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Outspoken teacher Aaron Benner jumps into St. Paul school board race

Aaron Benner, one of St. Paul Public Schools' most outspoken teachers, believes the school board needs members who will ask critical questions of the superintendent.

Aaron Benner, one of St. Paul Public Schools' most outspoken teachers, believes the school board needs members who will ask critical questions of the superintendent.

Speaking to the St. Paul school board in 2011, teacher Aaron Benner openly criticized the district's drive to reduce student suspensions without offering effective alternatives to address serious misbehavior.

He noted that students who cussed out their teachers, beat up other kids or continuously disrupted class would chat with a behavior coach for about 10 minutes at a time to cool down. Afterward, they would be returned to class while underlying issues of emotional disturbance or learning disabilities went ignored.

Instead of meeting student needs, Benner said, St. Paul chose to blame white teachers for misconduct by nonwhite students, chalking up behavior issues to teachers' cultural ignorance. That policy invoked a form of racism that lowered expectations for black students, he believed.

Benner's views struck a nerve with teachers across the district who had witnessed deteriorating respect and safety.

This spring, a coalition of educators and parents formed the Caucus for Change, which vowed to oust all board incumbents up for re-election November 3. Four challengers — Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert — received DFL endorsements in April. Incumbent Keith Hardy filed for re-election Friday after initially stating that he would not run without the DFL's backing.

On Thursday, Benner made up his mind to jump in the race as well. He's running as an independent, he says, because his 20 years experience as a classroom teacher speaks for itself. 

"I had no plans to run until two weeks ago, when I realized I want to clean up this corruption that's going on in the St. Paul School District," Benner said. "I'm not even a politician. I can't sit back and wait for people to sit back when [Superintendent Valeria Silva] proposes a policy, they approve it and they have no idea how it translates into a classroom."

Benner recently left his fourth grade post at John A. Johnson Elementary for a new job at Community of Peace Academy as an African-American liaison and behavior coach. He was also offered a dean of students position at Cretin-Derham Hall, but turned it down for the chance to work directly with students every day, he said.