By Jon Schumacher

On Sunday, June 11, I attended the St. Paul DFL convention as a non-delegate. This is an important election year for the city with all seven city council seats and four of the seven school board seats being decided.

Because the city council endorsements were decided at the ward caucuses, this year’s convention was dedicated solely to the school board. The delegates numbered 145, surprisingly low for a party that delivered over 36,000 votes to their candidate for the 2021 mayoral race.

Of more concern was that 420 people signed up at the ward caucuses this spring to be delegates, but only 25% of those actually showed up at the convention.

Now to Ward 4. In the DFL system, the more voters that show up, the more delegates your ward gets in the next convention. Ward 4 has traditionally been an active and engaged ward with high caucus turnout. This year’s numbers were low, with only a handful of attendees in some precincts – and furthermore there were significant no-shows in the verified delegate ranks at the city convention.

That’s concerning. I know we’ve had robust conversations on the local listserv and around the neighborhood about the quality of our schools. I know people across the city are alarmed. So, why do we care so much about the future of our schools but fail to participate in electing those who run them?

There seems to be apathy about the whole school board race. Our hometown newspaper doesn’t really cover it anymore; there were no school board candidate interviews in advance of the convention and four lines in the morning edition simply naming the winners and losers at the very end of an article about the lack of endorsement for the Ward 1 city council race. Nothing in the Bugle. I don’t even hear it brought up as a topic of conversation much.

School boards are where superintendents, policies, curriculum and programming are decided. It’s possible that there will be three new board members if the endorsed candidates win in November, which is what usually happens.

To have only 145 people in St. Paul willing to take the measure of these candidates and decide who receives that critical endorsement is a problem in my view, and a problem for the St. Paul DFL too.

Therefore, it’s time for the St. Paul DFL to seriously look at how we can get all voters re-engaged in a fair and simplified endorsement process. Make the rules more understandable, especially to our communities of new Americans who are genuinely confused by the complex processes (It’s also confusing for old Americans like me, and I’ve been through it a few times).

 Make the time commitment less and not on Sunday, an important religious and family day. Think of creative and effective ways to address the challenges of representative government.

It will take a major inclusive effort, but if we don’t fix it soon, we’ll lose older and younger generations to other parties or no parties. In fact, it’s already happening. More candidates are saying no to the question of whether they will drop out if they don’t win the DFL endorsement. That didn’t use to happen.

We read and hear about the threat to democracy daily. Like grass, democracy grows or dies at its roots. For all those who identify as DFLers, let’s support that basic foundation of our country by nurturing these grassroots organizing opportunities. We ignore at our peril the declining influence our local parties are experiencing. It’s not good for developing strong candidates, informative campaigns, inclusive communities or a sustainable democracy. 

Jon Schumacher is a former St. Paul School Board member and past executive director of the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation.

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