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Two incumbents, two newcomers win at-large St. Paul school board seats

Newcomers Chauntyll Allen and Jessica Kopp won seats, and incumbents Zuki Ellis and Steve Marchese kept theirs in Tuesday’s election.

Chauntyll Allen
School board candidate Chauntyll Allen looks on as Mayor Melvin Carter speaks to her supporters at the Heritage Tea House on Tuesday night.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Newcomers Chauntyll Allen and Jessica Kopp won seats on the St. Paul school board Tuesday, and incumbents Zuki Ellis and Steve Marchese kept theirs.

Waiting for the election results to roll in, Allen and her supporters gathered at Heritage Tea House, less than a mile west of the Minnesota Capitol, Tuesday evening to eat, give thanks and celebrate their campaign efforts. 

Allen, a Central graduate and current education assistant at Como Park High, ran on a platform to build a “school to success pipeline” — a line she found other board candidates adopting and reciting at recent forums, she says. 

The venue holds significance for Allen. She’s a Black Lives Matter activist who came to know the owner through their mutual involvement with the 4th Precinct occupation after the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark. 

Ahead of the results coming in, Nekima Levy Armstrong, head of the Minneapolis NAACP at the time of the occupation, also joined to show her support for her top pick for school board, calling her a “champion for the children of St. Paul and across the Twin Cities.”

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So did Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter — a former chair of the St. Paul Public Schools board — and her husband, retired St. Paul Police Sgt. Melvin W. Carter, Jr.

Shortly after their son, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, arrived, Allen’s campaign manager called for everyone’s attention: A majority of the results were in and Allen was well on her way to securing one of the four open at-large seats on the St. Paul school board. 

Addressing the room, Allen thanked everyone for their work on her campaign, which she called a “community win.” 

Called upon to deliver some remarks, Mayor Carter shared a story about the first controversial vote he took as a member of the St. Paul City Council, regarding an investment in tasers for the police department. He said he “felt small” in that room, holding up the meeting while expressing concerns he had about the policies and procedures around tasers. But when he locked in on a handful of people from this neighborhood who gave him a thumbs us, he says that show of solidarity “strengthened and inflated me.”

“There’s a whole lot of people talkin’ about us — and they spend more time talkin’ about us than they spend talking to us. And too often, when they start talking to us, it’s to tell us what’s best for us,” he said. “And so it’s a blessing to have people in this space.”

Looping back to the story he shared, Carter called upon everyone in the room to keep showing up for Allen, even though the work of a local elected official isn’t always glamorous. 

“Sometimes we forget, when people like Chauntyll Allen walk into the school district … to just let them know that we got their back,” he said.

The newcomer ended up coming in fourth, with nearly 14 percent of the votes, totaling nearly 20,000 votes. Kopp came in third, with just over 20,000 votes.  The two incumbents — Ellis and Marchese — each raked in about 17 percent of all votes, totaling closer to 24,000 a piece. 

DFL endorsement key

Ellis, Allen and Marchese all ran with the backing of the DFL Party and the teachers union. School board races are technically nonpartisan — though, as with the council races, the DFL endorsement tends to have a big influence on the outcome. 

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Kopp, a former teacher who’s been involved as a parent activist, also won the union’s approval but fell shy of securing the fourth DFL endorsement. According to her social media campaign page, she spent the evening with supporters at Shamrock’s Bar and Grill.

Jessica Kopp
Jessica Kopp
Marchese and Ellis hosted a joint election-eve watch party at Gabe’s By the Park. Mayor Carter stopped by there before making his way to Allen’s event later on. 

The St. Paul school board saw a majority turnover in 2016, when the Caucus for Change slate of candidates took office and immediately set out to sever ties with then-superintendent Valeria Silva. The two other members of that movement — Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert — didn’t run for re-election.

And while Ellis and Marchese teamed up for some campaign events, Allen says she supported those who shared the DFL ticket, but made a point to run her campaign independently. 

“I thought it was important I stood on my own knowledge,” she said.

In terms of campaign finances, initial filings show that Ellis and Marchese both raised more than $25,000, with Allen trailing close behind with over $20,000. Kopp ran a successful campaign with less than $5,000 raised and just over $2,000 spent. 

The closest challenger, Charlie Castro, an adjunct professor in the Minnesota State system, trailed Allen by more than 7,000 votes.