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Protests erupt at St. Paul Public Schools board meeting; teacher contract OK’d

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Taye Clinton stands at the center of the protester crowd that temporarily shut down the St. Paul Public Schools board meeting Tuesday evening.

Heading into last night’s St. Paul school board meeting, protests seemed likely. Some had predicted an emotionally charged crowd divided between those for and against Como Park High School special education teacher Theo Olson, who was recently placed on paid leave after a public uproar over his Facebook and blog posts that many community members and Black Lives Matter activists deemed racist.

The scene that transpired in the first 40 minutes proved a bit more visually jarring.

The public comment section started out with Susan Montgomery, an impassioned mother who listed a number of grievances she has with the adversities her son faces in the district as a student of color. Wrapping up her allotted two minutes at the podium, she addressed all district staff:  “If you do not like our kids, do not teach in our schools,” she said.

Taye Clinton, her son who attends pre-K-8 Linwood Monroe arts school, spoke next, giving examples of how his teachers and one bus driver, in particular, have made him feel unwelcomed in his own school.

A number of other public commenters echoed their sentiment that the district isn’t doing enough to ensure that students of color are being treated fairly, both in terms of disciplinary actions and educational supports. 

A tipping point

Things hit a tipping point when Jim Endres, a substitute teacher, moved the focus away from students, asking the board to better support teachers in the classroom, including Olson. He started to elaborate on what he considers to be the impossible standards placed on teachers today because we have “something called political correctness,” when booing audience members began to drown him out.

Within seconds, protesters eager to verbally confront Endres had approached him, including Taye, who was one of the first to spring up from his chair in the front row.

And there you have it: a frustrated young black male student juxtaposed against a frustrated older white male teacher with two vastly different interpretations of the race dynamics at play in the SPPS system. It’s a visual that speaks to the current standoff between those in the freedom-of-speech camp and those who have no more patience for intolerance, whether it’s overt or unconscious in nature.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Jim Endres, the substitute teacher who asked for better support for teachers and spoke in defense of Como Park High special education teacher Theo Olson, is confronted by protesters.

Cameramen flocked to the action; Superintendent Valeria Silva exited the room, and the board called for a 10-minute recess.

It all felt reminiscent of the Minneapolis Public Schools board meeting last January when protesters shut down a board vote on whether to appoint Interim Superintendent Michael Goar as the new superintendent after it had ousted the top candidate that same evening.

While things in Minneapolis have quieted down for the time being, back in the SPPS boardroom the rallying cry for systemic change to address racial disparities — both in discipline and academic outcomes — was very much alive.

After the brief recess, the board segued into a lengthy recognition segment, handing out medals and accolades to students, staff and athletic teams in attendance.

Addressing safety, discipline 

Re-energized by this break in tension, the board members reconvened at their seats to continue with the business of the district.

Before delving into the routine superintendent’s report, Silva took time to address the most pressing concerns over safety and discipline incidents at Como, which had spilled over into the public comment segment that evening.

“There is no denying the past few weeks have been challenging for St. Paul Public Schools. As you are all aware, a few of our schools have dominated recent headlines in ways that are not representative of the great things happening within their walls,” she said. “While the tragic actions of the few do not define the character of the whole, we must not and will not ignore the seriousness of these recent incidents.”

She reviewed some of the strategies that each individual school is being asked to implement to create a positive school environment, including restorative practices. It’s a task, she emphasized, that will require the engagement of everyone — teachers, administration, parents, students and community members — because school climate is affected by the tone set out in the their communities.

“Even with strong systems, we will always be confronted with the unpredictable. We work with children and young adults, many of whom live in a variety of trauma. Unpredictability comes with the territory,” Silva said.

Board member Steve Marchese said he was pleased to hear Silva report that a number of community-engagement sessions to help repair the school climate at Como High have already taken place. From these conversations, the Como school community developed a vision for a new system of student support that will place community support members in the building through the remainder of the year.

In response, board member Jean O’Connell clarified that the backbone of this school-climate work has been in place for some time — that it wasn’t simply reactive.

Teacher contract approved

Roughly four hours into the meeting, the board approved the new contract with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers in a unanimous vote.

Board Chair Jon Schumacher offered a few thoughts on the contract, which he and other stakeholders had fine-tuned in a 24-hour negotiating session.

“A lot of the issues we deal with as a school district — a lot of issues that are in the headlines — to be able to come through all that … and come up with a contract that I think honors teachers, the administrators, but most importantly the students — I think it really gives us a step forward,” he said.

The contract includes pay increases that will cost the district $21 million in salary and benefits over two years, along with a number of specific terms aimed at improving school climate, or safety, adding supports for students and teachers, and strengthening family engagement efforts.

Earlier on, Silva had expressed a similar degree of confidence in the new contract to help improve school climate. She did note, however, that it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

“While a contract alone cannot solve the complexities of school climate, the substantial investments made in our students, staff and families will strengthen our combined efforts,” she said.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/23/2016 - 10:45 am.

    Today, Side A

    After Erin’s marvelous piece on “the flip side” of local education [optimism], we are brought back to the status quo of Side A.

    Well, for “the record,” those grooves are so worn most of us hear only pops, scratches and needle skips these days.

    Here’s the real lead for this revelation of mediocrity in modern miasma:

    “Roughly four hours into the meeting,…”

    [so much for leadership in education]

  2. Submitted by Michael Hess on 03/23/2016 - 11:04 am.

    Suppresing dissenting voices

    This notion that people have the right to shut down someone else from speaking because they don’t agree with what they are saying is wrong. It’s wrong when Trump supporters silence dissent at a political rally and it’s wrong at a school board meeting. If this is how parents and students of the St. Paul schools behave at the board meeting it makes you wonder how well they handle difficult messages when they are in the schools themselves and if the violence against teachers and staff has any correlation to this attitude.

    • Submitted by R Byers on 03/28/2016 - 09:35 am.

      Silencing dissent

      I absolutely agree. There were also some inflammatory names shouted at the speaker based on race.
      Little if anything was being done to keep order.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/23/2016 - 11:07 am.


    I guess we can only hope that the students are better behaved than their parents, and if they’re not it’s really not difficult to explain. Let’s not do anything about disruptive and dangerous behavior, let’s attack teachers to describe that behavior on FB? Where are you going with that?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/23/2016 - 11:33 am.

    Just a thought

    Schools do not lead communities. School reflect the communities in which they operate.

    There’s plenty of prejudice to go ’round in Twin Cities school systems, some of it a historical legacy, some of it more recent in origin, and all sides (I’m not at all sure it’s simply limited to only two sides) have provided examples of prejudicial thought and speech against “the other,” whatever/whomever “the other” is deemed to be.

    My own take on one small facet of a much larger issue, classroom behavior, that has recently seen quite a few headlines, is that reasonable decorum is absolutely a requirement for any successful learning experience, in or out of the classroom. In line with my first sentence, schools cannot teach behavior – reasonable decorum – from scratch. Those lessons are learned – or not – at home, where parents are, in every real and genuine sense, “first teachers.” When those lessons are not taught, or for whatever reason are not learned, we should not be surprised that teachers react negatively. They’re being held responsible for the behavior of children over whom they have very limited control, if any at all.

    That said, I’m inclined to be suspicious of complaints about “political correctness,” though I’ve made some of those complaints myself. Too often, “political correctness” becomes a dog whistle to certain groups who’d prefer to make no accommodation to anyone not exactly like them. Sometimes, however, there’s legitimacy to requests/demands for change. Humans with functioning brains should be able to distinguish between legitimate grievance on the one hand and pandering (or the imposition of a narrow cultural mind set) on the other.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/23/2016 - 12:22 pm.

      Very thoughtful summary…

      I do now believe “dog whistle” no longer clearly promotes the proper allusion.

      Perhaps “trench whistle” [WW I] is more appropriate, sending the troops “over the top” to attack or defend positions, rarely gaining ground through intervening mine fields.

      Better imagery for me, at least these days.

  5. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 03/23/2016 - 12:01 pm.

    Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote.

    Do people realize that these board members were elected only months ago?

    If the protesters had channeled their energy over the past year to get out the vote, they could have taken a pro-active role in our schools. Since they didn’t get out the vote, election turnout from the protester’s side was dismal and the present board members were elected.

    Now, the protesters are reduced to taking a reactionary role while complaining about how they have no say.

    But they did have a say… last November.

    On a side note, the new board members seem to be doing pretty well during their baptism by continual fire. Kudos.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/23/2016 - 02:34 pm.

    St. Paul’s chapter of Black Lives Matter overreacted to a teacher’s social media post, which was not racist but referred to specific negative behaviors he was seeing in his St. Paul classroom/school. To that group, every statement that criticizes any behavior that black high school students practice (or black teens who do not attend a school, yet go into it to exact some kind of revenge from teen rivals in a classroom) is “racist.” BLM-St. P. lost a lot of support with that overreaction.

    One can recognize that there is systemic discrimination based on race (and class, the third rail that Minnesotans never want to touch) but still not believe that anything that a black teen does in school is okay. Sorry, you can’t physically attack a teacher or staff member with impunity.

    How sad, that a grade schooler felt he had to rush forward at an older white teacher at the board meeting, rather than hear him out, and that protesters in Minneapolis and St. Paul are increasingly under the misimpression that denying the right to speak to anyone who has a different view from yours is the right way to go.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/23/2016 - 04:52 pm.

      Maybe it’s just as well

      …that I don’t do social media, being a certified old person.

      Beyond that, I’m inclined to agree about both behavior and sources of discrimination. Criticizing behavior of specific individuals or of specific types isn’t necessarily racist, though, as you’ve pointed out quite well in your 2nd paragraph, it is sometimes characterized as such. I’m also inclined to agree about that 3rd rail, which is deserving of its own series of exploratory articles.

      Ain’t nobody pure as the driven snow in this sort of argument, and shouting down someone because you don’t like what they have to say is about as anti-democracy as you can get short of drawing weapons.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/24/2016 - 12:07 am.


      I would add that any remaining credibility disappeared when they blamed the Como Park teacher for his own assault.

      Two students entered a class (a class they were not in, mind you) to confront a another student about a drug deal gone bad. The teacher asked them to leave and then tried to “guide them” out of the classroom. The students then punched the teacher in the face, resulting in hospitalization for the teacher and felony charges for the students.

      If your definition of “putting hands on someone” does not distinguish between guiding tresspassers out of your classroom and felony assault, you really have nothing to contribute to the discussion.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/24/2016 - 08:46 am.

      Class Assignment

      I’m always intrigued by references to “class” without specification. Conventional labels seem anachronistic now.

      For the sake of clarity, please label what you view as current “classes,” truly, for enhanced communication and understanding here. Thank you.

      • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/24/2016 - 04:22 pm.

        Socioeconomic class is complicated, interrelated to other issues in a dynamic process where things like education and ethnicity and gender and even place create slippery nuances. Some people even manage to appear to belong to several class strata, at different times and for different reasons, and based on different behaviors. Some people even use several different linguistic codes, for different interlocutors.

        One thing is clear (and contradicts a long-standing American avoidance generalization): We are NOT all “middle class.”

        As was said earlier here: class deserves a whole separate conversation.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/24/2016 - 05:29 pm.

          More valuable

          I usually try to avoid discussing race because I believe something else is much more of a factor… Maybe this is what you call “class”. To me it consists of many things. (ie education level, emotional intelligence, wealth level, belief / attitude system, willingness to fit in with main stream America, communication capability, etc)

          There are many people from different races and locations who are trapped in a cycle of generational poverty. I always wonder which of the above are the key factors trapping them there?

          My best guess has to do with a book by Hal Urban called “Life’s Greatest Lessons: 20 Things that Matter”. I think as one sanctions and learns more of these lessons, their class improves and they are happier.

          Another good book / movie along these lines is “The Ultimate Gift” by Jim Stovall.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/23/2016 - 08:53 pm.

    Unfortunately when liberals, BLM, and Al Sharpton cry racism all the time, some people start believing that nonsense, especially if they can take advantage of that. As some commenters pointed out, parents are the first and most important teachers and if they are missing (or halved), we should not be surprised at what is going on in schools and on the streets and no full day government paid preschool will change anything. Isn’t it time to put responsibility back on parents?

  8. Submitted by John Appelen on 03/24/2016 - 08:54 am.


    It seems all of us commenters are somewhat aligned for a change. The protesters must really have been out of line. And yes I agree, if those are the Parental role models… Those unlucky kids are going to have a big challenge ahead of them.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/24/2016 - 09:21 am.


      Same observation here from the jump.

      One of my favorite “small films” is “Crossing Delancey.”

      Have we briefly come together in viewing “Crossing Credibility.”?

  9. Submitted by John N. Finn on 03/24/2016 - 09:48 am.

    Young activist prodigy

    “Taye Clinton, her son who attends pre-K-8 Linwood Monroe arts school, spoke next, giving examples of how his teachers and one bus driver, in particular, have made him feel unwelcomed in his own school.”

    I was curious as to what the examples were in particular because my part time retirement job is driving a school bus. Many students, especially elementary and/or special ed ones, require repeated admonitions to stay seated and be quiet. Some drivers and special education aids might not be as tactful at this as they could be. A Google search for more details on his complaints turned up a Youtube video titled ” Mean Racist School Staff ”

    “Published on Mar 20, 2016
    This is one of many unprofessional, disrespectful, discriminatory persons at my school here in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is suppose to be a S.E.A. Her and the driver call names, threaten police, say white lives matter, scared kids, slam on breaks, pull over and stop often delaying us from being home. Many staff at my school are rude to kids like me and I am sick of it!”

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