Election guide: St. Paul voters will fill three seats on St. Paul school board
Voters in St. Paul will elect three members for the St. Paul school district’s seven-member board. The term of office is four years. Two incumbents, John Brodrick and Jeannie Foster, are running for re-election. At least one newcomer will join the board, as current member Chue Vue is not seeking re-election. All St. Paul school board members are elected at-large by voters in the entire district. The top three vote-getters will serve on the board.
We asked each candidate why they want to serve on the St. Paul school board, and what they might do to address declining enrollment in the district. In view of recent discussions in St. Paul and neighboring districts, we also asked for their thoughts about school start times.—Anne Holzman
Luke Belville is an attorney who has lived in the West Seventh area of St. Paul since 2013. He ran unsuccessfully for a judicial seat in 2016. He noted that he has teaching experience in Japan and Korea.
Belville wishes to serve on the school board as “a means to use my education in the public sector, while allowing me to try and help make the world a better place,” he said.
“That is not to say that I alone would be able to make the school system the best it can be, but I would be able to try with the help of other public officials and the community.”
Belville said he needs more information to understand the problem of declining enrollment. “We must first understand if the drop in enrollment is due to societal changes or is because of the school system,” Belville said. “If the shift is due to societal changes, these changes would need to be studied and accounted for accordingly.”
Belville has concerns about changes in start times and how they would affect families. “I think the changes proposed should consider first that in the modern world both parents work,” Belville said, “and their children should be on the bus at an early enough time so that the parents are not having to wait around for the school bus to show up so their kids can get on it, and they can go to work.”
John Brodrick has served on the St. Paul school board since 2002 and is running for his fifth term. “I have spent a lifetime in the St. Paul schools,” Brodrick said, “as a student, teacher, coach, parent and currently as a school board member.”
Brodrick noted that the board members elected in 2015 were new to the office, and that at least one new member will be elected this time around. In addition, Superintendent Joe Gothard is in his first year in that job. “My experience on the board, in the classroom, and in our neighborhoods and communities will be a definite plus for the board and the district,” Brodrick said.
Going forward, “The district under new leadership and a new strategic plan must send clear messages,” he said. “It needs to assure parents that every school is a welcoming and safe learning environment for all. Student achievement is at the heart of this. Our building and maintenance of facilities must continue, and every school must have strong offerings in arts, music, physical education and extracurricular activities.”
Brodrick has been party to past discussions about school start times. “For economic reasons, we have been tied for decades to a three-tier bus and start-time schedule,” Brodrick explained. “This has forced us to choose between groups of students. The current proposal allows the superintendent to have another year to align any different school start-time schedule with the new strategic plan. Ultimately, I want all of our students to start school at a reasonable time.”
Greg Copeland is making his fourth run for a seat on the school board. He has served as city manager for Maplewood City manager and has run unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the Minnesota Senate. His public service includes terms on the St. Paul City Charter Commission and the city’s capital budget committee.
Copeland said he is “the only candidate running who is not an educator or a lawyer. Citizens want a diversity of skills and need broader experience beyond the courtrooms and classrooms, better known for talkers than listeners.”
If elected, he would refocus the budget away from central administration and onto individual schools. “The school that parents choose is where education dollars must be spent,” Copeland said, “because that is where students are learning, academic counseling and accountability take place.”
Copeland called a current graduation rate of approximately 75 percent “unacceptable.”
“There will be no success in building higher future student enrollment when only three out of four students have earned their diploma,” he said. “Every student must have the opportunity to get a job, enter a vocational [school] or college of their choice or pursue a military career upon graduation.”
Copeland said he has been campaigning for five years to increase St. Paul’s allocation of school counselors in order to serve students better. He also proposes adding year-round school options “to stop the summer slide.”
Copeland suggests that school start times and transportation could be addressed through financing the purchase of new city buses so that St. Paul students can use them as students do in Minneapolis. “Without the needed new buses,” he said, “I would not support making any changes to St. Paul high school start times.”
Jeannie Foster was elected to the SPPS Board of Education in a special election in November 2016 to finish the term of Jean O’Connell, who had resigned partway through her term. Foster is now running for re-election to the seat. She described herself as “a Frogtown native and seasoned educator, serving 27 years working directly with children and families in St. Paul.”
“I and my children are products of St. Paul public schools; we are a reflection of the children and families served,” she said. Foster wants to continue serving on the board because “as a parent, educator and advocate, I have both the personal and professional experience to help move the district forward. I want to keep children at the center of decision-making.”
Foster described the enrollment challenge as “complex.” She listed multiple approaches: “Review of the services we offer and utilizing effective marketing strategies; working in partnerships with charter schools; creating early-learning hubs that will feed directly into our schools. All of this will require intentional collaboration and should be a priority in the district’s strategic planning.”
The board should analyze what’s working in schools with strong enrollment and why families choose them, she said. “That entails listening and engaging with all stakeholders and then moving forward with a plan that closely monitors and evaluates effectiveness.”
School start times should be “driven by data and ensure equity for all students,” she said. “We need a clear plan that ensures that student needs such as safety will be met and that community resources are properly in place to support the changes as we move forward.”
Andrea Touhey is an educational consultant and former teacher who grew up in the Twin Cities and made St. Paul her home when she moved back to Minnesota a few years ago. She taught at schools in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Texas for 10 years and served as a curriculum designer for the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education in Rhode Island for two years and a program specialist for the U.S. Department of Education for one year. She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Puget Sound and a master’s degree in education from Harvard University.
Touhey’s education-policy background, decade in the classroom and “experience working in high-performing schools across the nation would bring a diverse perspective to the school board,” she said.
She wants to serve on the board “to ensure that excellence and equity are given equal weight in the district’s governance. An equitable education depends on excellence,” she said.
When asked how she would address declining enrollment in the district, she said SPPS should “develop a new strategic plan that charts the direction of the district.” The district needs to “robustly survey families, students and staff to learn about their experiences and actively strive to respond to the insights,” she said.
“Teaching and learning should become the central focus of the district’s work,” she continued. “SPPS should be known for its incredibly engaging teaching and relevant and rigorous curriculum.
“Building strong relationships should be a core component of the district’s strategic plan,” she said.
In response to her thoughts on changing school start times, she replied, “I would have preferred a more inclusive process used to reach the decision. Given that a vote has already been made, I believe it is better to move forward with implementation than to keep families and the organization in limbo as to whether or not the change will be repealed.”
Marny Xiong described herself as “a proud alumna of St. Paul schools, born and raised in St. Paul to immigrant parents.” She serves as a school manager in Minneapolis.
Xiong is seeking a seat on the SPPS school board because she believes “that education is the only opportunity for low-income students and students of color to get out of poverty.
“I am committed to shaping an equitable education for students to ensure they have safe learning environments and graduate SPPS ready to succeed in college and the workforce,” Xiong said.
“To increase enrollment, we must build relationships and invest in our diverse communities to strengthen our school-to-community relationship and retain families,” Xiong said. “I am committed to enhancing our family engagement, investing in culturally specific programs, and shifting priorities to enhance and reflect the needs of families for all our students.”
Concerning school start times, “I believe we need more conversations with students, parents and educators about the impact this would bring them,” she said. “A time change, no matter how minimal, impacts family structures and the daily routine of stakeholders, such as arrangements to pick up children from the bus stop and more. Community input is critical.”