Four candidates closely aligned with the district’s teachers union won a majority of seats on the St. Paul school board Tuesday in a rout that cranks up the heat on Superintendent Valeria Silva in the state’s second-largest school system.
Political newcomers Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert were beneficiaries of a Caucus for Change movement critical of district leadership and powered by the organizing muscle and funding might of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
They contend the time has passed for looking solely to Silva and her administration for answers on how to run the schools, and that the community must be part of the decisionmaking. The board has to be a body that listens, they say.
Ellis was happy to see the four candidates advance together and to, in turn, solidify the message: “Something needs to be different,” she said Tuesday night. “Something needs to change.”
Critics have decried the union’s heavy involvement in the election, which included the hiring of two full-time organizers and tapping of $100,000 in contributions from the American Federation of Teachers and Education Minnesota. Greg Copeland, a former city GOP chairman who also sought a board seat on Tuesday, said that the union’s high-level assistance had threatened to turn the election into an “auction.”
Each of the Caucus for Change candidates has, in fact, endorsed elements of the federation’s current contract pursuits, and the possibility exists that they will be sworn into office before negotiations have concluded, giving them a say in any deal that is struck.
But district finances are tight, with cuts already likely for the 2016-17 school year, board Chairwoman Mary Doran said recently.
The new board will be working with a superintendent who earlier this year won a three-year contract extension through December 2018 that allows her to resign with 90 days’ notice but requires a potentially hefty buyout if the board were to push for new leadership.
In recent forums, the four DFL endorsees have refrained from leveling harsh criticism of Silva, but their rise was made possible by missteps the superintendent has acknowledged in ambitious moves to include more special-education students and English language learners in regular classrooms, among other initiatives. This spring, after negotiating her contract extension, Silva pursued and then dropped a bid for a job in Florida.
“I am looking forward to working with whomever is elected to the school board,” Silva said Tuesday. “ … I know that we all share the same goals of offering the students of St. Paul Public Schools a world-class education.”
Recent developments have not been kind to district leaders.
Two weeks ago, a Harding Senior High student was caught with a loaded gun in his backpack — the latest in a series of incidents pointing to ongoing safety concerns in the schools. That came after critics pounced on a school board decision to stop televising the public-comment portion of its meetings.
This year, the union launched Caucus for Change to assist parents and teachers in electing new board members, and the movement helped first-time candidates Ellis, Marchese, Schumacher and Vanderwert earn DFL nods in a city that is heavily DFL.
Doran and fellow incumbent Anne Carroll abandoned their re-election bids as a result.
Current board Vice Chairman Keith Hardy, who re-entered the race after losing the bid for DFL endorsement in April, was swept aside Tuesday. Board Member Louise Seeba chose not to run again.
Roy Magnuson, a member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ executive board who invited the challengers to run, said critics who accuse the union of taking its advocacy too far should note that 10 credible candidates stepped up to challenge incumbents and that criticism of the Silva administration is “very real” and involves many constituencies.
Recently, the four Caucus for Change candidates gathered as a “people’s board” in a meeting streamed on TheUptake.org and led by union Vice President Nick Faber.
Like her Caucus for Change cohorts, Ellis, a trainer with the teachers union’s parent-teacher home visit project, said she was determined to dig in for the hard work to come.
“It absolutely won’t be easy,” she said. “Chairs are going to be broken … (but) whatever’s not working, we have to find a different way to do it.”