In the St. Paul Public Schools, the 3,600-member St. Paul Federation of Teachers has some weight to throw around.

With a school board election in November, and the city's DFL endorsing convention next week, the union is doing just that.

All four candidates for the three open seats have been endorsed by the union in the past. This time, it's holding off.

"It's fair to say we don't have confidence right now that they're leading with all of the right decisions," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the union.

Times have been tough recently in the St. Paul schools. Arlington Senior and Humboldt Junior high schools are going through a federally mandated restructuring plan due to years of subpar test scores. The superintendent announced last month that she is leaving for a job in Austin, Texas. And the district is facing a $25 million budget deficit for the 2009-10 school year.

Teachers don't feel that they're being adequately consulted on how to face the district's problems.

"We have a very dear history with all four of these candidates," Ricker said. "But ultimately, our responsibility is to our membership, and our membership is very concerned about how little we're considered as part of the work of the St. Paul schools."

Endorsements taken seriously

Endorsements typically are an important part of the election process for the St. Paul board.

"They really identify areas of support, both by ideology and relationships," said Elona Street-Stewart, vice-chairwoman of the school board who is running for re-election. "I take them pretty seriously."

For those running for school board, the most important endorsement to get is the DFL endorsement. The St. Paul City DFL Convention is March 21, and the teachers' union doesn't plan to change its mind before then.

The teachers' reluctance hasn't stopped other groups from endorsing. The St. Paul Building Trades Council has endorsed Street-Stewart, and the two other incumbents, John Brodrick and Tom Goldstein. So has the Service Employees International Union.

The Stonewall DFL caucus and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender caucus, has endorsed Street-Stewart, Brodrick and Al Oertwig, the fourth candidate for the board.

Oertwig is a long-term school board member who was outed as gay in the early '90s while on the board. He resigned in 2007 amid allegations he was viewing child pornography on a library computer, but he was later cleared of the charges and is running again.

For the teachers' union, "the election process is their opportunity to really hold the school board members accountable," said Darren Tobolt, chairman of the St. Paul DFL. "They don't want to make an endorsement decision if they're not hearing what they want to be hearing."

Teachers' complaints

The union has had three main sticking points, Ricker said.

• The endorsement screening process happened before Superintendent Meria Carstarphen announced she was leaving. Her contract with St. Paul expires in June, and a new one had not been signed.

"To endorse when a significant part of their job remains unfinished just felt premature," she said.

• Teachers were unhappy with the restructuring process at Arlington and Humboldt.

"We were really upset with the lack of questions the board asked around the restructuring," she said. "The board didn't question the plan at all. The first thing they said was 'This is wonderful.' We don't have a single member who would describe the restructuring that way."

• Teachers were upset with how the board approached a discussion about the $25 million deficit. When the superintendent proposed not giving employees cost-of-living pay increases next year, "the board treated it as if it was something we were not going to have the opportunity to negotiate," she said. "Not one person on the board even asked, 'So, have you got an agreement with these unions already?'"

Brodrick, who taught in St. Paul for 34 years, said he understood.

"Teachers are uneasy and unsettled at this point for a variety of reasons," he said. "I think they're just holding off with a wait-and-see attitude."

But he's getting the message. "It's become crystal clear that we need to improve those communications."

The teachers' union also didn't endorse school board candidates before the DFL convention two years ago. The decision this year, "is unusual," Ricker said, "but it's not unheard of."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460


The St. Paul City DFL Convention starts at 9 a.m. on March 21 at St. Paul's Arlington High School, 1495 Rice St.