John Brodrick, a veteran St. Paul school board member with longstanding ties to the community and organized labor, took his colleagues by surprise at this week's board meeting by delivering a prepared statement claiming people "have lost faith in the district."
The comments, offered as a "counter perspective" to Superintendent Valeria Silva's lengthy monthly update, cited both public and internal dissatisfaction with changes in special education and English Language Learner instruction, as well as the district's approach to student discipline.
Brodrick said that a wide range of people, from parents to grandparents to teachers to ordinary citizens, "tell me that they no longer have confidence in the district to provide for the education of their child." He said district leaders could prove their critics wrong by developing "truly transparent strategies" that would give stakeholders reason to believe things will change in 2014-15.
The statement came on the heels of complaints aired by parents at Central High School and community leaders on the West Side about a lack of clarity and transparency in the district's actions, and was unusual coming from a St. Paul board member. They typically unite behind administrative strategies.
Earlier this year, however, Brodrick, 70, a former St. Paul teacher and coach, proved that he could step away from that team player tradition when he nominated -- unsuccessfully -- an alternate candidate for the school board chairwoman's seat that ultimately went to Mary Doran. One observer, Al Oertwig, a former school board member, said it was rare for the board to differ publicly on its new leader. Such decisions typically are worked out behind the scenes, he said.
On the subject of student discipline, teachers have been frustrated by the message sent by central administrative leaders calling for schools to do all they can to keep students in class.
In 2012-13, the district eliminated "continual willful disobedience" from a list of suspendable violations. It also offered financial incentives to principals to trim their suspension numbers.
In addition, the board last summer approved the latest in a series of contracts with a consulting firm that hosts "courageous conversations" encouraging staff members to examine any racial biases they may bring to their work. Brodrick voted in opposition.
On Tuesday night, Board Member Louise Seeba, who Brodrick had backed for chairwoman, thanked him for his "brave words." She said she was a proud parent of students attending district schools, and that she believed safety issues were paramount for parents.
Doran advised colleagues who hear concerns from community members to pass them along to administrators to determine if there's a pattern.
Former Board Chairwoman Jean O'Connell offered a more direct rebuttal to Brodrick's statement, saying she disagreed that a perceived lack of confidence among residents and parents was the "predominant mood in the city." That conclusion, she said, "is a big stretch."