Like many urban districts, the St. Paul Public Schools face multiple challenges, including declining enrollment, budget shortfalls, safety concerns and poverty rates that affect more than two-thirds of students.
At a minimum, school board members should be well-versed on those issues and prepared to set policies to achieve a top priority — improving academic achievement for all students. To that end, it’s disappointing that there’s not a large field of candidates with more diverse professional, business and political backgrounds. Budget and financial experience is especially important as the district works through tough financial times.
On Nov. 7, six candidates will compete for three seats on the board. Our choices are two incumbents — Jeannie Foster and John Brodrick — and first-time candidate Marny Xiong. Though the races are nonpartisan, all three sought and secured endorsements from the city DFL Party and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, the local teachers union. School board members serve four-year terms.
Although a stronger field might have resulted in different choices, Brodrick, Foster and Xiong emerged as our three picks.
Brodrick, 73, is a St. Paul native and a retired teacher and coach seeking his fifth term on the board. Likable and popular with constituents, after 16 years he remains enthusiastic about serving students. His experience and institutional memory are especially needed when the rest of the board has served for two years or less.
Foster, 44, first came to office during a special election in 2016 to replace director Jean O’Connell, who resigned. Foster won our endorsement then, and she merits a full term. The former teacher is also a St. Paul native who credits her strong single mom and St. Paul schools with helping her overcome poverty-related obstacles to earn a graduate degree in education. She is a family services manager for Community Action Partnership. As a school board member, she has helped families successfully navigate public systems and worked to build relationships between district staff members and the wider community.
Xiong, 28, is a community organizer and school manager in Minneapolis. She’s a St. Paul native whose parents came to Minnesota as refugees from Laos. Though she is sincere about wanting to improve St. Paul schools, she spoke in generalities during her interview with the Star Tribune Editorial Board and wasn’t as knowledgeable as Foster or Brodrick. She’ll have plenty of homework to do to catch up.
The other candidates are Andrea Touhey, an education consultant and former teacher; Luke Bellville, an attorney; and Greg Copeland, a Republican activist who has run unsuccessfully several times before.
Of this group, Touhey, 38, has the most potential, but her campaign has been understated. She grew up in a western Minneapolis suburb and has taught in urban, suburban and rural schools around the nation. She talked about bringing some of what worked elsewhere to St. Paul but lacked knowledge about the city’s schools.
Copeland, 63, is a perennial candidate who describes himself as “the loyal opposition.’’ The former suburban city manager has paid close attention to the district budget for years and is one of the district’s chief critics. Though he has some interesting ideas, we’re concerned about his ability to work effectively with fellow board members and the administration.
Bellville, who ran unsuccessfully for a district court judge position last year in Hennepin County, declined the Editorial Board’s invitation to be interviewed.
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For additional information about the candidates, including links to their websites, news stories and an explanation of ranked-choice voting, go to the Star Tribune’s 2017 Minneapolis and St. Paul voters guide at http://strib.mn/2yJxgmk.