Editor's note: This article was signed by multiple authors with a stake in the St. Paul Public Schools. They are listed below.
As a diverse group of St. Paul parents, grandparents and students who are eager to see effective equity and improved results, we are encouraged by the recent school board budget and personnel decisions. A new board majority was elected in November 2015, reflecting widespread frustrations. Outgoing Superintendent Valeria Silva and former Board Member Jean O'Connell failed to fully acknowledge this election. They misunderstood the role of an elected school board, especially in a district with declining enrollment.
Moving ahead, we need better planning, implementation, evaluation and public reporting. Families and students, along with educators, should be included in these efforts.
We look forward to the board's focus on these issues:
1) Increased enrollment: Over the last six years, Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) statistics show that the number of students living in St. Paul but going to suburban or charter public schools increased from 9,149 in 2009-10 to 13,429 in 2015-16. Two-thirds are students of color from low-income families. These 13,000 students represent more than $100 million a year in lost revenue for the St. Paul School District. Moreover, district administrators recently revised the anticipated 2016-17 enrollment decline from about 100 to more than 500 students.
2) Improved results with students: Despite an annual district budget of nearly $600 million, MDE statistics show that achievement gaps measured by test scores are flat or have increased, depending on which groups are compared. Graduation rates increased in part, because, as of 2013, students no longer were required to pass statewide reading and writing tests. Some teachers reported pressure to pass students, regardless of their performance.
3) More-effective equity initiatives: Seeking to reduce achievement gaps, the former board spent millions on equity consultants and conferences. Training often was not specific enough on research-based teaching strategies. Some students and faculty members described disrupted classrooms, which added to declining enrollment. Moving students with special needs and English-language learners into mainstream classes sometimes worked. Sometimes it failed, because there wasn't enough support for students. Some rightly challenged white privilege and racial disparities. The district needs more-effective ways to deal with this. It must follow up on several community and student requests for a more-inclusive curriculum. We're encouraged by restorative-justice initiatives. Combining classroom work with community service, such as Gordon Parks High School's terrific elders research project, helps improve skills and makes school more engaging.
4) Budgets reflecting district priorities: Widespread requests for new priorities from parents and community members produced the new board majority. However, this spring, Silva recommended $7 million in school cuts and, essentially, one cut in administration: a person who was retiring. About 200 students, parents, grandparents and community members demonstrated in May, challenging Silva. We discussed waste and duplication found after hundreds of hours of studying budget documents. For example, despite the superintendent's contract naming her CEO, the district has a second CEO making over $200,000 a year, with salary and benefits. The district had six assistant superintendents, while the slightly larger Anoka-Hennepin District employs three.
Six of seven board members discussed budgets with us. O'Connell (who recently resigned) refused.
The senior leadership repeatedly and sometimes rudely lectured new board members when they kept commitments to voters, such as returning money to schools — especially for music, art and science programs with huge benefits for students. The board understood this, despite Silva's demands to retain highly paid, ineffective central office staff.
5) Greater openness: For five years, the district refused to release information, despite repeated requests. Two examples: No systematic evidence was provided about mainstreaming's effectiveness. No data have been released from interviews of families leaving the district. Some families who've left report not being asked why. Sometimes Silva used a blame game — blaming parents for not promoting schools, blaming the teachers union contract and Legislature's commitment. The central problem was leadership.
St. Paul residents want a reduction in the achievement gap, effective equity and safe schools. Given her real commitment to students, we hope Silva will decline much of the approximately $780,000 that she'd receive from an outrageous three-year contract the previous board unwisely gave her in 2015.
Now, thanks to school board decisions, the St. Paul Public Schools can move forward to more effectively serve students and families.
The authors include parents and grandparents of students in the St. Paul Public Schools and a 2015 graduate. They are: Nancy Jane and John Bitenc, Melissa Dangaran, Faith Dietz, James Farnsworth, Monica Haas, JoAnn and Joe Nathan, Jane Sommerville, Katie Sterns and Oredola Taylor.