Addressing St. Paul’s diverse student population needs seen as key to educational success.
St. Paul School District voters will choose November 6 from a list of eight candidates to fill four seats on the seven-member school board.
Three incumbents are hoping to return for another four-year term to oversee the district’s $630 million budget. They are: Anne Carroll, Kazoua Kong-Thao and Tom Conlon. Also running are Jennette Gudgel, Keith Hardy, Dave Peterson, Kevin Riach and Bernard Ruppert.
School Board candidates may run with party endorsement—Carroll, Kong-Thao, Hardy and Riach are DFL-endorsed, while Conlon, Gudgel and Peterson are Republican endorsees. Ruppert does not list a party affiliation on his filing form.
Anne Carroll was first elected to the school board in 2000. Born and raised in St. Paul, she is a self-employed business consultant in strategic planning, public involvement and communications. She said the major challenges facing a newly-elected school board are:
• maintaining high standards and closing the achievement gap;
• improving the performance and involvement of the district’s key players, including the community, staff and students and their families; and
• building bridges of support between the community and the district.
“St. Paul schools have made tremendous progress for a number of years, but the work’s not done,” she said. “I believe we are going in the right direction and we’re making progress on closing the achievement gap. But we still have big holes with certain groups of kids.” For more information, view Carroll’s video interview.
Tom Conlon, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, has served on the St. Paul School Board for 15 years. He is a photographer and teaches at St. Paul’s Metropolitan State University. In seeking re-election, Conlon says in a video interview that student achievement is a defining issue for the school district, and that community or neighborhood-based schools would help all learners.
“We’ve lost a lot of our community connections,” he said and would like to see a return to the neighborhood school concept, where resources could be directed into the classroom.
If re-elected, he would promote establishing site counsels at schools made up of parents and community members, along with teaching staff. He sees this leading to more accountability and greater community exchange of ideas.
Challenger Jennette Gudel says that life presents learning opportunities in many forms. For her it has come while receiving her master’s degree in business administration at a time when it wasn’t a common degree for women; and as a teacher for 18 years and chair of the business administration department at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. She is now self-employed with her training and communications company.
She is excited about the St. Paul School District’s Strategic Plan for Continued Excellence and would like to be part of its implementation, she said in a video interview. But teaching and educating the district’s diverse population remains a challenge. “When you look at 41,000 students and 40 percent of those students are English Language Learners—that is a huge responsibility,” she said. “SPPS has done an amazing job adjusting to the huge influx of non-English speaking children. Now it’s time to tackle the drop-out situation.”
Additionally, looking to the future and the high cost of fuel, she said a “serious, creative look needs to be taken regarding busing.”
Keith Hardy is an advocate for early childhood education, and said that reaching children during their formative years will go a long way to closing the much talked about achievement gap. “One of my main goals would be to help families understand the importance of early childhood education,” he said. Although he agrees with the principles of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of improving education for all children, he said it has placed too many constraints on teachers, and does not always allow them to teach beyond just the required student tests.
Hardy, who for five years served on the St. Paul School Board Citizens Budget and Finance Advisory Committee, said that even though the district has new money from the Legislature, the backdrop of years of cuts raises the concern that after two years the budget-cutting ax could fall again on the district. The “under achievement of some of the communities of color” is a concern for him as well. “My focus is also on getting a village view point about public schools.” He said in a video interview that community involvement in the schools is essential to their success.
Kazoua Kong-Thao came to this country in 1974. She was the first in her family to attend college, and said she understands the faces who are the St. Paul School District demographic. Serving her first four-year term on the school board, Kong-Thao, this year’s board vice chairwoman, said she brings leadership and vision to the position. “I think it is key to have a vision—to see where we are going, to know the families that we are serving, to know their needs.” The greatest challenge facing the district is reaching out and educating the growing immigrant community. She said that includes developing ways to educate the parents. “We have a very high mobility in this district, with families moving quite often. How do you keep that continuum of education is a challenge.”
She sees other challenges facing the board: closing the achievement gap; providing fair and equitable opportunities for district families; and building a coalition of support for public education. “We all need to do our part to be actively engaged in our community – and that means going out to vote, be involved in neighborhoods. I believe it is going to take all of us to raise our future, and I’m willing to do my part.”
Kong-Thao, according to a video interview, is currently pursuing a master of public affairs degree at the University of Minnesota.
David Peterson is making his first bid for a seat on the school board. According to his Election Candidate information form filed with Ramsey County Election, he is endorsed by the St. Paul Republican party and serves as a consultant with the printing industry. He did not respond to our questionnaire.
Kevin Riach is a former public school teacher who is currently in law school. He said in a video interview if the achievement gap in some student categories is not addressed, it will have an economic impact on the St. Paul. “Without well-educated, well-rounded, technologically proficient high school graduates … we are not going to be able to maintain our quality of life.”
An early childhood education advocate, Riach sees the need for more student and parental involvement in Early Childhood and Family Education programs. “These programs do great work but are under-enrolled.” He also believes there needs to be “adequate state and federal investment in our schools. Class sizes of 35 plus are simply unacceptable,” he said. This investment should also include technology enhancements in the classroom. He said the district faces the challenge of ensuring that when students graduate, they have the technological know-how to compete in today’s marketplace. To that end, he said that teachers need to be adequately trained and supported to create classroom curriculum that is well-integrated with technology.
Bernard Ruppert is semi-retired. According to his filing form, he is running for a seat on the school board out of concern for the quality of education received by students who “will be the future leaders of our society.”
The former security guard for the state of Minnesota said he is not seeking any political endorsements.
Leona Wahi is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.