The St. Paul school board has proven mighty skittish of criticism, voting in August to no longer televise the public comment section of its meetings. That’s where ordinary folks get to say whatever they want for three minutes straight and the board has to listen.
Now the teachers' union has come up with its own “People’s Board” meeting as a fuck you to the district, held on the same day the official board convened September 22. Its first meeting last week was attended by about 50 parents, teachers, and the union-endorsed challengers for the four open seats on the November 3 ballot.
Here, they can criticize the district to their hearts’ content. After all, there’s been much to complain about in recent years: problems related to staffing, safety, testing, and millions of dollars misspent on iPads and bias training that drilled into white teachers that they’re as bad as the KKK.
Union vice president Nick Faber started off by saying that, given the chance to honestly flesh out the issues teachers have with the district, and vice versa, they might agree on what needs to be done to help the students of St. Paul. Yet there's a persistent feeling that the district retaliates against those who speak out, or closes its eyes and sticks its fingers in its ears when it comes to criticism.
“We found out from parents across the city that they wanted smaller class sizes, more staffing in the rooms, more time to teach, and less time to run tests,” Faber said. “They wanted pre-K for all students. We heard that loud and clear from parents and students and teachers across the district, but we were stuck because we had a school board that would not listen to our needs.”
Part of the problem has always been the district's reluctance to admit problems exist at all. One parent who spoke at the People's meeting, Elaine Blevins-Gillespie, invoked memories of a disorderly Ramsey Middle School back in 2013. Kids were fighting and hanging out in the hallways while class carried on. Teachers were constantly transferring students in need of individual attention from room to room without addressing the reasons why they lashed out.
"I truly believe one of the reasons we witnessed the behavior was that the children didn't understand the content, they're behind," Blevins-Gillespie said. "They need tutoring. We need to meet the children at their level."
Ramsey eventually made a turnaround after nine teachers left in one year, signalling to the district to add more staff, impose new rules for tardiness, and offer fresh incentives for kids to buy into school, such as a point system that paid out field trips and dances. Many of those ideas came from parents who got together and demanded change, Blevins-Gillespie said. But at a recent meeting she had with district officials, they'd insisted that credit for Ramsey's success was mainly their own.
"That disturbed me, because the changes I saw at Ramsey didn't happen overnight," she said. "They didn't happen in 2013, 2012, or 2011. Where were those points then?"
Faber recalled one school board meeting in 2014 that began with a group of teachers gathering in the parking lot. They’d spent the two years prior raising hell about the same issues that never seemed to be addressed, that kids needed more staff and more support, and they were on the brink of announcing a strike.
It was only narrowly avoided after a marathon renegotiation of the teachers’ contract that year.
"We shouldn't have to go on strike to be heard," Faber said.
It’s not clear that the district is willing to listen even now, so the union's showing it's got muscle to flex. Other school districts around the country have shown us the worst that can happen when both sides become immovable jerks, like divorcing parents in a custody fight. Everybody loses.