Nine people are vying for four seats on the St. Paul school board Nov. 5, and while this year's race lacks the potency of the Caucus for Change election of 2015, it is competitive nonetheless.
With DFL Party and teachers union endorsements secured, Chauntyll Allen jumped onto a Lime scooter this summer for a video fundraiser that closed with a "Rocky"-inspired run up the steps of Central High.
The Black Lives Matter activist is a Central graduate, and the video, "Love First," is about loving the district's kids — a priority shared by Zuki Ellis, current board chairwoman and a Caucus for Change incumbent seeking re-election.
The two face challenges of sorts. Ellis is frustrated, she said, that her time on the board has too often been spent "managing adults." For the scooter-riding Allen, an education assistant at Como Park High, there are questions about her failure to pay more than $5,000 in fines for minor traffic offenses — most for driving after revocation.
Scooters, as it turns out, now are a big part of Allen's life as a candidate. Their costs are reflected in campaign finance reports that as of Oct. 17 place her behind only incumbents Ellis and Steve Marchese in this year's fundraising.
Ellis and Marchese were elected as part of a Caucus for Change movement critical of district leadership at the time. Months later, they backed the move to oust Superintendent Valeria Silva. Two other Caucus for Change incumbents, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert, are not seeking re-election.
Allen wrote in an e-mail this week that her repeat driving-after-revocation offenses were a function of "low-income reality and not being able to navigate much in expenses and still provide for my kids." Even if fines are paid, she said, one's license still can be suspended, creating what she described as an "endless cycle" of violations.
If elected, Allen said she may pursue a job in another district. State law requires a district employee who wins a board seat to get approval from his or her colleagues to continue in the position, and limits the pay to $8,000 a year. Allen also said she plans to go to Hennepin County to sort out the fines issue. She said she thought she paid about five years ago. As of Wednesday, however, court records show that 12 fines levied against her from 2008-13 still were due.
Like Allen, Ellis and Marchese nabbed prize endorsements from both the DFL and St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE).
Jessica Kopp, a former middle and high school teacher who as a parent-activist has been involved in issues at Hamline Elementary and elsewhere, also won an SPFE approval. But like several other challengers, Kopp came up short in securing the fourth DFL endorsement.
Charlotte "Charlie" Castro, an adjunct professor in the Minnesota State system who also sought the DFL nod, has been raising money and campaigning with a message of how education can lift people out of poverty and allow them to chase their dreams.
Omar Syed, a Somali refugee and small-business owner, and Ryan Williams, a special education and school bus safety advocate, also competed at the DFL city convention. Records show Syed pleaded guilty in August 2018 to a felony for writing a bad check and was placed in a diversion program, and after meeting conditions that included paying $816 in restitution, the charge was dismissed in June. Williams did not reply to requests for the personal data necessary to run a court records check.
One candidate, Elijah Norris-Holliday, still appears on the 10-person ballot, but he filed for office before a judge revoked his stay of adjudication on felony drug charges — making him ineligible to run. He is not actively campaigning.
Candidate forums have been infrequent this campaign season, but it was during a September event when Ellis spoke of entering office believing that a board member's job would be all about students.
"I am in this school district and have great frustration in the role that I have," she said.
But, Ellis added, she remains committed to students and the people who work for the district, and she felt it vital as a person of color — she is black — to continue to represent kids at the local and state levels.
Marchese touts his ability to ask tough questions and has been outspoken about the need to assess what school choice has meant to public education — a cause promoted by a new group, Parents for St. Paul Schools, which wants a moratorium on new charter schools.
Castro said of the competition: "I'm not saying get rid of charter schools. There is a place for them. ... We have to fess up to the fact that maybe we're doing something wrong. We could do something better."
The seven candidates appearing at the September forum voiced concerns about school resource officers, or SROs, in the schools.
"The problem is there isn't an option for schools to say yes to this or no," Kopp said. "We have to trust our communities to find the solutions they need."
Syed said he has been asked often about SROs and that he advocates having counselors work with the officers.
Said Allen, "The reality is there's nothing ever so major happening in a school that you can't call 911."
Kids are kids, she said, and when they fight, she has been able to break it up. Allen does not like the idea of SROs writing reports. She concluded that community members or social workers "would be a better look than police officers."
Two candidates not appearing at the forum were Tiffany Fearing and Jennifer McPherson.
Fearing works as an administrative assistant at a law firm and puts as her number one priority the removal of Tom Parent, the district's facilities director, following a first wave of renovation projects that blew initial estimates by tens of millions of dollars.
McPherson served as a facilitator in the district's Parent Academy in December 2015 and wants to not only empower parents, but also increase support for special education and find ways to boost enrollment.