As mandates go, St. Paul’s four Caucus for Change candidates couldn’t have hoped for better, having won election Tuesday as a new school board majority dedicated to getting the state’s second-largest district back on track.
They may be political newcomers, but they are prepared to take office together as school board leaders.
“There are not many opportunities in life where the opportunity is as clear as it is here,” said Steve Marchese, an attorney and one of four first-time candidates elected under the Caucus for Change banner critical of district leadership. “That doesn’t mean tearing things apart for the sake of doing it. But we have to take a hard look at what’s going on.”
What they see in Superintendent Valeria Silva is a leader pushing hard to erase racial inequities to ensure all students succeed. But they say some changes have come too fast — and too often in a flawed, top-down manner. It is time, they say, for a board that responds to parent and teacher concerns and asserts its oversight role in dealings with the administration.
“I think the superintendent is creative,” said Mary Vanderwert, who arrives with 25 years of experience in early-childhood education. “I think she has really good ideas. But I think she needs help putting those ideas into reality so it is more respectful and smoother. If you do it abruptly, you can have chaos — and we’ve witnessed that.”
The four have a kindred spirit in John Brodrick, a retired teacher who will be the board’s senior member. He has stood alone among current board members in taking Silva and her administration to task for missteps that she has since acknowledged. But even Brodrick admits that the power now lies with the newcomers.
“They will be in a leadership role, and I think they earned that right,” he said Wednesday. “I want to be part of that team.”
The newcomers — Zuki Ellis and Jon Schumacher included — face the challenge of governing in a tight fiscal environment. On the contract front, they will have to bargain with a teachers union that powered the movement that helped make their elections possible and whose contract positions they have supported.
On Wednesday, Marchese, Vanderwert and Schumacher outlined two goals that are likely to require funding.
Marchese and Vanderwert pointed to the need for the board to have professional support to analyze proposals the administration might promote. Marchese cited Silva’s sudden pitch to put iPads in the hands of all students — and to give board members a short time to approve the move — as a “prime example of the board being caught short.”
Schumacher, who leads a community foundation that supports the arts and innovative learning for kids, cited as his priority an effort to ensure that proper supports are in place to make the schools safer.
“Where is the staff needed? Where are the programs that might be replicated?” he said. “There are ‘best practices’ to deal with all situations and we have to find ways to do it financially.”
Mayor Chris Coleman said he looks forward to working with the new members.
Board Member Jean O’Connell, who headed the board during the Strong Schools, Strong Communities launch, doesn’t expect a divide between old and new members, but she acknowledged: “You don’t know until the decisions are made.”
Thirty-plus years ago, Al Oertwig took office as a school board member with a similar intent to create change. The new group, he said this week, has to stay united.
When it comes to working with the superintendent, his advice was simple: “Turn up the heat and ask a lot of questions.”
Staff Writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.