Insurgent St. Paul school board finds governing is no easy A
Last Updated by
St. Paul voters in 2015 backed sweeping change in the city's school system when they chose four new school board members backed by the teachers union.
That new board majority responded by showing up at the first meeting with an unusually detailed list of demands.
Pushing for change, however, turns out to be easier than building policies that work for tens of thousands of students, families and teachers. Two years after taking power, the board hasn't delivered most of the items on the insurgents' original list.
Board members have completed some items, including adopting and funding a new student discipline approach called "restorative practices." They approved a reworked contract for school police officers. State audits of St. Paul's English learner and special education programs provided the program evaluations new board members wanted.
The board, though, has yet to secure items including yearly enrollment growth targets, a plan to localize control of schools and the creation of up to five "achievement objectives" that the new board members didn't detail.
"All of these priorities are being addressed," board chair Jon Schumacher said. Outcomes may look different from what members envisioned, he added, but "there's been success and progress in those areas throughout these two years."
The race that brought Schumacher and others to power became heated over school safety and dissatisfaction with district decisions, including placing sixth-grade students in middle schools and moving special education students to mainstream classrooms.
• Topic: Education
The race also led to the ouster of Superintendent Valeria Silva, the architect of those decisions.
"One of the things we heard in the campaign was that the old board appeared to be just rubber-stamping what the administration wanted, and I think this was a way of saying we're not going to be that kind of board," board member Mary Vanderwert said.
While Silva's firing opened the door for changes, the lack of a permanent leader in St. Paul also complicated matters. The board spent about a year finding Silva's replacement, former Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools superintendent Joe Gothard.
The district, though, needed a new leader in order to make progress on the board members' goals, said board member Steve Marchese, one of the four who won election in 2015.
"You need a board and an administration that are going to work together," he said. "One of the realities that became very clear during those first six months of 2016 is that's not what was happening."
Critics argued the new board members and their promise of an overhaul derailed progress already underway in St. Paul.
The new members' agenda "was not in alignment with ... what is required to see a lot of change and transformation happen in the district specifically around racial disparities," said Marika Pfefferkorn, who until recently worked with the advocacy group Minnesota Education Equity Partnership to reduce school discipline disparities between white students and students of color.
The district ran a group prior to the election that gathered community feedback and generated recommendations on school discipline, but the recommendations didn't get much traction afterwards, Pfefferkorn said.
Keith Hardy, an incumbent board member who ran against the four in 2015, said the board and superintendent changeover caused a delay the district could ill afford.
"[I kept saying] we've already been going all these years with our babies not being served properly, and now we have to bring in these new people with all these promises and they're going to spend the first year and a half getting rid of a superintendent and finding a new one instead of addressing what needs to be done for the students," Hardy said.
Others see the list and the board members' progress on it differently.
"Yes, these things are important, but the most important job of the school board is to hire a good superintendent," said Mike McCollor, principal of Washington Technology Magnet School. McCollor called new superintendent Joe Gothard "exceptional."
Board vice chair Zuki Ellis said with Gothard in place, St. Paul is poised for more progress as the district works on a new strategic plan due out this spring.
"Is it where we want it to be? No. Does it mean and feel like we're moving in the right direction now? Yes."
Read the board's original priorities document