The St. Paul school board has spent the past seven months grinding its way through a pandemic, but before that came a challenge setting it apart from others in the state: a teachers strike.
Educators have said that bold action is needed every two years to get things done, and they have achieved results — more money for new positions, for example — by pushing strike deadlines up to and over the brink. A dissenting view has the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) holding too much power over how the state's second-largest district allocates its resources in the shift from public talks to private mediation.
Six people now are vying to fill the seat of the late Chairwoman Marny Xiong, who died June 7 of COVID-19. The winner of the Nov. 3 election will be in office when the union contract expires in June.
In response to strike-related questions, Keith Hardy, a former board member ousted in 2015 by the union-powered Caucus for Change movement, drew on his experience to describe a board member's role in negotiations. Be as transparent with the public as possible, he said. Be willing to differ as various elements of a district's offer are assembled, but when those discussions are over, support the team's decisions, he added.
"Above all," Hardy said, a school board member must "weigh each decision and proposed action on the scale of, 'How will this better serve our students?' "
Jim Vue, a program facilitator at In Progress, a digital arts nonprofit, is filling Xiong's seat on an interim basis, and in e-mail replies, he was the only candidate to speak in opposition to the strike.
"As a parent with children in SPPS, my family's needs don't run on contract intervals. My family's needs run on what works," he said. "And to this day, I fail to see how the strike benefited my children, if at all."
Jamila Mame, who organizes women of color for TakeAction Minnesota, and James Farnsworth, a senior at the University of Minnesota and executive director of the Highland Business Association, emerged with grades of "A" and "B," respectively, in SPFE candidate screenings that ended with Mame winning the union's endorsement.
In a questionnaire posted by SPFE, Mame and Farnsworth both offered an unequivocal "yes" to the question of whether they would commit to releasing the tapes of closed school board meetings during which contract negotiations are discussed as soon as agreements are reached with various bargaining units.
Mame said she supports any strike seeking to better the working conditions, wages and benefits of district teachers, as well as "all public signs of protest" associated with it. She would encourage colleagues to do the same. Asked how she would approach negotiations, she wrote, "I would first listen to the concerns brought by the union members."
Farnsworth said he also supported the union's decision to strike and that he used his position as administrator of the Working for a Better SPPS Facebook page to amplify requests for resources from various strike sites. He believes talks should be as public and transparent as possible and would seek to be an active participant.
The remaining two candidates, Charlotte "Charlie" Castro, a systems analyst and an educator in the Minnesota State system, and Omar Syed, a small-business owner, found different ways to support the strike.
Castro said she wrote letters to board members urging them to "work toward a resolution that would give the most resources to the teachers in our schools." She also wants to ensure that all educators have good enough wages to keep them in the district.
Syed said he believed crossing picket lines would have prolonged the strike, and he supported the walkout by having family members stay clear of them. In the end, he said, trust was lost and needs to be mended before the two sides can work again to create a "responsible, fair and equitable contract."
Castro and Syed also both sought board seats in 2019.