Eight candidates are vying this fall for four open seats on the seven-member Saint Paul School Board.
MyVillager asked them about their qualifications for the board, their ideas for boosting district enrollment and whether or not they support a temporary moratorium on new public charter schools in the city.

There are actually two School Board races on the November 2 general election ballot. In the first race, incumbent Jeanelle Foster and newcomer Clayton Howatt are running for the remaining two years in an unexpired term. Foster chose to run for this seat rather than seek another four-year term on the board.

In the second race, six candidates are vying for three four-year terms on the board—incumbent Jim Vue and newcomers Uriah Ward, Jennifer McPherson, Halla Henderson, James Farnsworth and Ryan Williams.

TWO-YEAR TERM

Jeanelle Foster, 48, has served on the School Board since 2016. Under her leadership as board chair since June 2020, she said, “this district now has a strategic plan that has equity as its root and a budget to support the work. We’ve moved to a priority-based budget, so we know what we’re paying for upfront. We’ve also streamlined the facilities management process to improve schools and school spaces, and we’ve created an online tool for transparency in that process.”

Foster attributed the steady decline in district enrollment over the past two decades to a decline in birth rates and the growing popularity of culture-specific public charter schools. However, she opposes a moratorium on new charter schools in Saint Paul. “I think we would alienate some families if we did that, and our city needs to remain a place where all people can choose to live,” she said.

“Charter schools have risen in popularity because they’ve been better able to respond to what students and families want,” Foster said. “If we want district schools to thrive, we have to do things differently as the needs and wants of students and their families change. Instead of being threatened by charter schools, we can learn from them and work more creatively to meet the needs of families and students.”

Clayton Howatt, 46, owns Verus Builders, a residential remodeling company. Endorsed by the DFL and the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, he has served as PTO president at his daughter’s school and as a citizen representative on the school district’s Budget and Finance Advisory Committee. A youth hockey coach, he worked with the city to create the after-school Rec in Motion program at elementary schools.

Howatt cited the explosion in new charter schools and poor management as reasons for the decline in district enrollment. He believes that providing equity in investment and opportunity among schools is the most effective way to stop that decline. “The schools where families are leaving have the basics but minimal extras such as robust art and music, quality before- and after-school programs, field trips and science fairs,” he said. “When a family at a school with the basics wants more, they see that the district schools that offer more are already full, so they look elsewhere.”

Howatt supports a moratorium on new or expanding charter schools in Saint Paul because of their financial impact on the district and the benefits of integration. “We have charter schools that are 100 percent Asian or 100 percent Black just blocks from a charter school that is 85 percent white,” he said. “Our schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1970s. We have around 65 district schools and around 35 charter schools in Saint Paul. Our tax dollars are being spread thinner and thinner over more and more schools. And while the district is going down the path of closing schools, we will be adding four to six new charter schools in the next two years.”

FOUR-YEAR TERMS

Jim Vue, 41, has served on the School Board since the summer of 2020 when he was appointed to replace Marny Xiong, who died of COVID-19. “Since then, the district has experienced many changes and disruptions due to COVID-19,” Vue said. “I’ve been entrenched in this work for the last year, and I have the experience to lead the district toward better days.”

Vue does not support a moratorium on new or expanding public charter schools. “Parents know best the kind of education their child needs,” he said. “A moratorium would diminish a family’s ability to choose a school. More affluent families can afford to send their children outside of Saint Paul or to a private school. However, it is primarily families of color who are leaving for public charter schools. What message are we sending to our families of color if we put a moratorium on charter schools?

“Declining enrollment is not new to the school district,” Vue said. “In the early 1970s, when the district was mostly white, there was a great exodus to suburban districts and private schools. The district is now 70 percent students of color, but its mode of delivering education still very much mirrors what it was 50 years ago. I think it is best to grow existing programs in the district that reflect its students and have proven to be effective. The district should be more intentional about developing staff who look like and come from the communities it serves. The exodus of families of color tells me that the district must adapt sooner rather than later in order to stabilize enrollment. Once enrollment is stabilized, the district will have the formula to grow enrollment.”

Uriah Ward, 30, works as a financial aid counselor at Augsburg University. Endorsed by the DFL and the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, he is a former public school teacher with an M.A. in education. “I was an organizer in the 2018 Vote Yes for Saint Paul Kids campaign,” Ward said. “I helped lead the effort to unionize the staff at Augsburg, and I served on my union’s bargaining team. My perspective will be helpful as the school district works to improve the relationship with its bargaining units.”

Ward supports a moratorium on public charter schools. “It isn’t sustainable to have a forever-expanding number of schools,” he said. “Imposing a moratorium will give us an opportunity to study the impacts of charter schools. The traditional public school model is the best one we have for addressing the needs of all students. Schools should be designed in a way where they can be held accountable by the public. I don’t want to disrupt the strong learning communities created by charter schools. A moratorium should pause new charter schools, not eliminate successful ones.

“Families leave the school district for a number of reasons,” Ward said. “We should survey families to give them a chance to explain why they left or why they decided to stay in the district. We can use the data to address the concerns that are leading to decreased enrollment. What I hear is that families leave for smaller class sizes, safer schools, more art class offerings and a more culturally responsive curriculum. I’d like us to reduce class sizes, invest in mental health support staff, support the arts in all of our schools, and make certain that our curriculum reflects the lived experiences of all students.”

Jennifer McPherson, 39, has been an advocate for youths for more than 20 years. “I’ve worked with youths as a Sunday school teacher, assistant youth leader, a day care teacher and an assistant manager at Wendy’s restaurant,” she said. “I was a board member of Ramsey Action Programs and a community member of Weed and Seed. I volunteer at my children’s schools and have been successful reaching children whom teachers have struggled to reach. I can relate to the average family and will listen and find solutions, not temporary band-aids.”

McPherson opposes a moratorium on public charter schools. “Charter schools are doing better at retaining their students, which means their students are learning and parents are happy,” she said. “The school district has areas that need fixing, and that’s what I want to focus on. Parents in the district are told to remove their children instead of fighting for them. Our children become targets when we speak up, and families are bullied and harassed until we can’t take it anymore. The schools are not meeting our children’s personal educational needs.”

To help reverse the decline in district enrollment, McPherson said, she “would open communication by creating a parent group run by parents to meet with the School Board to give families a voice to build a better district.”

Halla Henderson, 27, is endorsed by the DFL and the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation. “As a young BIPOC woman, I understand what it means to struggle within the public education system in Minnesota,” she said. “I work directly with young people in my role as policy director for the Minnesota Alliance With Youth. I’ve had the opportunity to engage with students and gain a deeper understanding of their experiences in the school district.”

Henderson supports a moratorium on public charter schools in Saint Paul while a study is conducted on the impact of charter schools. According to her, the study can be used to explore ways to build a stronger and more equitable school system. “We should also consider how to capture state funds that would have been allocated to charter schools during the moratorium and direct them to our public school system,” she said.

“We must understand what drives families to leave the school district,” Henderson said, “whether it’s the school culture, district transparency or student and family services that are lacking. That information can shape what we prioritize within the budget and how we encourage families to invest in the district. In addition to exit interviews and collecting data, I would push for the establishment of a comprehensive plan for exiting families.

“The development of the district’s new online school was a step in the right direction for boosting enrollment,” Henderson said. “It demonstrates that when there’s a clear desire in the community, we can provide alternative options that better meet the needs of families.”

James Farnsworth, 23, serves as executive director of the Highland Business Association and a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Endorsed by the Saint Paul Federation of Educators and the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, he is a graduate of the Saint Paul Public Schools and the son of two retired public school teachers.

Farnsworth said he is open to a moratorium on new charter schools and the expansion of existing charter schools. “I support the creation of a joint task force among the Saint Paul Public Schools, the city of Saint Paul, the Saint Paul Federation of Educators and other relevant stakeholders to approach this topic in a coordinated, collaborative fashion,” he said. “We also need to learn from the success that some charter schools have had.”

Declining enrollment is one of the most important is­sues facing the school district, according to Farnsworth. “The district has been underinvesting in enrichment programs at neighborhood schools for far too long,” he said. “That has driven families to leave for better offerings and services. As a board member, I would advocate for comprehensive exit interviews with families who leave the district, recommitting to an investment in arts, music and STEM programs in all neighborhoods, learning what successful charter and private schools are doing, and adjusting the district’s strategic plan in response to emerging trends and family migration patterns.”

Ryan Williams could not be reached for comment.

— Dale Mischke

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