With Election Day just around the corner, the race for three seats on the seven-member St. Paul Board of Education seems fairly predictable. The race is made even more straightforward by the fact that school board seats don’t fall under the ranked-choice voting system, so the results should come in right away.
Incumbents John Brodrick and Jeannie Foster, along with newcomer Marny Xiong, are widely favored to win. All three candidates secured endorsements from the city DFL Party and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers — two endorsements that tend to give candidates an advantage that’s hard for other contenders to surmount.
Brodrick has already served four terms on the board, making him the go-to source of institutional knowledge. Foster won a place on the board in a special election last fall, after Jean O’Connell resigned in protest of changes in district leadership. And Xiong is expected to win the open seat left by current board member Chue Vue, who decided not to run for re-election. (In St. Paul, there are no head-to-head battles, since the seats are not divvied up among various districts, as they are in Minneapolis.)
In contrast to Brodrick, Foster and Xiong are both relatively new to the political scene. Foster, an early childhood educator who’s not shy about talking about issues of race and poverty, is still settling into her role on the board. If elected, Xiong — a St. Paul native and Minneapolis Public Schools employee — will also have to quickly get up to speed on everything from the district’s budget deficits and contract negotiations to its student performance data and equity initiatives.
According to campaign finance records, all three endorsed candidates have vastly outspent the other candidates. Foster and Xiong both spent close to $18,000; and Brodrick spent just over $8,000. Greg Copeland, a Republican activist who’s unsuccessfully sought a number of public offices before, spend just over $500, making him the next highest spender.
One likely contender, Eduardo Barrera, had initially filed and generated some support early on. But after failing to secure the DFL Party endorsement, Barrera abided by the party’s process and withdrew his candidacy. A handful of other candidates also filed, but withdrew from the race in its early stages.
That leaves three other names on this year’s ballot: Andrea Touhey, Luke Belleville and Copeland. Touhey doesn’t have much familiarity with the district, as exhibited by her responses to questions at various candidate forums. As an education consultant and former teacher, she’s billing her outsider vantage point as an asset. Belleville hasn’t been very active in forums, and his website, which identifies him as a local attorney, doesn’t include any information about why he’s running.
Compared to the 2015 St. Paul school board race, when the current board majority essentially ran on a platform to oust then-superintendent Valeria Silva, this year’s race has been quiet. A new superintendent, Joe Gothard, is now at the helm, and is facing a slew of tough governance decisions that will have to be made in the coming months.
‘There probably won’t be much change’
As he finishes out the remainder of his term, Vue says the dynamic of this year’s school board race is noticeably low-key. He suspects that’ll translate into a fairly quiet transition after the election.
“There’s probably not going to be a lot of noise like last time, with the new elected folks coming in here … demanding immediate change and not taking time to really find out what’s been done,” he said. “I think maybe this time it’s probably gonna be different. Really, if the endorsed candidates get elected — which, in this town, it sounds like they always do — we’ll really only have one new person. So there probably won’t be much change in the board.”
Assessing his likely successor, Xiong, Vue says she’s “dedicated and has a strong passion for education for kids and for equity and for change.”
Discouraged by his own inability to effect much change as a frequent dissenter on the current board — combined with the time comitment (Vue also runsg his own law firm) — he said he decided it didn’t make sense to run again.
“Maybe I can revisit running again in the future. I believe that to really effect change, we need to do it at the K-12 level. I still believe that,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if four more years, with the dynamics of the board the way it is, that I myself was going to have much of an impact on the board.”
‘They’re not really pressed on the issues’
Watching the school board race from the sidelines this year, Vue has been disappointed by the content, or lack thereof, of the campaign. “Because it’s not competitive, we don’t get a real sense of where these candidates are at,” he said. “They’re not really pressed on the issues much.”
Kazoua Kong-Thao — a former St. Paul school board chair who now works as the chief administration officer at the Community School of Excellence, a St. Paul-based charter school — puts some of the blame on the endorsement process. She says it’s deterred a number of people she knows from running, limiting the diversity of the candidate pool before campaign season even kicks off.
She’s a big proponent of having voices on the board that better reflect the demographics of the students and families served. Even so, she cautions that if elected, Xiong shouldn’t be treated as the sole authority on Hmong students.
“I became the Hmong candidate,”she said, adding she felt she was expected to speak on the behalf of all Hmong families when she was on the board. “[In reality], I’m a candidate who so happens to be Hmong. At the end of the day, I’m supposed to represent everyone. So when we’re voting for candidates, yes, I would love to hear the different voices. But we also have to keep in mind that we don’t just have a token person.”
Ted Davis, a parent in the district who ran the district’s 2012 referendum campaign, fully expects the slate of endorsed candidates to win this year. He thinks the DFL party has produced some good candidates this year — something that’s not always an easy task.
“It’s a tough job. I think the school board is really underrated on its impact it has on the future of the city. That shows up in the attention it gets,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that people aren’t asking more questions of the candidates. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more engaging campaigns around the school board.”
A full-time workload
Given its current status as a fairly low-profile public office, Davis says school board members are burdened with a full-time workload “that requires a level of commitment we don’t pay them for” and overly influenced by the loudest voices — those that show up at board meetings.
“They’ve got to be out in the community seeking voices, and I don’t know that many of them do that or can do that,” he said.
Nancy Jane Bitenc, an active parent in the district and a new delegate to the DFL convention, agrees that the position of a board member should be “upgraded,” in an effort to attract a more diverse pool of qualified candidate — including parents who have proven themselves resourceful and knowledgeable at the school level, yet lack the financial ability to run a competitive campaign.
Initially, she had gotten involved in Barrera’s campaign because she felt he is “a very gifted, articulate, innovative thinker who understands fiscal accountability.” But as his campaign came to a halt, she realized that “if you’re not a DFL insider in St. Paul, it’s pretty tricky to get a foothold.”
After Barrera dropped out of the race, Bitenc joined Brodrick’s campaign, offering to help manage his social media presence. At this point, he appears to be a shoe-in. But she thinks it’s still possible for DFL-endorsed candidate like Brodrick to face some real competition in future elections, especially if anyone secured an endorsement from the “burgeoning Green Party.”
Reflecting on the high-profile school board campaign in 2015 that resulted in leadership turnover — both a new superintendent and a new board majority — Bitenc says the apparent sense of calm characterizing this year’s election is premature.
“The level of involvement has dropped. It feels like it’s less of a crisis. But, actually, I think we’re in an equal amount of crisis,” she said, listing the district’s growing budgetary deficit and declining enrollment as two primary concerns. “It’s imperative that we get board members who understand what it means to govern a school district.”