Heading into his third year leading the St. Paul Public Schools district, Superintendent Joe Gothard has largely won the approval of his bosses on the school board. Tuesday evening, the board announced plans to negotiate a contract extension.
Under his tenure, voters passed a critical multimillion-dollar operating levy and district leadership brought the teachers union back from the brink of a strike during contract negotiations last summer. Once again, however, he’s at odds with leaders of the St. Paul Federation of Educators — who recently announced their intent to break from the district’s HealthPartners plan in favor of joining the state-run Public Employees Insurance Program.
The move — slated to happen Jan. 1, just as at least two newcomers, and as many as four, will take a seat alongside Gothard at the board table — would lower premiums for teachers and teachers aides, but leave the district on the hook for a $4 million early termination fee. It would also result in 22 percent premium hikes for the district’s other 1,500 employees.
Chairwoman Zuki Ellis has displayed a unified front with Gothard as the health-insurance issue involving the teachers union continues to heat up. District leaders are now threatening to sue the union, to recoup any early termination fees.
All of this makes for a high-tension backdrop as the school board race takes shape, with 10 candidates vying for four open at-large seats.
Both incumbents seeking re-election, Ellis and Steve Marchese, have sought and secured endorsements from the DFL Party and local teachers union. (A third incumbent, Mary Vanderwert, quit her campaign after failing to secure the union’s endorsement, which has historically proven influential.)
Chauntyll Allen, a challenger who currently works in the district as an educational assistant, also secured both key endorsements. She confronted the board in the spring of 2016, citing racism in schools as an underlying factor driving students’ behavioral outbursts.
As polarizing issues — ranging from how to best address school climate and safety concerns to how to handle the pending teachers union health care issue — carry into the new school year, the remaining seven candidates have an opportunity to carve out a name for themselves as well. Here’s a preview of the names that’ll be on the ballot this fall, in alphabetical order:
Charlie Castro, 39, is a systems analyst and professor in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. She’s a Lowertown resident, running to better connect students with services and teachers with resources — to even the “playing field.” Her top three priorities are addressing the student-to-prison pipeline, diversifying the teacher corps, and getting more resources for teachers. Asked what sets her apart, she wrote, “I’m an outsider with big, bold ideas and a deep need to restore the educational system for our students.”
Chauntyll Allen, 45, is a graduate of Central High School who has been working in the district for 16 years as a paraprofessional, a basketball coach and a coordinator through the Community Education Program at a number of different schools. She’s positioning herself as a youth advocate who believes that “too many decisions that affect our youth are made without understanding the challenges they face.” She’s focused on expanding upon trauma-free settings that incorporate restorative practices, full-service community schools, trades offerings in schools and culturally specific curriculums.
Elijah Norris-Holliday, 23, is a Como Park Senior High graduate, looking to bring a “fresh new voice” to the board as someone who’s “able to actually relate to the students and young teachers in our school system.” He’s currently working for Securian financial services while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Mankato State University. His top priorities as a candidate include bringing low-cost equity and inclusion trainings to district staff and educators, fully funding basic classroom supplies, and advocating for more state funding while also learning “how to do more with less” in the interim.
Jennifer McPherson, 37, has ties to the district both as an alumna who made local history as the district’s first female wrestler, and as a parent with students currently enrolled in district schools. She works for TPT member services and decided to run for school board because she’s “tired of seeing [the district] go in the wrong direction.” Intent on keeping her children in district schools, she’s eager to “work for positive change” that centers on “equality, new curriculum and accountability.”
Jessica Kopp, 45, is looking to scale up her impact as a parent and community organizer looking to bring “informed, compassionate and energetic leadership” to the board. Her experience centers around Hamline Elementary school, where she helped facilitate the process to turn it into a full-service community school. She’s a former middle- and high-school English teacher looking to prioritize teacher workforce development, board accessibility and responsiveness, and partnerships that cut across the district, county, city and local communities.
Omar Syed, 45, works as a pharmacy technician and owns a neighborhood coffee shop on the city’s East Side, whose appreciation for “a strong public school education” stems from his own experience as a former refugee who didn’t have an opportunity to attend school until coming to the U.S. He, too, is a district grad who has stayed invested in the district because it’s where his child studies. He’s running to ensure “our schools represent and serve all communities.” His vision includes closing educational equity gaps, diversifying the teacher corps and administrative staff, and creating a safe and supportive learning environment for all students.
Ryan Williams works in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. He did not respond to MinnPost’s interview request, but based on his responses in the St. Paul Federation of Educators’ candidate questionnaire, he’s working toward obtaining a teaching license from Metropolitan State University. Much of his campaign messaging on social media focuses on meeting transportation and employee safety standards. And in response to a SPFE question about how he’d handle disagreement with union leadership, he wrote: “My goal is to make labor representatives blush and for them to tell me that I am overly supportive of labor issues.”
Steve Marchese, 52, currently serving as the board’s vice chair, is running for a second term. He’s an SPPS parent, a public service director and a lawyer by training and licensure — a credential he says he exercises through “strategic thinking and a willingness to ask tough questions.” He says his tenure has been marked by progress in “bringing in new leadership, addressing the district’s financial issues and ensuring there is a strategic plan designed to address long-term issues regarding achievement, culture and college/career readiness” — all things he plans to continue to advance, if re-elected.
Tiffany Fearing, 33, works as an administrative assistant pitching her professional distance as an asset that’ll allow her to “bring fresh, new ideas” to the district — something she says the district needs to boost enrollment. She also attended district schools, grades K-12, with a daughter on track to do the same. In terms of a platform, she’s also big on building more community partnerships and promoting a curriculum and educator corps that are more representative of student diversity in the district. Her top priority stands out: monthly check-in meetings for students and counselors “to connect and see how every student is doing.”
Zuki Ellis, another SPPS grad and parent, is currently serving as board chair. A few highlights of her tenure, as relayed by a campaign aide, include passing a critical school referendum, updating school start times and supporting district programs to recruit, train and retain teachers of color. Moving forward, Ellis wants another four years to dig into reshaping district policy so that policy-backed efforts around things like gender inclusion and ethnic studies are coupled with a very clear implementation and accountability plan, because “a rule is meaningless if we don’t enforce it.”