St. Paul’s school board incumbents are in trouble this year — potential casualties of a “Caucus for Change” movement powered by the district’s teachers union.
At a DFL convention last weekend, Roy Magnuson, head of the union’s political arm, sat atop the Central High School bleachers with two organizers hired by the union to rally support for challengers. They watched as most delegates staked allegiances with the sizable band of newcomers.
“So far, so good,” Magnuson said as counts were finalized in the last of the city’s ward conventions, which offered a preview of next month’s citywide fight for four prized party endorsements. “Nothing’s turned the trend.”
The union’s aggressive push to unseat three incumbents — a fourth seat opened when Louise Seeba chose not to run again — comes as the seven-member board prepares to vote this week to award Superintendent Valeria Silva a new three-year contract based on her racial equity work and inclusion efforts. But it is the incumbents who have stood behind Silva who could pay for combined missteps in her attempts to deliver on that vision.
Caucus for Change “certainly has been embraced by a large number of people in the political process, especially a lot of community people — activists, staff members, parents,” Yusef Mgeni, a member of the St. Paul NAACP and former district administrator, said last week. “People are following with heightened interest.”
Late last year, Magnuson, frustrated by the district’s direction and perceived lack of response to union and community concerns, issued a call for challengers. His most recent count shows 11 competing with three incumbents for DFL endorsement.
Magnuson is a longtime Como Park Senior High teacher and political organizer respected by those whose causes he’s championed — the district’s levy proposals included.
He knows campaign styles, too, and in a recent conversation, noted the likelihood of incumbent Anne Carroll thinking she could win support through hundreds of one-on-one conversations. True to form, Carroll was at Central High last weekend in a bright red blazer mingling with rows of East African caucusgoers.
But when it came time to subcaucus — the process used to divvy up delegates for the city convention — no one called for one in her name. Only Keith Hardy, also seeking re-election, earned that distinction, and he left the convention with four of its 68 delegates.
Several challengers — Zuki Ellis, Mary Vanderwert, Jon Schumacher, Steve Marchese, Rafael Espinosa and Pa Chua Vang — each appeared to have stronger support.
Board Chairwoman Mary Doran, endorsed by Mayor Chris Coleman and Stonewall DFL Caucus (the LGBT caucus of the DFL), left with the backing of a “Racial Equity” subcaucus created for the incumbents. Again, four delegates. She’s proud of her record, which includes a push for a new gender-inclusion policy expected to be adopted by the board Tuesday. But she acknowledged being taken aback by the union’s deployment of two full-time organizers to rally anti-incumbent forces.
“I have been in schools since I have been a mom and I’m still new to politics,” she said. “But I can say I have not seen this before.”
Roots of unrest
Union leaders offer different takes on the genesis and the purpose of Caucus for Change.
Denise Rodriguez, the union’s president, cites a desire to give voice to parents who came to St. Paul Federation of Teachers headquarters concerned about unanswered e-mails and the lack of staff support for ambitious moves such as the shifting of more special-education and English language learners into regular classrooms.
Some parents, like Ellis, who now is a board candidate, and Anitra Krogman, who has three children at Farnsworth Aerospace, were part of a network of parents and community members called upon by the union to advocate for its contract demands a year ago.
Caucus for Change is “a continuation of that,” Krogman said. “It was an outlet — a place I can go.”
Magnuson was among five teachers who pushed last year for higher expectations of students and consequences for those who misbehave and disrupt classrooms. The group was “squashed,” in his view, by pro-racial-equity voices at a May 2014 board meeting. Later, Silva, acknowledging a “difficult year” in 2013-14, invited the teachers to join a group convened last summer to explore discipline-related issues. The teachers were dissatisfied with the outcome, and declined to support it.
At a meeting of the St. Paul NAACP last week, Magnuson said that after raising his hand, saying, “excuse me,” things aren’t working, and failing to persuade people within the system to make changes, the next best course of action was to work outside it and pursue new leadership.
Time for change
Elaine Gillespie, a parent at Ramsey Middle School, said frustration over the district’s delayed response to student misbehavior at the school led her to join the Caucus for Change forces and attend last weekend’s Ward One convention.
Gillespie bristles at the fact that the corrective steps promised last summer at a meeting with district leaders and board members, Doran included, weren’t put in place until December. She was insulted, too, she said, that parents didn’t get a letter spelling out the action plan until the very afternoon they planned to go to the board with their complaints.
“I’ve realized that if anything is going to change it’ll be by electing people who will hold the superintendent accountable for what’s happening in these schools,” she said.
As for what the unrest could mean for Silva, Scott Burns, the founder of a 200-person software company in downtown St. Paul, was concerned enough to write an op-ed piece in the Star Tribune stressing the need for patience to let the superintendent’s strategies work.
“I think any time change is happening somebody is going to say that change is happening too fast,” he said in an interview last week. “You’re not going to get it perfect. Nobody’s going to get it perfect. That’s a fantasy.”
Schumacher, the leader of a community foundation that supports the arts and innovative learning for kids, attended Silva’s State of the District address in January. He said she’s “shown vision and leadership in setting goals of racial and gender equity, inclusive classrooms and the use of technology to enhance learning.” Asked if she should get a new contract, the board challenger said that’s for the current board to decide.
More important, he said, is that district leaders take seriously the goal outlined in Silva’s most recent job review to re-engage with the school community and be more open and honest about what needs to improve.