endorsed by any party.

Sharon Anderson
Patrick Fearing
Bill Hosko
Michael C. Johnson
Rebecca Noecker
Darren Tobolt

Sharon Anderson

Man, it would suck to be any other person named Sharon Anderson who wanted to go into politics and lived in St. Paul. Because at this point, everyone would assume that you were this particular unhinged weirdo with the worst eye for website design this side of 1997.

Patrick Fearing

Patrick Fearing considers it a selling point that he has lived not just in St. Paul but in Ward 2 for his entire life (he’s fifty.) In fact, I think every single job he lists (Mancini’s Char House, Pearson’s Candy Company, Schmidt’s Brewery) is in Ward Two. I don’t find that endearing, I find that unnerving. Is there some reason he can’t cross water?

His primary issue seems to be that he’s opposed to parking meters on Grand Avenue.

In a questionnaire he filled out, he gets asked for his top three priorities, and lists five. He must have filled that out before the parking meter issue blew up, because the first thing he says is, “I want to get the Bay Island Station area back on the map. It used to be a great place to go down and fish off the dock, until the city put a fence up. I want to bring back the dock and open it up for the community to go and fish, possibly open a boat launch there.” He also thinks St. Paul is too boring and needs more of a night life, and he is very proud of the fact that he’s raised no money (“Unlike Darren and Rebecca I haven’t had my hand out for two years asking the people of Saint Paul for their money to run my campaign.”)

Bill Hosko

BilL Hosko appears to be an artist and a political hobbyist. A search on his name turned up a Facebook page for a Ward 2 race, last updated in 2011. The Facebook page has a link to a website other than his current website, which is now entirely in Japanese. His principle issue seems to be parking meters, which he opposes.

So since that’s the ISSUE DU JOUR for Ward Two, I just want to say, as someone who lived in Minneapolis for seventeen years, I am baffled by the lack of parking meters on Grand Avenue and also by the willingness of St. Paul to post “permit [i.e., resident] parking only” signs on any streets near a popular shopping area.

There are large sections of Grand I won’t even try to shop on anymore because it is such a pain to park. I am totally willing to pay to park. I am totally willing to park a block away and walk. What I am not willing to do is to circle endlessly, like a vulture, hoping that something will open up so I can park and get my errand done. LIFE IS TOO SHORT.

Years ago in Minneapolis, I used to have to go to the Lake/Minnehaha post office once a week. That post office has a ridiculously small parking lot and I pretty much never got to park there. There’s also angle parking along the street outside the post office, but that was also nearly always full, so I had to park an annoying distance away and walk for my two-minute errand. One day, Minneapolis installed parking meters for all the angle parking. They were super cheap parking meters — 50 cents an hour — but this meant that suddenly, parking in those spots was nearly always available and for a mere 25 cents I could get my errand done efficiently. BLISS. I am a huge fan of metering high-demand parking; it works really well, and it makes money for the city. There’s been all this kvetching about how those proposed Grand Ave meters aren’t really trying to ration the parking, they’re trying to raise revenue for the city — even if that’s true, so what? On-street parking spots are not plowed and paved and generally maintained using magical coins pooped out by unicorns. That money comes from somewhere. Why not parking meters?

So all the “oh, I am SO TOTALLY against parking meters, I was against them before anyone else was against them, I was basically BORN opposed to the ENTIRE CONCEPT of parking meters” is not actually a selling point for me. YMMV.

Michael C. Johnson

Michael Johnson has a Facebook page that says he’s running but no other website, or any positions to speak of (someone asked him what he stood for and he said, “I am working on coming out with some bullet points to hammer out… I just made the decision to jump about 24 hours ago. I am for small business, civil liberties, and public safety. I would like our community to keep going down the right path.” That was in August.) He did not fill out any of the candidate questionnaires that I could find, and there are a grand total of four posts on his campaign Facebook page, one of which is a family picture and one of which is a “Michael Johnson for City Council” graphic.

And now we come to the two people who are actually running for the position: Rebecca Noecker and Darren Tobolt.

Rebecca and Darren both tried for DFL endorsement and the convention deadlocked. The problem I have making decisions in contests like this is that the differences between the candidates tend to be pretty subtle. Everyone is pro-transit, pro-living-wage-jobs, and pro-youth-development; everyone wants to be YOUR representative in all caps and they will listen! and respond! and by the way they hate parking meters just like you do.

Rebecca Noecker

Rebecca grew up in St. Paul, but attended Harvard, taught in Louisiana, and lived for a few years in Pune, India, which seems like a respectable amount of exposure to broader horizons. (She tells a story about standing endlessly in line in an office in India to get her visa renewed, and how this gives her empathy for non-English-speakers interacting with the government in St. Paul.) She now lives in the West Side neighborhood and notes her dissatisfaction with the fact that some of the core neighborhood businesses have closed in the last year, transit and bike connections are problematic, and they saw a spike in crime over the summer due to teenagers with nothing to do. (“And I know I’m not the only one who has felt infuriated at the lack of basic city services as I drove over horribly rutted streets last spring.” Actually, this past spring wasn’t nearly as bad as the year before. But the year before was the stuff of which legends are made. The road horrors of St. Paul that year were EPIC. There was this one pothole in Randolph Ave that I swear was the size and depth of a bathtub. They did at least patch that one quickly. I should probably add “bitching about road maintenance” to the list of issues that unite absolutely everyone in the city, though. I mean, it’s a cheap way to score political points but she’s also probably absolutely sincere.)

She’s got a little expandable section at the bottom of her About Rebecca page (easy to miss!) that counters claims that she says are being made about her. One of the claims is that she’s anti-teacher, which got me wondering if her Louisiana teaching experience was with Teach For America. She did, in fact, teach with TFA. I am not a TFA fan, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to hold the program against the recent college grads who get suckered into working for TFA (especially when the graduated in a recession, which I’m guessing she did). Under “Claim: Rebecca supports keeping incompetent teachers in the classroom,” I appreciate that she subtly but clearly points out that the St. Paul public schools are the domain of the school board, not the city council, and adds, “She also believes the City can support our schools by ensuring kids have outstanding enrichment opportunities during their out-of-school hours, at parks, rec centers and libraries.”

I do think it’s a little funny that under the claim “Rebecca thinks feminism is radical and outdated,” it doesn’t counter by saying that she’s a proud feminist, but rather, “Rebecca is a strong female leader who has worked tirelessly throughout her career to ensure that all people – women and men – are heard and valued. Rebecca has been endorsed for her pro-feminist positions by womenwinning, the DFL Feminist Caucus, and MN-NOW.” Apparently the “not really a feminist” accusation comes from an essay she wrote as a 17-year-old college freshman.

Over on her Issues page, she says she stands for transparency, inclusivity, and courage. (Transparency is big this year. I predict that in the next year the City Council and the school board will make some genuine efforts to be transparent, which will then slack off as they realize that most of the citizens really don’t want to see how the sausage is made.)

She goes on to break out four key issues: city services, economic development, investing in youth, and social justice. Under city services, she comes out strongly in favor of snow plowing and road repair, and on safety, says “Endorsed by the Police Federation, Rebecca has advocated for fully funding a model of policing where the police are a part of the community.” Community policing is one of those things that I’m strongly in favor of when it means what it meant in Madison when I was growing up. Depending on how it’s implemented, it can be just as problematic as any other model. This also made me wonder where she stands on the issue of body cameras for police: I didn’t find anything on her site about it, and Google didn’t help me here, so I tried e-mailing her.

Down in her “social justice” category she says she wants to set up “an advisory board of citizen leaders that reflects the racial, socio-economic and linguistic diversity of our community.” She also says, “Rebecca’s personal journey from the ivy-covered walls of Harvard University, to dilapidated school buildings in Baton Rouge, through the slums of India, and to the diverse West Side community has taught her to seek out different perspectives in order to appreciate the complexity of every issue.” Which … hmm. I don’t know, this is the sort of statement that sounds like a privileged kid’s college essay.

Although Rebecca is clearly a Democrat, if you’re one of the six Republicans voting in Ward Two, she’s probably your candidate. She’s endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, she worked for TFA (which the teacher’s union loves to hate), and she’s endorsed by the Police Federation. That said, she’s not actually particularly conservative. (She doesn’t talk about taxes anywhere on her site, which is also kind of interesting and makes me realize that none of the candidates I’ve looked at yet have talked about taxes. It’s not actually a particularly conservative stance to complain about property taxes, though, since they’re regressive and St. Paul’s are some of the highest in the state.)

Looking for her stance on taxes brought up the East Metro Voting Guide questionnaire. Her bio on that one rather neatly sums up some of my issues with TFA. She got a BA from Harvard in Social Studies, which is sort of a generalist approach to the Social Sciences, I think. She taught 8th grade Earth Science (without a degree either in Education or in Geology or in fact any natural science) and notes in several places that a lot of these kids could barely read. (The argument against TFA is that the kids they’re sent to teach really need educated, experienced teachers and instead they get bright-eyed college kids with marginal credentials who are there for two years, max. Yeah, yeah, she went to Harvard. She was teaching 8th grade Earth Science with a Social Studies degree! That’s a marginal credential, right there.)

Anyway, she does get into taxes in that questionnaire: “Expanding our tax base is essential because generating additional public revenue can not be done solely by tax increases – residents and business owners have already seen their taxes skyrocket in the last decade. The way to address this challenge is to attract more businesses to Saint Paul and to prioritize commercial/industrial uses of available land. Commercial/industrial land use is the only type that gives more in revenue to the city than it takes in services. Because Saint Paul is a fully developed city, with little additional land available for redevelopment and 33% of its land untaxable, we need to use our available land for commercial and industrial uses whenever possible.” She goes on to suggest that St. Paul expand its business incentive program to cover small businesses, make it easier for businesses to navigate city hall, and “overcome our persistent reputation for being an unfriendly place to do business.” She’s on the Planning Commission, something that doesn’t get a lot of play on her campaign website but she mentions several times in the questionnaire.

See, that’s the sort of insider understanding of the details that makes me think someone could be really effective on the City Council. The risk is that she could be the next Jackie Cherryhomes (former Minneapolis City Council rep MADE OF PURE EVIL.)

Darren Tobolt

I just want to note that if he gets elected, there will be a Tobolt and a Tolbert representing adjacent wards, which is going to be confusing as heck. I don’t think Noecker has brought this up, and maybe she should consider pointing it out?

Darren has worked as a community organizer and a DFL Party Chair, and he’s been a legislative aide to a Ramsey County Commissioner. (I bet he knows our water comes out of the Mississippi.) He worked in a blue-collar job when he first graduated from high school, then joined the National Guard to pay for college.

Rebecca and Darren both have a long list of impressive endorsements, FYI. Rebecca is endorsed by several sub-groups within the DFL (the Stonewall DFL Caucus, the Feminist DFL Caucus, and Young DFL), State Senator Sandy Pappas, and the Police Federation; Darren got most of the Labor endorsements, Mayor Chris Coleman, and the Firefighters. Rebecca was endorsed by the Pioneer Press; Darren was endorsed by the Star Tribune. The Pioneer Press takes note of Rebecca’s pragmatic attitude toward business, and the Star Tribune likes Darren for his prior experience.

On Darren’s Issues page, he calls out:

* Citizen Engagement (“To build an active engaged citizenry, I will hold office hours throughout the ward during off-business hours, will return every phone call, and will be where I’m needed when I’m needed.”)
* Economic Development (“I will work to eliminate the complicated work of opening and running a small business by streamlining city processes across departments and expecting faster turnaround times. … I will put forth and passing an earned sick and safe time ordinance to support families who do not have the option of taking time off work if they or a family member are sick or in need.”)
* Public Safety (“Safety is more than police budgets; public safety is also about providing positive opportunities for all. I will fight hard to ensure all of our rec centers, parks and libraries are open and staffed when working families need these resources. … I will grow Saint Paul’s role in ending gender violence by focusing on early violence prevention, police and prosecutor training, and by providing cross-jurisdictional resources where people live.”)
* Public Services (“As a community-elected board member of the Fort Road Federation and a member of the Saint Paul Long Range Capital Improvement Budget Committee, I have worked side by side with other concerned neighbors to successfully advocate for [a long list of nice amenities including a rec center renovation and improvements to the 35E bikeway]… I am an advocate for curbside organics collection.”)
* Safe Streets (“A healthy transportation system for all means more sidewalks and safer crosswalks so that all people feel comfortable walking from their homes to schools and local businesses.” This is also where he stashes his opposition to Grand Ave parking meters.)

So, okay. I guess I’m seeing some differences showing up, at this point.

* Both Rebecca and Darren talk about streamlining stuff for businesses opening but Rebecca puts more emphasis on making the city more business-friendly (and gives some good reasons for it, i.e., you can tax them); Darren puts more emphasis on requiring paid sick time, though Rebecca is also a supporter. (I am a big fan of mandatory paid sick time; I think it’s a win/win. I don’t want my sandwich made by an employee who was barfing in the bathroom five minutes ago but can’t go home because he’ll get fired or because he really needs to get paid. I mean, this is just basic epidemiology: if sick people can go home they are a lot less likely to share their germs. It’s also the right thing to do as decent human beings, to make sure people can take time off when they get sick, but even aside from “basic human decency” factors, there is a self-interest element here you’d think would be obvious.) Both support living wage ordinances.

* They are both fans of transit and eager to get better transit options into Ward 2, which is good because the situation right now is kind of ridiculously terrible. (I don’t live in Ward 2, but it’s where my kids go to school, and I’ve looked to see what would be involved in having my high schooler ride the bus to the U. I was not impressed with the options.) Darren avoids talking about amenities for cars as much as possible; Rebecca puts a lot of emphasis on basic street stuff like patching potholes and plowing snow. (I will note that those are not just services for cars. Potholes are potentially lethal to bikers, and a lot of Minnesotans bike year round. Buses also use those streets.) Both Darren and Rebecca filled out a questionnaire about transit for the Smart Trips voter guide. In that, I was pleased that Darren specifically noted that St. Paul is riddled with spots that don’t have sidewalks and that we needed to fix that. I was happy they both talked about pedestrian safety but a little dismayed that even though Ward 2 includes the West 7th neighborhood, neither got into pedestrian safety on West 7th. (West 7th cuts diagonally across a lot of streets and creates all these five-way intersections that are nervewracking to cross on foot and frankly pretty irritating even in a car.) If transit is important to you, it’s probably also worth noting that Darren and his wife own only one car between them and use transit for a lot of their trips; they have genuine skin in the game. (Rebecca says she gets around by car, bus, and bike, which is exactly what I’d say. I don’t actually ride the bus very often at all and my biking is purely recreational.)

* They both talk about public safety but Rebecca puts more emphasis on policing than Darren does. (They both talk about providing productive activities for teenagers to keep them out of trouble.)

* Darren wants curbside organics collection; Rebecca doesn’t show any particular interest in it. (For the curious out-of-towners, I will note that one of the really odd things about St. Paul is that the city doesn’t picks up recycling but not trash. You can theoretically haul it to the dump yourself, but most people hire a company to pick up their trash weekly and sometimes also their yard waste. There are six different companies that come down my alley picking up people’s garbage. I think some mayor tried to implement municipal trash pickup a few years before I moved to St. Paul and that went down in a flaming mass of aversion to any sort of change. St. Paul also does not plow the alleys; you have to get together with your neighbors and hire a guy. It does at least plow streets to the curb, rather than expecting you to shovel out the parking lane.)

* Rebecca makes a point of her willingness to disagree with the mayor; Darren is clearly long-time friends with Chris Coleman and has his endorsement.

* Both of them claim they’re running a positive campaign but being attacked by their opponent. In Darren’s “News” section he objects to the “unfair criticism” of Rebecca in the most passive-aggressive sideways way possible: “my opponent was unfairly criticized simply because she has the endorsement and financial support of an organization that is fighting against the paid family leave and living wage ordinances.” (In context, I don’t think it’s intended to be sarcastic.) There was an article in the Press that noted that the swipe at Rebecca came from the AFL-CIO (the organization that opposed living wage ordinances is the Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Rebecca); the Police Federation, meanwhile, sent out a flier suggesting that Darren would be Chris Coleman’s yes-man.

* Darren has strong ties to Ramsey County government, which will definitely be a plus in terms of getting things accomplished. Rebecca’s experience is on the City Planning Commission, which is not bad, either. (Hilariously, Darren’s wife is also on the planning commission.)

Anyway, I e-mailed both of them to ask about body cameras. The election is Tuesday, though; I’m not going to be surprised if I don’t get a response.

I am leaning toward Rebecca Noecker.

Election 2015: St. Paul City Council, Ward One

The Ward One candidates are:

Trahern Crews (Green Party)
Dai Thao (Incumbent, DFL Party)

Dai Thao’s website starts out with the statement, “My whole life has prepared me for the position of Councilmember for Ward 1. I was born in Laos and escaped the communist regime there as a youth. I survived refugee camps in Thailand and came to Minneapolis, where I grew up in a housing project.” That made me blink and think that this may be an excessive level of preparation for the St. Paul City Council. He also calls out some of his top accomplishments (he was elected for the first time two years ago — I think maybe someone resigned mid-term, since terms are normally four years long): “We approved Paid Parental Leave, secured pool vouchers for low-income youth and supported the Women’s Economic Security Act, ensuring all women contractors are paid the same as men.”

Before taking office he worked as a community organizer for Take Action MN (working against the evil constitutional amendments of 2012) and ISAIAH (organizing to help people in poverty, basically). You really could not ask for a candidate more committed to racial and economic justice and progressive issues.

Trahern Crews is Green Party endorsed. He starts off by saying he wants to end government tax breaks to Wal-Mart (does the City of St. Paul even give tax breaks to Wal-Mart? I mean, I suppose it’s possible?) and then says he wants to implement rent control. Rent control is a terrible idea. (Though I’m not super surprised that a Green-endorsed candidate would disagree with me on that issue.)

His website looks fully functional but if you click the donations link it says “Online donations coming soon!” and then suggests you set up a meeting with Trahern to give him a donation in person. Since the election is on Tuesday, I’m thinking that online donations are not coming soon.

And that’s fine with me, because Dai Thao is absolutely the person I would vote for if I were a resident of Ward 1.

Election 2015: St. Paul City Council Ward Five

I have no council race in my own ward — Chris Tolbert, who pronounces his last name toll-bert and not like Stephen Colbert’s last name but with a T, is running unopposed. Given the complete and utter mess that was this summer’s road construction projects, I find that a little surprising. Possibly it was such a hassle to get out of our neighborhood that possible opponents couldn’t get down to City Hall to file?

Anyway, there are other wards that have interesting races in various ways and let me see if I can get through any of them before election day, which is Tuesday of this coming week.

Ward 5 has the following candidates:

Amy Brendmoen (incumbent)
David Glass
David Sullivan-Nightengale (endorsed by the Independence Party)

This is mostly a race between Amy Brendmoen and David Glass. Which is mostly a furious vendetta on the part of David Glass because he blames Amy Brendmoen for the loss of his business. Not entirely unreasonably, except that if anyone ever deserved to lose their business… maybe I should back up.

St. Paul has a lot of lovely parks, and one of the nicest is Como, which has the zoo, the conservatory, and a lovely tiny lake with a pavilion next to it. Some years back, David Glass moved his coffee and sandwich shop to the Como Pavilion. He paid about $25,000 annually in rent, often paying late, and was making about $250,000 annually in revenue.

Let me just reiterate a few things about this pavilion. It’s big, first of all. It is right by the water, with both indoor and outdoor seating available, and it’s right in a park, but also right off of Lexington Avenue, so it’s easy to get to. It’s got parking. You can also park in the neighborhood and walk to the pavilion without a lot of trouble. The lake itself has a beautiful little one-mile path going around it and lots of the people in the neighborhood go for walks on that path daily. You could not custom-design a more perfect location for a restaurant. And in this location, they were selling coffee and stale baked goods.

I’ve eaten there, FTR. Every time I went inside it was empty or nearly empty. Because seriously, the baked goods were TERRIBLE. I don’t remember ever eating the sandwiches, but they definitely didn’t have a panini maker or any of the setup that would let you make really good sandwiches.

Over in Minneapolis, there are two parks that have in-park restaurants where they just rented the space out to vendors: Minnehaha Falls has Sea Salt, which is freaking amazing, at least if you like fish (and if you don’t, well, they also have excellent ice cream sold out of a separate window so you won’t have to stand in the huge line that forms for the restaurant on nice days…) and Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska has Tin Fish, which isn’t as good but rakes in just as much money because that is one of the busiest park locations in the city. At some point, St. Paul park officials found out how much money Minneapolis was getting in revenue sharing from the restaurants in its parks, and choked.

So St. Paul went back to Black Bear Crossing and said, hey, you know, you’re really underusing this space. Why don’t you look at what some of those restaurants are doing in Minneapolis? He wasn’t interested. And then they said, You know what? If you want to stay in this space, we want you to partner with Sea Salt. NOPE. So then they refused to renew his lease, and he sued for breach of contract, and they settled. Whether they actually had a good reason to settle or not, I’m not sure (sometimes cities just pay out because fighting it in the courts is also expensive and much less certain) but OH MY GOD, given that the new restaurant earned 1.02 million dollars in revenue between May and August (of which the city got a share), it was TOTALLY WORTH IT.

If in fact Amy Brendmoen is personally responsible for removing an underperforming coffee and sandwich shop that was always empty and survived only because it was allowed to pay vastly below the market rate in rent, and replacing it with a restaurant that is holding interesting new events, serving food people want to eat, employing 79 people, renting boats and bikes, and in general using a publicly-owned pavilion in ways that benefit the public in many ways, then that all by itself is an excellent reason to vote for her.

Whoever negotiated a contract that said “David Glass can just keep renewing his lease forever and we will never raise his rent or make any other demands on him and if we terminate his lease because we want some other business in that lease, he can totally sue us” should lose their job, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Amy, since she’s a first term Council member.

I will admit that this cute little “checking in with the newbie!” article did not fill me with confidence about her (“Who knew that we get our water from the Mississippi river?” — wait, there are people who don’t know that? Maybe I overestimate the state of civic knowledge. FYI, we get our water from the Mississippi river. Then we treat it. Then we use it. Then we treat it again, and we put it back in the river when we’re done with it. This is part of why the cities are so strict about not wanting rain water dumped in our sanitary sewers, because anything that goes into the sanitary sewer has to be treated, whereas rain water can just be allowed to run straight into the river.) (Possibly I find water systems more interesting than most people?) But her website gives you a cute map and you can see all the stuff she’s done so far and hey: it doesn’t even list the improvements to the Como Pavilion.

David Glass also hates bike lanes and he’s endorsed by the Police Federation, which I count as a strike against him.

The third candidate, David Sullivan-Nightengale, is endorsed by the Independence Party. He has sort of a half-assed website with minimal information, and a Facebook page. Scrolling through his Facebook page is a little unnerving as it alternates between perfectly reasonable stuff (“let’s make naloxone more widely available”), pieces that start out with legit complaints that veer into religion (he links to an article about a small businessman having hassles with St. Paul regulations and then extensively quotes Samuel), a rant about robot armies (“Already we’ve seen armed civilian robots. Like the Cylons of science fiction, there are few rules which regulate the arming of robots. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics is certainly a starting point for humanity to regulate the rise of the machines”)…

He’s a safety engineer so a lot of stuff goes through that particular lens. Some of which is super legit, like concerns about oil trains running through the city and paid sick time. Some of which just makes him sound kind of nuts. (Robot armies and his rant about China.)

If you really loathe Amy Brendmoen, I guess you can pick between the resentful failed businessman and the slightly paranoid safety engineer for your 1st and 2nd choice. (St. Paul has ranked-choice voting, so you can order them by preference, you don’t have to pick just one.)

Otherwise, vote for Amy.

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.

Election 2015: Write-In School Board Candidate Rashad Turner

So I’ll start by saying that in this situation, I think it’s entirely legitimate to hold it against Rashad Turner that he didn’t file in time to get on the ballot. If something had changed drastically during the race due to a death, a major scandal, whatever, and he jumped in — fine. But that’s not what happened. His answer to “why aren’t you on the ballot?” is “I was encouraged and decided to run for school board after the filing deadline. I missed it by a couple of days.” Although, I have in fact voted for a write-in candidate who jumped into the race because he disliked the person who was running (John Scalzi, when he ran for SFWA president in 2007) but I do think “oh good grief, if you couldn’t decide you wanted to do this in time to file, you don’t deserve the job” is a reasonable attitude.

He’s running a lot more seriously than some of the other candidates, though — he has a website, he has endorsements (from the Green Party), he can take donations and he’s recruiting volunteers.

Rashad is best known for being the most visible organizer of Black Lives Matter of St. Paul. Which means I need to start with a sidebar about BLM generally and BLM-St. Paul. When I talk about BLM over on Facebook, for the most part I’ve just reposted things that other people have said. I’m white, I’m solidly privileged on the issue of cops and how they treat civilians (when was the last time you saw a video of a cop beating the crap out of a nonresisting middle aged white lady?) and I think that solidarity from white people on this issue is entirely called for but making white voices predominant is really not.

But just to be clear about this from the get-go, I think that Black Lives Matter is an ENTIRELY legitimate movement. I am horrified by the fact that black men and women are routinely battered, abused, threatened, and murdered with complete impunity by people to whom we’ve handed over a shit ton of authority and not bothered to check up on. And I’ll note that fixing policing to protect black people is a great example of what I think of as societal Universal Design. Universal Design is an approach to building design where things are made accessible to disabled people but also just better for everyone. If you’ve ever pressed a “door open” button with your butt to get through a door with your hands full, you have benefited from universal design. But if you start with the people who will have the hardest time getting through a door, you can usually guarantee that everyone will be able to get through that door. If we start by protecting the people who are most vulnerable to police abuses, it’s going to get better for everyone. (Well, everyone who is not a power-tripping abusive asshole with a badge. But I’m good with that!)

All that said, I am not convinced that Rashad Turner would be a terrific person to have on the school board.

Rashad Turner

So my first concern is that being an activist and a politician are very, very different. There’s an excellent article about Rashad here, which says that Gov. Mark Dayton had “suggested BLM activists would be more effective if they proposed specific, constructive changes. But Turner said it should not fall to his group to create a list of demands. ‘I don’t feel like it’s our responsibility to focus on something that we didn’t create, as far as policy and legislation,’ Turner said. ‘These people know what the problems are, they know what policies are creating these disparities, these are elected officials.'” From an activist, this is a perfectly reasonable stance. Once you are an elected official you’re suddenly in the position of needing to make those sorts of lists, and craft solutions. With a group of people who may or may not agree with your priorities.

Looking at his web site, there’s stuff I like, stuff I’m super unimpressed by, and — hilariously — stuff that makes me think he should be the candidate of choice for the St. Paul Republicans (but probably won’t be, because so many Republicans have a knee-jerk authoritarian attitude toward BLM. Although a lot of the city Republicans lean libertarian so who even knows?)

From his front page: “I want students to be the primary focus of every decision made in our district — and not the adults — because we as adults should be able to adapt to, and meet the needs of, each and every student we serve.” It sounds like he shares my concerns about the adult-centric focus of the DFL-endorsed candidates.

“I want to keep our district from spending ridiculous amounts of money on things like iPads and other technology that goes unused by our students.” — So, okay. On one hand, I am totally with him on this but on the other hand, for all that the rollout was a complete mess, the iPads are totally being used! The students, from what I can tell, really like them. Admittedly, some of them like them because they make it so easy to play games during their boring classes. It’s not at all accurate to say they’re not being used, though, from what I have heard from the parents, teachers, and students I know in the district.

“I want to make sure we are spending those dollars on what will directly impact our students’ educational experience, like supplies for the classroom so teachers don’t have to spend what little they’re paid to buy supplies for the classroom, and hiring faculty who are truly committed to each and every student — whose ideas and beliefs reflect the demographics of our student body, and demonstrate a mindset that every student can grow, no matter the challenges and barriers that student might face.”

What he’s talking about here is that the teaching corps of the St. Paul schools is much, much whiter than the student body. I would absolutely love to know what Rashad thinks of Aaron Benner, the black St. Paul teacher who got shouldered out and who goes on at length about discipline given that Rashad finishes with, “It’s time to start helping our kids believe, and stop trying to make them behave.” (I have some deeply mixed feelings about that slogan and I’m going to come back to it at some point.)

His Issues page is framed as a Q&A and starts with a question about Superintendent Silva. He says he wants to hold her accountable without making it very clear what that means, and then adds, “I will make sure that Superintendent Silva makes the necessary changes to the Racial Equity Plan so that it is inclusive of ALL students and doesn’t emphasise diversity as simply a black and white issue.” This is an excellent point: people have this tendency to frame diversity in the schools as a black/white thing but there is a HUGE population of Hmong kids in the St. Paul schools and also a lot of Latino kids. With their own sets of distinctive needs and struggles and all the rest. A commenter on an article that ran back in the spring said that Hmong, Karen, and Somali immigrant children suffer the most in seriously disorderly schools, and he may very well be right.

His answers to questions about mainstreaming special needs and ELL kids makes me think he’s not super well versed in what the issues are here — especially his ELL answer. “When you think about the fact that a high percentage of our ELL students speak their native language at home, it is our duty to immerse them into our culture both socially and academically.” — I am raising my eyebrow at that, is he calling for active and deliberate assimilation? “An ELL student who speaks their native language at home and is forced to be isolated when they come to school, is an ELL student that we have failed as a district.” — I’m not sure where he thinks the failure point is here. “ELL students who enter the district at ages where the research shows it is more difficult to acquire a new language should have experiential learning opportunities in addition to being mainstreamed.” — There’s a term used in the St. Paul schools for students who arrive as teens with a dearth of formal education. These kids are often very eager to get a diploma but may not be able to in time, just because there is so much to make up. (Imagine if you had literally never been to school in your life, and you arrive at 16 with no literacy in any language and you have to learn to speak English, to read and write English, and to do something resembling a high school curriculum before you age out at 21. At least one of the DFL-endorsed candidates was advocating for extending these kids’ eligibility for free public education up to age 23. But, there are a lot of good arguments for providing these kids with their own learning environment, and he doesn’t really address it, he just talks about how you should mainstream them because they’re human.)

He thinks the iPads were a waste of money: “Another reason is that even if each and every student had in their possession one of these iPads, it would send the district into bankruptcy trying to pay for repairs when our students’ iPads break or need some sort of repair.” — I thought that the (excessive, IMO) ongoing cost for the iPads was in part to pay for the repairs? It’s a lot of money each year. But it’s already budgeted, it’s not a thing that would send the district into bankruptcy, they’ve allocated the money, unless this was even more stupidly implemented than I thought. (Maybe? SURELY some of the appalling recurring cost is repairs, though, they didn’t hand out iPads with assumption that parents would be able to pay for any damage that occurred, because there are a ton of parents in the St. Paul schools who absolutely could not afford to replace or repair an iPad.)

There’s a question about the disciplinary policy (“Do you support the current discipline policy, or lack thereof?”) and he responds:

I do not support the idea that there is no discipline policy in place or that the Racial Equity Plan itself is the cause of the discipline concerns at several schools in St. Paul. I believe that Superintendent Silva’s bad attitude towards students, parents, teachers, and administration is what lead to a bad climate district wide.

In the current climate there is a lot of frustration from the groups of people mentioned above towards Superintendent Silva. This frustration has been ignored by the Superintendent and current School Board members so I think the climate in addition to a poorly focused and poorly implemented Racial Equity Plan which made a lot of students feel like nobody was paying attention to them, and a lot of teachers feeling unsupported in serving our students.

So this got me to actually google up the Racial Equity policy and while I was at it, a disciplinary policy. The racial equity policy (passed in 2013) is here. The disciplinary policy is a thing you can find on their website and basically says that it’s up to principals to have disciplinary policies for their schools and by the way don’t break the law (there are some state laws about process if you’re going to expel a student.) The disciplinary policies, such as they are, were last revised in 2008, so that’s not in the “current board fuckup” category.

The racial equity policy reads to me like it was written by academically-oriented activists. “To interrupt systems that perpetuate inequities, SPPS will: A. Invite and include people from all races and ethnicities to examine issues and find adaptive solutions, which address the root causes and systems, rather than technical solutions, which provide one-time, situational fixes; B. Develop the personal, professional, and organizational skills and knowledge of its employees to enable them to address the role and presence of racism; and C. Eliminate practices that result in predictably lower academic achievement for any student racial group compared to peers.”

As an activist, Rashad does not want to lay out an agenda: “These people know what the problems are, they know what policies are creating these disparities.” As a school board candidate, though, this sort of nonspecific policy is “poorly focused.” But he

Rashad posted in my neighborhood Facebook group a week or so back (this was very controversial, and annoyingly, a lot of my neighbors are apparently totally fine with people advertising their MLM essential oils but not okay with candidates stopping by to answer questions) and someone asked him about the disciplinary policy issue: “I understand that SPPS went from far too many student suspensions to 5-minute timeouts, with pretty much no preparation or input from teachers or parents. Where do you stand on suspensions?” Rashad’s response: “I do believe we need to do much better in keeping all of our students in class and reaching their full potential. The disparities in suspensions across the district is disturbing. Students should be removed from the classroom and from school for violent offenses. However, despite the medias spin on suspensions in SPPS, most (80%) of suspensions are for non violent subjective reasons. The non violent subjective reasons for students being suspended are what we need to continue to work on and bring to an end. An example of a non violent subjective offense to remove a student from class can be found below in this video” after which he pasted in a link to the horrifying video of South Carolina Deputy Ben Fields throwing a student across the room.

Which is horrifying. But we are talking about the St. Paul schools here, and are there school resource officers who are battering and abusing students in our schools? Because if so, that needs to fucking stop, but talk about those incidents, don’t post a link to that video, because honestly it is not relevant because the issue is “should disruptive but non-violent students be suspended,” not “should disruptive but non-violent students get the crap beaten out of them.” (By the way, from everything I’ve heard, she wasn’t even being disruptive. But even if she’d been violent, nothing about Fields’ response was okay.)

Here’s what I want, in a discipline policy, okay? I’m going to be specific.

* No one should ever get an out-of-school suspension for non-violent behavior. Kids and teenagers are sometimes annoying. Deal with it. Appropriate ways to deal with non-violent misbehavior: time outs. time outs in another classroom. sending the kid to the behavior specialist’s room to calm down. Sending the kid to the principal’s office for a lecture. Missing a fun activity. Having to go to the end of the line. Demerits. Detentions. Losing one of the fun privileges usually available to their classroom/grade. Calling their parents. Bringing in the professionals to evaluate the kid to see if they have needs that are not being met, need services that they’re not getting, need intervention from the teacher to head off problems. THE LIST GOES ON. We do not need to suspend students for non-violent misbehavior. That is not what suspension is for.

* Violent behavior is a different matter, although let’s take a deep breath and not round up every last bit of physical misbehavior to “violence,” because if my white, middle-class daughter did not get an out-of-school suspension for hitting a boy in the face with her soft-sided lunch box when he cut in line in front of her, neither should anyone’s black son or daughter for that same offense. (She did get an in-school suspension for the remainder of the day for that. The only reason she got in trouble was that the custodian came around the corner at exactly the right moment to see her whomp him. More on that in a minute, maybe.) But as a basic principle, if a teacher gets hit, kicked, bitten, scratched, or shoved by one of their students, at minimum, they should not have to deal with that student again for the rest of the day. They should be able to send that kid off with the behavior specialist and get the rest of the day off from that particular miscreant, if they want. (Even if this is a kindergartner. This stuff looks really different if you’re picturing a tiny little kid vs. a high schooler, but that one of the fundamental problems here is that when the kid is black, they are a HELL of a lot more likely to get treated like a violent high schooler even if they’re THREE.) Violence is grounds for suspension. Violence that happens repeatedly is grounds for expulsion, or for moving you somewhere better suited to your unique needs.

* Students have a right to feel safe in school.

* Calm, reasonably orderly spaces in schools benefit everyone.

But let’s talk about Molly again. Molly had a really bad second grade year. She hit, kicked, shoved, punched, and on one occasion bit her classmates. She had an in-school suspension, an out-of-school suspension, an eval… things improved when I stopped letting her eat anything with red dye in it, when we found out about the daily bullying on the bus and took care of it, and when one severely disruptive student in her room was moved to another school. But her behavior problems didn’t fully resolve until we moved her to another school, in fourth grade, at which point … they vanished. Because now, she was in a calm and orderly environment where the adults were enforcing the rules, so she no longer felt like she needed to use violence just to protect herself.

I’m going to bring up one final detail I read about Rashad in one of the articles about him: he had a domestic violence arrest.

Based on my personal observations, both as a parent and years ago as a student, one generalization I would make is that in a really disorderly school environment, it is the girls who suffer the most. They are more likely to check out rather than disrupt, which means that they get none of the concern and care and attention that disruptive kids get at least some of the time — they’re not creating problems, so they are left to their own devices. They are also more likely to be physically in danger. In an anarchistic school environment, the girls are more likely to get physically assaulted and intimidated.

The black girls, of course, get it coming and going. They suffer extra from the disorderly environment but the people who are allegedly supposed to provide order are not people they can trust either, and I’m not going to link to that video but probably you’re all picturing it in your heads right now anyway. She’s hardly a unique case. Black girls nationwide are suspended six times as often as white girls (it’s a 3:1 ratio with black boys and white boys) and are excluded from a lot of the efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline.

But saying “we need to stop worrying about whether our kids behave” seems like a surrender to the forces of anarchy, and I particularly distrust that attitude coming from a man who has been arrested for domestic violence. We need a fair and equitable environment. We need to make goddamn sure that we’re not disciplining the black kids more harshly than the white kids for the same offenses. We need to have a sense of proportion about ordinary teenage misbehavior, like cell phones in class, or gum, or all the 8 million other things that are only a problem because they are teenagers and we feel like we need to be in charge. (Have you ever worried about someone flipping you out of your chair and throwing you across the room because you checked your cell phone during a meeting? No? How about for chewing gum?) We need to provide a safe environment for our kids — they need to be safe from the small number of violent and aggressive other kids, and from adults who shouldn’t be working with children if they can’t cope with garden-variety annoying kid behavior.

One more point on Rashad’s policy ideas. Asked about budgets, he says: “I’m the type of person who goes shopping with about every coupon from the Sunday paper in my cart, which illustrates the fact that I love to and have to save money. I don’t feel that we need to continue to ask for more money from you, the taxpayer, because like myself you are probably also looking for the best coupons available in the Sunday paper. Instead, we need to manage our districts money more effectively. When elected, I want to go line by line through the budget and eliminate any dollars being spent that do not have a direct impact on our students’ educational experience and opportunities. I want to make sure that our budget is prioritized on what’s best for students, and not spending money on big corporations to come in a not produce any results for our students.” — I’m very curious which corporations he’s talking about here, whether it’s Apple and the iPads, or if this is a reference to Minneapolis’s stupid expenditure on that godawful reading curriculum, or if he’s complaining about PEG. (PEG = Pacific Education Group, a consulting group that came in to do training on racism and privilege.)

But, you know — seriously, Republicans, maybe you should vote for this guy! I did not see a single DFLer say that they were going to go line by line through the district budget to look for the waste they could cut! For that matter, I didn’t see the lone Republican say that, either, since he has no website or campaign materials that I could find!

I would actually really be in favor of this approach. The big districts, Minneapolis and St. Paul, actually have more money per student than most other districts in the state, and they also have the largest class sizes. And yeah, they have more ELL students and other stuff they need to deal with but they also have bloated and pointless bureaucracies and the boards hate cutting them. Some of those people in the administration do super important and valuable stuff and some of them do jack all. Figuring out which ones are which is the tricky part, but if someone’s eager to tackle the job…

There are too many red flags here, though, from really not knowing that much about some of the pressing issues to the discipline stuff. I am not going to vote for him.

As a final note: you are welcome to post comments about whether Rashad would be good or bad on the St. Paul school board. We’re not going to have a conversation about the basic legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. We’re also not going to get into BLM-St. Paul’s tactics in general. I realize that there is some overlap here, but if I think you’re not making a good-faith effort to stay on topic I will delete your comments.

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 – teachers, parents, school principals, and support staff – 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.)

Election 2015: St. Paul School Board candidates you don’t have to worry about

In an attempt to impose some organization on this process, I’m going to do a relatively quick post on the candidates I’m not seriously considering voting for, with some information on why. To recap, there are nine candidates on the ballot and four seats. There are four DFL-endorsed candidates and one incumbent who’s running without endorsement. That leaves four remaining candidates, none of whom are really all that viable: Scott Raskiewicz, Linda Freeman, Greg Copeland, and Aaron Anthony Benner.

Scott Raskiewicz

Scott finds e-mail, texting, and Internet interactions “dehumanizing” and on his web page (which, to his credit, he did set up) says that if anyone wants to talk to him, they need to make contact “via the humanizing and democrating means of the United States Post Office.”

Have the St. Paul schools put too much emphasis on shiny, shiny technology? I have $8 million worth of annual iPad costs that says yes. Am I interested in electing a candidate who insists that I need to go buy a stamp in order to ask him basic questions? NO. I do kind of wonder where he found an answering service (which you can use for “urgent matters” but he wants to scold you about how “with foresight — a key to education – few things become urgent”) here in 2015, but not enough to write him a letter asking about it.

He does say that if he’s elected he’s resigned to spending some time reading e-mail, though he doesn’t actually commit to answering it. Other information about him: he has a book out called “Economic Democracy: Ending the Corporate Domination of our Lives.” (I found no reviews of it.) He spent seventeen years as a substitute teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools and has also been a “tennis teaching professional.”

Anyway, anyone who demands postal mail when running for office is a flake.

Linda Freeman

Linda is a teacher running for school board and is organized enough to have t-shirts, yard signs, and brochures that have been translated into Hmong and Karen.

What she doesn’t seem to have: a website with her positions in English.

On her personal FB page I did find this statement:

“Getting my platform out there! Hope to create a dialogue.
Linda Freeman is ready to serve a dynamic school district!
a district that attracts families to programs they want for their children
a district that’s preparing to develop world-class early childhood education
a district that hires and retains highly educated teachers and support staff
a district that assures that ipads don’t become behavior management
a district that listens regularly to the people working closely with children
a district that uses best practices to close the acheivement gap
a district that welcomes and meets all children and families where they’re at
a district that expects desegregation
a district that understands how to guide children to
their full potential, joyful community, self discipline and peace”

But, as noted, it’s on her personal FB page so no one can reply to it unless they’re her FB friend (or possibly a friend-of-a-friend), making it hard to “create a dialogue.” She does have a FB group for her campaign, and her bio is up there, but absolutely nothing substantive. Seriously, she has pictures up of the Hmong and Karen brochures but she hasn’t put the English text up anywhere.

I’ve concluded she’s a flake. It’s possible that she has a real website somewhere and accidently included the code that keeps Google from indexing it — that’s surprisingly common — so I left a comment on one of her FB photos asking about this and we’ll see if she replies.

Greg Copeland

Greg Copeland is a Republican and perennial candidate who was once a jaw-droppingly incompetent city manager for Maplewood. I would not even recommend voting for him if you’re a Republican. (If you’re a Republican, you probably want to vote for the endored DFLers, while weeping into your tea. I mean, the current board hired the Pacific Education Group, and while plenty of DFLers are skeptical of PEG, Republicans really loathe it.)

Aaron Anthony Benner

Benner is “outspoken St. Paul Teacher Aaron Benner” — he’s a black man and a youngish teacher who worked for a while at a school in the Rondo neighborhood. He’s so outspoken he actually appeared on The O’Reilly Factor to talk about how awful things were. (That’s a strike against him, but on doing a lot of reading about him, I would say that this is a man who is really passionately frustrated by the low expectations of black students and willing to ally with conservatives to bring attention to what he sees as incredibly urgent problems.)

The reason why Brenner’s in this post and not with the candidates I might vote for: he’s not actually running anymore. He likes his new job at a charter school quite a lot, enough that he doesn’t want to take the time either to campaign or to serve.

So, no longer a candidate, but his take on SPPS is still interesting in a hair-raising way. In addition to stories of constantly disruptive and even violent kids, he talks about open retaliation from the district. They couldn’t fire him (he was tenured) but they fired his teaching aide with no warning despite previously stellar reviews.

There is also a write-in candidate, Rashad Turner. I’m going to tackle him with the real candidates because despite not actually getting his act together in time to be on the ballot, he’s at least got a website, positions, a donations link, etc.

Elections 2015: The St. Paul School Board

So I’m going to note something up front: I am a parent, and I live in St. Paul, but my kids don’t go to St. Paul public schools. They both attend a charter school. They used to attend a Minneapolis public school; I pulled them out to attend this charter, and then we moved to St. Paul, so in fact they have never attended St. Paul public schools (although Kiera might do so in the future). So the bulk of my stories about the various ways in which the current Board has made a mess of things are all stories from friends and acquaintances, like the St. Paul teacher who vented a long list of frustrated complaints about her work environment while pressing apple cider at the back yard party we both attended over the weekend.

I’ve been working on this post for several days now and it just keeps getting longer and longer and longer and harder to organize, so I think I’m going to make this one focused on the backstory, with the caveat that (a) there’s a lot, (b) it’s confusing, (c) I may get some of it wrong, and (d) I guarantee I’m missing stuff. (Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that I’m not a journalist: I’m a citizen whose main research tool is Google, and I’m just sharing my research and opinions with the rest of you, often as I’m coming up with them.)

SO. The current board (and the superintendent, Valeria Silva) have done a bunch of things that seriously pissed off a lot of SPPS (St. Paul Public Schools) parents. Some highlights:

1. They moved a lot of kids with emotional and behavioral disorder diagnoses into mainstream classrooms full time. Whether this was a good idea or a bad idea — SPPS just moving into compliance with existing laws about least-restrictive environments or SPPS going out on a limb with an approach no one else would use in a million years — not to mention whether these kids were dumped into classrooms with no supports, or given EAs and other help so they could succeed? This depends entirely on who you ask. This reasonably balanced article discusses all those angles and also notes that the kids who were being dumped off in “learning centers” instead of being re-integrated were overwhelmingly black kids. The Bruce Vento elementary special ed coordinator is quoted saying, “We felt that the students had to be perfect before we would let them go [from the LC back to a regular classroom],” and … yeah, you know, that’s not okay, either.

2. The same year, they moved a lot of kids who are English-language learners into mainstream classrooms. Again, whether this was a good idea or a bad idea depends on who you ask. Previously, the kids with limited English proficiency were in sheltered classrooms that focused heavily on learning English and a lot less on content. Board Member Chue Vue (himself a former ELL student) endorses the push-them-into-the-mainstream approach: “Among families of Hmong descent, including his own, the concern has traditionally been that kids ready to tackle mainstream content are lingering in sheltered classes.” (Chue is not up for re-election this year.)

The article I linked to mentioned a cooperative model, where both a regular subject teacher and an ELL teacher work together. The teacher who vented to me over the weekend is teaching such a class, but her bilingual assistant finds the subject matter difficult and is basically refusing to do her job. Both the ELL and the EBD mainstreaming is heavily contingent on having good EAs available, and there is also a chronic shortage of EAs, which is not surprising considering that in the last few years they’ve beefed up the educational requirements but haven’t raised the pay.

3. They rolled out iPads to every student, spending $5.5 million the first year and dedicating $8 million in future years. Most of the St. Paul students, at least, are reasonably enthusiastic about this one.

4. They also restructured all their schools to move the 6th graders in with the middle schoolers. This wasn’t actually that bad an idea, they just did a crap-ass job preparing for it (like, there were schools where none of the teachers had the right licensure to teach the kids that were arriving.)

5. I think they also did the EBD mainstreaming, ELL mainstreaming, iPad rollout, and 6th grade reshuffle all in the same very busy year. I guess you could argue that you might as well maximize the disruption in a single year and get it over with. That seems to be St. Paul’s approach to road maintenance.

6. Then there’s the discipline policy. I don’t even know what to say about this. Over in Minneapolis, they implemented a policy that said that elementary schoolers can no longer be suspended for non-violent infractions. (Why are elementary school kids ever suspended for non-violent infractions, seriously? I’m sure you’ll all be shocked to hear that you are approximately 8 gazillion times more likely to be suspended for non-violent infractions if you’re a black kid than if you’re a white kid.) Anyway, here in St. Paul….there are a ton of teachers saying that they’re no longer allowed to suspend kids due to the district policy, but the Board and Silva have insisted stone-faced that there is no such policy and teachers are totally allowed to suspend kids. Aaron Anthony Benner, formerly outspoken SPPS teacher, then (briefly) active candidate for the Saint Paul School Board, and now Behavior Coach at an area charter school, has a long list of hair-raising stories including one about being punched by a student who was returned to his classroom ten minutes later. Anyway….right now, I think, we’ve kind of got the worst of both worlds. Teachers are saying they’re not being allowed to discipline students for major infractions and yet we still have massive racial disparities in discipline approach.

7. The board approved a new three-year contract for SPPS Superintendant Valeria Silva, who has been controversial, to put it mildly. Shortly after they approved the contract she flirted with taking off for some other district, then a day later said that she was staying in St. Paul. There were a lot of people who were pissed off that they renewed it right before an election, though, thus taking the decision out of the new board’s hands.

Back in February when I went to my precinct caucus, one of the groups there was the “Caucus for Change,” which had a pretty straightforward “throw the incumbents out” agenda. They did not-exactly-an-endorsement: they gave a general stamp of approval to a bunch of people running, rather than picking their four favorites. There was then a minor drama at the City Convention in April, where after we’d voted on the second ballot a flier was circulated where they’d done an on-the-fly endorsement of Rafael Espinosa and Pa Chua Vang. (It was clear that Zuki Ellis and Steve Marchese were going to get endorsed on the 2nd ballot, and it looked like Mary Vanderwert and Jon Schumacher were on their way to endorsement as well.) It was completely unclear who in the Caucus for Change made this decision or was calling the shots. A few minutes later, another hastily-printed flier went around objecting to the first flier. (“Behind closed doors, a few members of the Caucus for Change made the unilateral decision to encourage support for candidates who are not leading in the delegate voting process. Caucus for Change originally committed to not endorsing candidates. Some members of the group have decided to change this strategy.”) Anyway, as far as I can tell, no one paid much attention to either flier.

Caucus for Change is basically the local teacher’s union standing behind a curtain. I mean, if you look at their website, they will tell you that they are “a group of parents, educators, students, and community members working together to create stronger schools here in Saint Paul.” But scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see, “Prepared and paid for by the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers Committee on Political Education.” I had a door-knocker last week who was a Minneapolis teacher who’d been recruited by the union to come over to volunteer to campaign for the DFL-endorsed candidates.

I do kind of get why they WANT a curtain. I’m not anti-MFT. (MFT = Minnesota Federation of Teachers.) Teachers deserve to have their interests represented. But I think it’s worth remembering that the job of a teacher’s union is to represent teachers, not students. Often, the interests of teachers and students are solidly in alignment (that’s a link to a news story about the Seattle teachers demanding daily recess for their students). Sometimes, though, they are not. (That’s a link to a news story about NYC’s “rubber rooms.”) There are a decent number of people who are pro-unions as a general thing but nonetheless have some reservations about union-endorsed school board candidates — one of the things the board does is negotiate the contract.

In this case, I think that when huge numbers of teachers are incensed about the repeated massive clusterfucks created by the current board, this is something that everyone should be paying attention to.

But there’s also this, from the candidate questionnaire on the Caucus for Change site: “Caucus for Change is a group of parents, educators and community members who believe that our voices must be at the center of decision making around educational policy. Despite the belief that local parents and educators know best what our children need in order to learn, there has been an increase of money, often from out of state millionaires, with vested interest in pursuing a corporate education reform agenda. Will you and your campaign reject contributions and independent expenditures from out of state millionaires and corporate education reform organizations?” — that’s actually a question about the groups that backed Don Samuels when he ran for the Minneapolis School Board last year. This is the very first question on their questionnaire — not anything about the safety of teachers, or the education of students, but “will you side with us against the groups we consider our enemies,” which particularly makes me raise my eyebrow given that these groups have shown no interest yet in St. Paul. I’m not pointing this out because I’m a fan of these corporate reformers, but if you’re a union-funded group running the union agenda and you’re calling yourself “TOTALLY NOT THE TEACHERS’ UNION, NO NEED TO LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN” then I will be honest: that bugs me.

One more bit of background before I post this. There are nine people running for four seats, but only five of them have any realistic chance of getting on the board: the four DFL (and Caucus for Change) endorsed candidates, and Keith Hardy, the one incumbent who decided to run without endorsement. There are also three people on the current board who are not up for election, which means that if the challengers win, they’ll control the board; if Keith Hardy defeats one of them, the current board will still control the majority of votes. I am not sure on what issues they can be considered a monolith.

Elections 2015: All St. Paul, All The Time

I have been dragging my feet on this one, in part because (despite having lived in St. Paul for almost three years now) I know Minneapolis politics better and Minneapolis isn’t having an election this November.

Here in St. Paul, we’re having a very local set of elections. Citywide, we’re voting for school board. We’re also voting on our City Council reps, although mine is running unopposed. There’s no primary: we have instant runoff for the City Council seat, and it’s “pick four, top vote-getters win” for the School Board race. (Both Minneapolis and St. Paul implemented instant runoff for the city offices, but my understanding is that they can’t do that for School Board because that process is set by the State Legislature.)

But! It’s October 11th, and it’s time I start figuring out who the heck I ought to vote for in the school board race, at the very least. (Also, I had a special request for some commentary on the Ward 5 City Council race, plus parking meters are a big issue this year and I would like to take the opportunity to complain about all the stupid stuff St. Paul does with parking restrictions. The Grand/Victoria neighborhood should’ve had parking meters installed YEARS ago, people. Suck it up.)