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St. Paul school board race begins to take shape at first candidate forum

While the candidates offered fairly uniform responses to several questions — such as on the need for greater oversight of the facilities budget — other questions revealed substantial differences.

St. Paul school board candidates
From left: Chauntyll Allen, Charlie Castro, Zuki Ellis, Jessica Kopp, Steve Marchese, Omar Syed and Ryan Williams.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Seven candidates seeking a seat on the school board serving the St. Paul Public Schools district convened Wednesday evening for a forum at the University of St. Thomas. They included two incumbents — Zuki Ellis and Steve Marchese —  who are both running for a second term with the backing of the DFL Party and the teachers union. 

Five newcomers participated as well: Chauntyll Allen (who is DFL-endorsed alongside the incumbents), Charlie Castro, Jessica Kopp, Omar Syed and Ryan Williams. 

Two more newcomers — Tiffany Fearing and Jennifer McPherson — were not able to participate as planned because of last-minute personal circumstances. Additionally, while initially slated to attend, Elijah Norris-Holliday opted out of the forum after news reports brought his eligibility into question due to recent probation violations tied to two felony drug charges. 

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The League of Women Voters of St. Paul co-hosted the event with the University of St. Thomas, the Union Park District Council, and the Saint Paul Neighborhood Network. Audience members were invited to submit questions, which were vetted and presented to the candidates for a brief response from each.

While some questions evoked a fairly unanimous response from candidates — such as the need for greater board oversight of the facilities budget and for district leaders to better study why residents are leaving the district to attend local charter schools — others brought about varied responses. 

Different takes on closing the achievement gap

Syed, a district alum with kids currently attending schools in the district, positioned himself as a liaison for the immigrant community. A refugee from Somali, the local business owner said many students from immigrant families don’t have the same homework support at home because their parents don’t speak English. So he says he’d prioritize programs that teach immigrant adults English so they can better support their school-aged children. 

Kopp, a parent involved in redesign work at Hamline Elementary school who formerly worked as an English teacher, talked about her commitment to “supporting diverse and innovative teaching and learning” through diversifying both the teacher corps and teaching practices.

Steve Marchese, back right, and Jessica Kopp
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Candidates Steve Marchese, back right, and Jessica Kopp, front right, speaking to attendees following the forum.
Allen, a district graduate who’s stayed connected through her work as a paraprofessional, comes at this work with a particular concern over disparities impacting African-American youth in St. Paul. Given the opportunity to drill down on one key education lever, she says she’d look to expand trades opportunities for secondary students so they could begin making money while continuing their literacy training. 

“We’re dealing with a serious literacy issue because kids were just passed along without being taught to read,” she said.

Ellis, the current board chair who shares the SPPS grad and parent designation, echoed Allen’s desire to expand upon trades opportunities for students. She voiced frustration with using standardized test scores to measure student achievement, calling the MCAs “racially biased.”

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Castro, a professor in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, talked about the need to hire more teachers of color and to address the fact that “we deal with the misconduct of some students differently than we do with others, based on their skin color.”

Marchese, a lawyer by training and licensure who also identifies as a district parent, talked about the need for more wrap-around services in schools, along with the need to address unconscious biases. 

Williams, a Minneapolis Public Schools employee, drew attention to the urban educator program at Metropolitan State University as a model solution to diversifying the teacher corps — a key lever in addressing the achievement gap. 

Considering student voice, police in schools

Williams says his decision to run for a seat on the school board was prompted, in part, by a student he works with voicing concern over the school calendar being more aligned with Christian holidays than Muslim holidays. He says his candidacy, in part, is an effort to show that student how a person can run for office to create change. 

A number of candidates, including Marchese, lauded the district’s Student Engagement and Advancement Board — commonly known by its acronym, SEAB — and advocated for an expansion of the group in various ways. In recent years, the youth-led group has researched and informed a number of board policy decisions regarding graduation dress code and the district’s School Resource Officer (SRO) contract with the St. Paul Police Department.

Chauntyll Allen, back right, and Zuki Ellis, front right
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Candidates Chauntyll Allen, back right, and Zuki Ellis, front right, speaking to forum attendees afterward.
On the matter of police in schools, Marchese called it one of the hardest issues he’s dealt with, as the board is asked to “evolve beyond where we are now” as the contract comes up for renewal each year. And since the bulk of the expense falls on the district’s shoulders, he’s concerned the cost “keps the district from using resources to fund alternative ways we could do things.” 

Castro says the SRO program “probably needs a reboot,” since every officer’s bio on the district’s website mentions challenges around explaining their role in schools and breaking down misperceptions. More so, she says she’s more in favor of investing in school counselors and other staff who are better positioned to connect students with the resources they need. 

Ellis says she’s still grappling with the district’s current SRO contract — both because she believes a true partnership would include splitting expenses between both parties and because she’s uneasy with what it implies about SPPS students. In furthering her own understanding of students, she says she’s been to every school in the district and has begun meeting with students over their lunch periods to survey their concerns. 

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Allen says she’s seen SROs work well when they keep the focus on meeting students’ needs. But she’s also seen SROs overcriminalize situations, creating a “pipeline to prison.” So she’s more in favor of investing in community members or social workers, rather than police officers. 

In terms of amplifying student voice, she says she expects more students – especially those typically underrepresented in decision making — will take an interest in board meetings and get involved, if she’s sitting on the board, as a familiar face. 

Offering a more local-control approach to SROs, Kopp advocated allocating resources to all schools and allowing them to decide how to spend those school safety dollars — whether it be funding a school police officer or bringing in community members to monitor halls. 

Syed says he’s looking to incorporate more student voice into decision making at the district level as well.

“My 11-year-old fifth-grader speaks like an adult,” he said. “We can start taking [input from] kids from kindergarten to high school.”