St. Paul's successful Caucus for Change school board candidates got down to the business of actually leading the state's second-largest school district on Tuesday, and set about immediately to shake things up.
After listening to a report on school climate — a major issue for the district — newcomer Steve Marchese unveiled a list of proposed priorities for 2016 that would require Superintendent Valeria Silva to devise action plans on several key topics under aggressive timelines.
But the list was sprung on Silva without any warning as to what it entailed, and she did not appreciate it. Before commenting on the proposal, she said she wanted it made clear in the meeting minutes: "I just saw this," she said.
In the end, the board took no action, deciding instead to delay a discussion until its committee meeting in February.
But the move, engineered by a new majority united under a Caucus for Change banner critical of district leadership, signaled it could be the board and not the administration running the show in St. Paul.
Marchese and his fellow newcomers — Zuki Ellis, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert — had the luxury of entering into office with an opportunity to make change quickly. In recent weeks, they also were able to meet and plot strategies free of the constraints of an open-meeting law that now will govern their activities as official board members.
The four vowed to be responsive to parent and teacher concerns.
To that end, Schumacher, chosen by his colleagues Tuesday to be the board's new chairman, said in an interview that the board plans to reverse a recent edict to halt the broadcast of a public-comment section at board meetings that often was critical of district and board actions.
Also in the works is a move to put an 8:30 p.m. deadline on meetings to increase efficiency and offer other opportunities for members to engage with the public, he said.
Not all decisions have been worked out, however.
Schumacher said he wants the board to conduct some of its meetings in the schools, but he did not yet have details.
Still to be determined, too, is what a move to introduce restorative practices as a possible remedy to student misbehavior would involve.
In recent weeks, issues of school safety have been paramount in St. Paul. A Central High teacher was choked into unconsciousness by a 16-year-old student on Dec. 4 and the district's teachers union moved to take contract talks into mediation — saying safety concerns were serious enough to call a strike. The two sides still are in negotiations.
As for the board's list of priorities, Silva acknowledged that the subjects themselves — school climate and achievement among them — were no surprise. But they were issues that the board and the staff must take ownership of, too, she said.