St. Paul DFLers took inspiration from a Caucus for Change movement critical of school district leadership Sunday by endorsing four challengers for school board — and tossing three incumbents in the process.
At a city convention that lasted nearly nine hours, activists gave the party nods to first-time candidates Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert.
“I think it’s a powerful signal from all over the city that major changes are needed in how the district is operating,” said Joe Nathan, a convention delegate and director of the Center for School Change.
Although none of the endorsed candidates called out Superintendent Valeria Silva by name, they were critical of missteps she herself has acknowledged during the past year. The superintendent also was not believed to have done the incumbents any favors either by agreeing to a three-year contract extension last month, only to apply for and then abandon a bid for a job in Florida a few weeks later.
The school board election is seven months away, but interest was high for Sunday’s city convention, with 96 percent of eligible delegates turning out to Washington Technology Magnet School on the city’s North End.
The stakes were significant, as well. Each of the candidates, including incumbents Mary Doran, Keith Hardy and Anne Carroll, and 10 challengers, vowed to give up their candidacies if they failed to win endorsement in their heavily DFL city.
Participation was driven in large part by a Caucus for Change movement that tapped parental and community concerns about school behavior problems and other issues. The district’s teachers union hired two full-time organizers to work with parents, teachers and others on pre-convention training and other activities.
But unity within the movement cracked for at least one ballot Sunday night when Cedric Stripling, co-chair of the political arm of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, issued a statement urging convention-goers to keep in mind the district’s diversity as it neared the endorsements of Schumacher and Vanderwert, who are white.
The two failed to advance on the third ballot, but prevailed on the fourth.
In his speech to the convention, Schumacher, the leader of a community foundation that supports the arts and innovative learning for kids, said it was time for the district to face concerns that include the loss of students to charter schools and other districts, and inadequate support to teachers who have seen increasing numbers of special-education and English language learners in regular classrooms.
Racial equity and inclusion efforts are important goals, he said, but not enough attention has been given on how best to achieve them.
“The time for change is now,” he said.
Ellis is a PTO president and a trainer with the teachers union’s parent-teacher home visit project. Marchese is an attorney and pro bono development director for the state bar association. Vanderwert has worked for 25 years in early-childhood education, including eight years with the state Department of Education as its Head Start state collaboration director.
At convention’s end, Vanderwert said from the stage, “Let’s go home,” and as convention-goers gathered up their materials, the four endorsees could be seen in a group hug.