St. Paul school board candidates lay out priorities at forum

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
John Brodrick and Jeannie Foster, St. Paul school board incumbents, are shown at Tuesday night's forum.

Before St. Paul Public Schools students return next week for the new school year, community members gathered Tuesday evening at a community forum to hear from school board candidates whose names will be on the ballot this fall.

Six candidates are vying for three open seats to govern the state’s largest school district. Two incumbents — Jeannie Foster and John Brodrick — are running alongside first-time candidate Marny Xiong. All three sought and secured endorsements from the city DFL Party and the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, the local teacher’s union. Another candidate hopeful, Eduardo Barrera, ended his campaign after unsuccessfully seeking the party’s endorsement.

That leaves three more contenders on the ballot: Andrea Touhey, an education consultant and former teacher; Luke Bellville, an attorney; and Greg Copeland, a Republican activist who’s unsuccessfully sought a number of other public offices before. 

Four attended forum

Only four of the six candidates attended the forum Tuesday evening, with Copeland and Bellville absent. The host of the forum, Students for Education Reform Minnesota — the local chapter of a national student-led education reform group — anticipated a full house, with close to 150 RSVPs. However, less than a third of them showed up for the event, which was held at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul.

Students with the education reform group used community feedback they’d collected over the summer from St. Paul voters to help shape questions for the candidates. As reported by Naima Abdisalam, 18, a moderator of the forum, she and her colleagues knocked on more than 12,000 doors, made more than 19,000 phone calls and helped register more than 600 voters. “The goal of that was to ensure students and families are served by their local education system and that every student — no matter, race, income, background or anything else — receives equity in their education,” she said.

As they finish collecting and sorting through the surveys they conducted this summer, the group will be using this information to zero in on a handful of school-related issues, said Kenneth Eban, program director of the group’s local chapter. That list will drive their advocacy work this school year as they look to keep community members involved and hold the new school board accountable.

Candidate backgrounds

Brodrick, the veteran board member who’s been in office since Jan. 2002, is a lifelong Frogtown resident. He attended St. Paul Public Schools, worked as a teacher in the district and sent his own children there as well. He says the institutional knowledge and “lifetime love affair” he brings to the board is “vital,” especially during this time of transition, as the new Superintendent Joe Gothard looks to the board for context on what’s taken place over the years.

Foster is closing in on her first year of service on the board. She won her seat last fall during a special election, after former board member Jean O’Connell resigned in protest of her colleagues’ decision to fire former superintendent Valeria Silva.

A lifelong student and resident of St. Paul who experienced poverty growing up, Foster says she represents “a lot of the kids in our community.” She also stresses that she knows how to use student data and how to build collaborations.

With nieces and nephews in the district, she says her drive to improve outcomes for those who have traditionally been underserved strikes a personal chord. “I’m in this for the right reasons,” she said.

Andrea Touhey and Marny Xiong
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Andrea Touhey and Marny Xiong are also vying for the three open seats on the St. Paul School Board.

Touhey doesn’t have children in the district. She didn’t attend St. Paul schools. She grew up in Minnesota, in the western suburbs. But she spent nearly a decade working in public charter schools across the country. She’s hoping her outside experience will be viewed as an asset.

“I’m qualified for a different reason, in that I’m objective,” she said, adding that she’s worked at both a high-performing charter school in Boston and a low-performing charter school in Minnesota. “It’s given me great perspective on what works.”

Xiong was born and raised in the Frogtown neighborhood. She currently works as a school manager at a magnet school in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, where she is in charge of managing finance, safety and operations for the school building. Similar to Foster, issues of poverty and race are personal for her. “I know firsthand, as a woman of color, how it feels to be not heard, ignored or locked out,” she said, noting she also grew up in poverty.

Identifying priorities

Asked to identify their top priorities for closing disparities in educational outcomes, Foster alluded to some of the things she’s already begun working to address. That includes working with staff and leadership across the district, as well as collective bargaining units, to break away from doing “business as usual.” Part of that work, as she noted earlier, is making a concerted effort to hire with an eye toward diversifying the administrative and teaching staff. She also wants to continue to bring more community groups into the schools to strengthen and broaden partnerships. 

“You can expect, from me, to see a greater depth and level of engagement across the district,” she said. “Everybody’s going to have to change.”

Touhey called for more regular surveys, to collect feedback from parents, students and educators on a routine basis. She also said she’d push to improve instruction by encouraging teachers to pursue national board certification and make improving school climate a priority.

For Xiong, family engagement and community collaboration is the logical starting point. She also talked about prioritizing support for existing programs aimed at supporting students of color — like the various immersion programs, English learner programs and culturally relevant curriculum initiatives — as well as professional development for staff and teachers.

Brodrick called on the state Legislature to start investing more in Minnesota schools. He also talked about focusing in on the individual students and creating Individual Education Programs — individual plans typically reserved for special education students — to help track each student’s academic standing and progress. “We can’t just identify schools as performing poorly,” he said. “We have to home in on the most important thing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited event coordinators saying that Luke Bellville had dropped out of the race on Tuesday. Bellville said on Wednesday that he is still in the race.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/30/2017 - 09:45 am.

    Poor Journalism

    SFER is not a student led education group. Its an education “reform” group funded by the Koch brothers and other right-wing billionaires. I expect the low turnout is in part due to people catching on to what a fraud this group is.

    Seriously, Minnpost, would it hurt to at least attempt a little objectivity in your education reporting?

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/30/2017 - 01:32 pm.

      Given its bottom of the barrel standing nationally as regards minority achievement gap, I would observe that “reform” is exactly what is needed in Twin Cities public schools.

      Sadly, from this story we learn the leading candidates all sought to be anointed by the self-serving groups that have lorded over the failure for the past 25 years. We can expect only that the continuing failure will cost taxpayers more.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/30/2017 - 02:13 pm.


        Reform is in quotes because it’s not reform at all – it’s a truly self-serving agenda of people who have no interest in actually fixing education. The fact they have to deceive people with their AstroTurf “student” group should tell you everything you need to know.

        • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/30/2017 - 02:40 pm.

          I read the link, Pat. And since it is a far-left advocacy publication, I was not at all surprised to see it was a defense of the usual suspects.

          Public education in most major US cities is in a shambles. It fails it’s core mission, educating kids, because it’s focus is providing power and money to the teachers union and various left wing special interest groups. Now, maybe you’re OK with that, but in my opinion, it is a pretty low platform from which to make an argument against anyone brave enough to step up and say “enough”.

          More than 40% of minority kids fail to graduate from Twin cities public schools. With the left calling everyone and everything “racist” these days, that sir, should tell you everything you need to know.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/30/2017 - 04:42 pm.

            Still wrong

            Having kids in public schools in St. Paul, I would disagree about them being a shambles. And the achievement gaps are are largely a function of poverty and schools being drastically underfunded That being said, there is always room for reform.

            The problem is that these people aren’t interested in fixing public schools. There is no bravery in attacking the people who are fighting on the front lines to educate kids. There is no bravery in implementing quick-fixes solutions that have been proven ineffective. These people – who hide behind their faux-student astroturfing – are just cowards.

            • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 08/31/2017 - 06:58 am.

              Fail, rinse, repeat

              The same “brave” story over and over again. And yes the same set of failures. And yet blame everyone else who doesn’t share the same views.

              • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/05/2017 - 10:01 am.


                I blame the things that are actually at fault. And the “same set of failures” aren’t going to be solved by things that are proven not to work. But the right-wing billionaires trying to destroy public education don’t care about results.

                There is a huge correlation between poverty and school performance. All the union-busting and school “reform” isn’t going to fix the underlying problem. Want to improve school performance? Address poverty. A lot of kids get their only real meals from public schools.

                • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 09/06/2017 - 07:00 pm.

                  The same old “wrong”

                  Correlation is not causation.

                  Low income minority groups like Asians have outperformed Whites in academics. Just repeating the same old statements that everyone else on this earth except the teachers union and its supporters have the only solutions for schools is the same old “blame everyone else” game.

                  Not every poorly performing minority kid in school comes to school for their only meal. That’s just another in a long list of excuses spouted. Same old.

                  • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/10/2017 - 01:43 pm.


                    I looked up this article for something else and ran across your comment. Even though its a month old, I feel compelled to respond.

                    First, the idea that it low-income Asian kids outperforming white kids is false. Asian students do outperform white students at the high end, but poverty has the same effect on Asian kids as all other kids. Some of the worst performing St. Paul schools are predominately Asian and poor. If you look at data and not sterotypes, the most important variable in determining school performance is poverty, not race.

                    I didn’t say that every poorly performing kid comes to school for their only meal. But a lot of them do, and its not an excuse – its a fact. There is a very strong correlation between poverty and school performance – you can fire teachers and do whatever else the anti-union people want, but the fact remains that its poverty at the root cause of our education problems.

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/30/2017 - 07:00 pm.

    Public school funding is at historically high levels. Even adjusted for inflation, per pupil funding is x3 what it was in 1972 (when NEA was created).

    For that epic investment, 40% of minority students leave school without graduating, but a SPPS teacher with a Grad degree and 15 years of employment takes home $90,000 per year for 6 months work.

    People that defend this failed system are just as guilty as those profiting from it.


  3. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 08/31/2017 - 11:17 am.

    Source please

    “For that epic investment, 40% of minority students leave school without graduating, but a SPPS teacher with a Grad degree and 15 years of employment takes home $90,000 per year for 6 months work.”

    What is an appropriate salary? Please explain how you calculate 6 months. Does that include times spent grading and planning for the average teacher?

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/31/2017 - 02:00 pm.

      “Janet Delmore retired with a full pension from St. Paul this school year. As a teacher and literacy coach, her base salary was nearly $90,000 last school year.”

      I was mistaken in one area. Most $90k teachers have been paying union dues for 20 years.

      Sept – May = 9 months.

      You ask “What is an appropriate salary?” And that is a good question. I think there are some teachers getting great results with tough students that should earn $150k per year, and others dont deserve 1/4 of that for warming a seat…

      Math and science majors are in high demand, a US history major, not so much.

      Yet, they all get paid exactly the same way thanks to the teachers union. Teachers want and deserve the respect of being professionals, but many want to be paid like factory workers, its nuts.

      I think teachers should be paid commensurate to their contributions, not how long they have been paying dues to the NEA or AFT.

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 08/31/2017 - 02:45 pm.

        What percentage of teachers making that high salary do not deserve the money they earn?

        There is a case to be made for pay based on seniority, but you are your friends on the far-right have yet to provide in concrete terms a better model. If the teacher’s union is broken what system will be put in place to enable teachers who get good results to earn $150K? What will prevent the primary education system from becoming like higher ed where most instructors are part time adjuncts?

        The demand for teachers is increasing across the disciplines because fewer people are going into teacher despite your assumptions of a posh pay and a cush life.

        Next, it is significantly more work to teach social studies or English. If a teacher spends just 15 minutes providing feedback on a single student’s written assignment and has 150 students that’s 37 hours of grading for one assignment. There may be more demand for Science and Math but you are not going to retain quality teachers in in those subjects if you do not pay them well.

  4. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 09/11/2017 - 05:42 pm.

    Thx to SFER & thanks to Ms. H

    Thx, SFER for putting on this meeting. Thanks also for the conversations with community members that college students have conducted over the last several months, and for helping 100’s of people register to vote. These are very constructive actions.

    Thanks to Ms. H for covering this forum. I wish that one additional thing had been included in the story: passionate statements/questions from a number of parents/grandparents who attended the forum. They expressed considerable frustration and impatience with the gaps that have been around for many years.

    We DO have examples of schools that are closing these gaps. Will the board demand that the new supt work with community members, educators, students and others to more widely implement these strategies?

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