Like many other urban school districts, Job One for the St. Paul schools is narrowing the achievement gap. The district has a $650 million budget and 39,000 students, with about 75 percent children of color. In some academic areas, there is a 44 percentage point difference between how white students and students of color perform on state tests — one of the nation’s largest disparities.
Addressing that vexing problem should be paramount for St. Paul voters when they go to the polls Nov. 5. Voters will select from a list of five candidates for three open seats on the seven-person board. Our endorsements go to incumbents Jean O’Connell and John Brodrick and newcomer Chue Vue.
All three have DFL Party and St. Paul Federation of Teachers endorsement.
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O’Connell, 61, is the standout in the group. During her time on the board, the retired 3M executive has provided thoughtful leadership and business management expertise. She has been a staunch supporter of Superintendent Valeria Silva’s “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” plan to narrow the achievement gap, an effort that is beginning to show modest results.
The former engineer is the current board president and is seeking a second term. Calling district gaps “horrific,” she said during a recent candidate forum that student data indicate that race, not just poverty, is indeed a factor in the disparities. That’s why she supports the district initiative to have more focus and staff training on racial equity.
“We have a perfectly designed system for educating white kids,” she said, “and we need to fix it so we have a perfectly calibrated system for educating all kids.”
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Brodrick, 69, is seeking a fourth term on the board. A St. Paul native and retired teacher and coach, he is well-known throughout the city. He says he wants to continue on the board after being energized by the successful 2012 school referendum campaign.
He has been the lone “no” vote on several administration recommendations recently, including a plan to hire a consultant on racial equity. However, he emphasized during a recent forum that he favors the racial equity effort but voted against the hiring only because he wanted more information. He added that parents and educators should cultivate a culture of “shared responsibilities and agreed-upon expectations.”
Brodrick has not been the strongest or most knowledgeable board member during his lengthy tenure, but he makes the top three in this field.
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Vue, 45, has a life story that should resonate with many of the district’s families. The Hmong immigrant came to the United States at age 10, never having been to school and not speaking a word of English. His family lived in Oklahoma before moving to Wisconsin, where he graduated from high school. He graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and worked as a research chemist for 11 years, then earned a law degree at William Mitchell in St. Paul.
Vue says education changed his life, and he’s running for school board to help bring that opportunity to all St. Paul children. He has a lot to learn about the district’s budget and operations but has the potential to be a quick study as well as an inspiration to all students.
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The other two candidates are Greg Copeland, 59, who is endorsed by the St. Paul Republican Party, and Terrance Bushard, 64, who was in the printing business. Copeland, a consultant and former city manager in Maplewood, is a major critic of the district and has led efforts to defeat school ballot initiatives.
Bushard has said his sole reason for running is to develop a high school course on politics and the national debt. He admits to knowing little or nothing about most education issues.
To learn more about the candidates, go to their websites: oconnellforstpaulkids.com, brodrick4kids.blogspot.com and chueforschoolboard.com. Copeland and Bushard did not list websites in information they provided to the Editorial Board.