By Kathy Henderson
Nine candidates are vying this fall for four seats on the seven-member Saint Paul Public Schools Board of Education. They are Ryan Williams, Omar Syed, Steve Marchese, Jennifer McPherson, Jessica Kopp, Tiffany Fearing, Zuki Ellis, Charlie Castro and Chauntyll Allen.
The contestants include men and women who reflect various race/ethnicity, career backgrounds, educational attainment, SPPS and community connections, and school board experience. The Bugle sent questionnaires to the candidates for their views on school district issues with only Ellis and Allen not responding.
Many of the candidates have similar reasons for running for the school board: Having personal connections to SPPS, valuing public education, desiring that all students feel welcome and have opportunities to succeed, and aiming to strengthen budget oversight.
Their concerns are similar, too: test-achievement gaps, overall educational equity, lack of staff diversity, the need for culturally meaningful curriculum, school climate and safety, and finances and resources.
However, when asked what distinguishes them from the other candidates, their answers varied.
“The main difference between me and the other school board candidates is that I am a true outsider,” Charlie Castro told the Bugle in an email response. “As an educator for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, I see the power that education has. And as a resident of Lowertown, I have seen a definite change in my community.
“Being an outsider puts me in a unique position to not hold allegiances to the DFL Party or endorsing bodies, but to truly work for the students, teachers and families of St. Paul.”
Tiffany Fearing describes herself as creative and able to think outside the box.
Jessica Kopp cites her educational expertise and experience, including successfully working with SPPS district staff and community partners. She also brings the perspective gained through her experience as a teacher in another district.
Steve Marchese said that as a lawyer, he “brings a legal, strategic-thinking and thoughtful eye to the board.” Currently serving as the board’s vice chair, Marchese said that he has “spent time in almost all the SPPS buildings and has gotten to know many of the schools’ teachers and staff.”
Jennifer McPherson sees herself as a very logical person who exams everything from all sides, especially when it doesn’t make sense. “I always look at the big picture,” she said.
Omar Syed would bring an immigrant/refugee perspective to the board. “I am an immigrant, coming from Somali,” he said. “I came here as a refugee without a background in school. I graduated from a SPPS high school and opened a business in St. Paul. My kids now attend SPPS. I want to help the board connect with all communities.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Williams said he is the only candidate who, as a child, had an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for a learning disability. He also said he is the only candidate campaigning on the platform to document all restraints of all students, to designate a school transportation-safety director and to adopt a transportation-safety policy provision for the qualifications of training and duties of bus monitors.
More than concerns, challenges
Despite their concerns for the School District, the candidates also said there are many positives things happening.
“One thing I like is that SPPS welcomes everyone,” said Syed.
Ryan Williams contends you can’t have a positive school culture without recognizing the Mendota Mdewakaton Dakota Community.
Acknowledgement of all cultures is significant to McPherson.
Marchese said SPPS has very hard-working staff who are connected to the kids, and that is partly due to restorative practices pilot sites having already built better relationships between staff and students.
Kopp said that SPPS builds relationships both within the schools and within the community. “Connectiveness and shared purpose don’t end when you walk out the school door,” she said.
It should include how diverse the district is, Fearing said.
Castro suggested that numerous engagement/discussion events should be held to get as many perspectives as possible on what would be best district practices going forward.
The school board’s strategic plan calls for, among other things, increased achievement of students receiving special education services. The Bugle asked the candidates if they felt knowledgeable about IEPs (Individual Education Plans) or any of the special-education advocacy organizations.
Castro said too often IEPs are created without family input and reflect a lack of resources and available providers. “This is an area in our schools that is underfunded,” she said
Castro also believes the school board could hold more discussions on a variety of topics that would allow the district to address multiple issues that affect students, teachers and the community. The board is broken, she states, because it fails to act on many issues that affect the community and create real change and transparency.
Fearing believes IEPs may have been in use when she was a student at Humboldt or when she was a volunteer at Bridge View School. Bridge View serves students with significant developmental cognitive disabilities in grades K-12.
When she was teaching, Kopp had experience being part of an IEP team, which she described as a collaborative experience of staff, parents and professionals to best serve the student. She would like to see the district show trust in the parents by having a place in SPPS buildings for advocacy organizations to meet with parents.
“Let’s see if there is a way to bring them to where the people are,” Kopp said. She would also like to see a place within school buildings where parents/caregivers of students receiving special education services could share information and have conversations on an informal parent-to-parent basis without any district agenda.
Marchese has worked with families on their concerns when IEPs are being developed. “There is a lot at stake, and parents are put in the role of the advocacy and at the same time, parents, because of all sorts of circumstances, may have varying levels of advocacy knowledge and skills,” he said.
Marchese also noted the SPPS Special Education Advisory Council “is very active and a place where parents come and learn from each other, share experiences.” SEAC is part of the SPPS’ Office of Family Engagement and Community Partnerships.
McPherson said Farnsworth Aerospace Upper campus does a great job including families in their students’ education plan and following it through.
Syed said IEPs need to be updated to meet the needs of the school district’s immigrant families who, because they may have had limited schooling in their native country, do not know how to get started or how to help their children.
Williams, once a student with an IEP, would like to see family members as more equal members of IEP teams and closely follow the regulation of the right of a mandatory IEP meeting when two or more student physical restraints occur in 30 days. He sees a need for staff-paid time so they can document physical restraints and participate in post-restraint debriefings.
Williams supports the SPPS providing information on parent-advocacy organizations, including the organization Seclusion Room Shut Down, which is a group of community members, parents and educators working to assist in reducing and ending improper restraints and seclusion of students.
An outside community organization could also be used to determine if SPPS is reducing the number of physical restraints or if it is falling behind on documenting restraints-use, Williams said.