7 candidates vie for 4 seats on St. Paul school board

Seven candidates have lined up for four seats on the St. Paul school board, which oversees the second-largest school district in the state.

St. Paul Public Schools educates some 33,000 students across 68 schools, a number that has fallen from roughly 37,000 students over the past decade. Parents have blamed declining enrollment on school start times, competition from a growing number of charter schools and the difficulties of navigating a pandemic that beginning in 2020 forced kids into more than a year of online learning.

Questions around school safety, school consolidations and declining high school graduation rates also loom over the school district, which entered the pandemic in 2020 at the same time as a teachers strike. Then there’s growing financial pressure as inflationary costs rise while enrollment declines, triggering a recent series of budget outreach events.

Despite the district’s challenges, many families remain fiercely loyal to their school and to the district in general. St. Paul schools Superintendent Joe Gothard was named the 2024 Minnesota Superintendent of the Year by the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, making him eligible for the national title when the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education convenes next year.

The school board candidates include incumbents Chauntyll Allen and Zuki Ellis, as well as Yusef Carrillo, Carlo Franco, Abdi Omer, Erica Valliant and Gita Rijal Zeitler.

In interviews, the seven school board candidates were asked how to stem declining enrollment. They also wrote responses to candidate questionnaires asking them to comment on the school district’s ongoing efforts since 2016 to increase property taxes and debt in order to improve the look and function of its school buildings; how to improve school safety; the teachers union’s use of strikes and strike threats; and each candidate’s general priorities and qualifications, as well as any campaign endorsements they’ve garnered.

Their written responses are available online at tinyurl.com/StpSchoolBoard2023. The election, which is officially nonpartisan, will be held Nov. 7, though early voting began Sept. 22. Board members serve for four-year terms.

Chauntyll Allen

Allen, who did not disclose her age on a candidate questionnaire, joined the school board in January 2020.

Chauntyll Allen, candidate for St. Paul school board in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

A lifelong St. Paul resident, Allen described herself as a graduate of and former employee of the St. Paul Public Schools, a parent, educator, community organizer, youth advocate and former community education program coordinator, basketball coach, teaching assistant, Discovery Club teacher and educational assistant. She runs her own nonprofit, Love First Community Engagement, mentoring high school girls, most of whom have been impacted by the juvenile justice system.

She said her priorities include funding technical education and trade programs to provide students a broad set of options. Allen has opposed re-installing police officers in schools, which she has said would have a disproportionate impact on Black students. She said she would address concerns about school safety through restorative justice programs, which have been “proven to create positive student and school outcomes in other districts and I support its full implementation in SPPS from pre-K to high school.”

On declining enrollment: “This year, we opened up an East African school cultural program, and before that a Hmong language and culture school. A lot of the folks that are leaving are leaving for schools that support their cultural heritage. The public schools have failed to provide adequate cultural education. That’s one thing.”

“I do know there’s been some communication breakdowns over the years,” she added. “One of my big complaints as an employee was all these tragic things have been happening all over the world, and we’d show up for work like nothing had happened, and that impacts our students. I feel like the superintendent has been doing a really good job of improving that over the last year.”

Allen has been endorsed by the St. Paul Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the St. Paul Federation of Educators and Women Winning.

Yusef Carrillo

The St. Paul school board appointed Carrillo to a board seat in March 2021 to complete Steve Marchese’s unexpired term, which ended in December 2021. He did not return a candidate questionnaire to the Pioneer Press.

Yusef Carrillo. (Courtesy of St. Paul Public Schools)

Efforts to reach Carrillo for comment by phone and email were unsuccessful.

He has been endorsed by the St. Paul DFL, the St. Paul Federation of Educators, AFSCME Council 5, the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation and the Stonewall DFL, as well as school board members Halla Henderson and Uriah Ward, and former school board member John Brodrick.

Zuki Ellis

Ellis, 49, was first elected to the school board in 2015. Over her past two terms, she has served as chair and vice chair, helping to negotiate eight budgets and dozens of school board contracts, she said in a candidate questionnaire.

Zuki Ellis, candidate for St. Paul school board in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

“I’ve served on state committees and boards,” wrote Ellis, a graduate of Highland Park Senior High School. “I’m a parent. I’ve built trust with our educators, families, and students. I have the knowledge, skills and fight to continue this challenging but incredibly rewarding job.”

Ellis said her priorities include increasing “engaging educational opportunities for all students” and collaborating “to create more effective student input into SPPS initiatives. Increase wrap-around student services. Push for a year-round Freedom School promoting social, cultural and historical awareness for our students.”

On the subject of school safety, she noted the district has increased the numbers of School Support Liaisons, upgraded cameras and continues to partner with the St. Paul Police Department on an as-needed basis. “Ultimately, advocating for interpersonal relationships in schools and community is the key to building a culture of safety for everyone,” she wrote.

On the question of declining enrollment in the schools, Ellis said “we need to stabilize our enrollment before we can grow, so we’ve been working hard to deliver the kinds of academic, experiential learning and support services that our students and families want. Initial results this fall show that we have every reason to believe we’ve turned the corner and are heading in the right direction.”

She said an enrollment campaign that began in 2018 increased awareness in targeted neighborhoods through door knocking, and an enrollment committee restarted its work last year. Enhanced marketing efforts have included hiring a local radio host to promote the district’s School Choice Fair.

Through a partnership with Head Start, there will be 1,590 free, full-day pre-K seats in the coming school year, she said, and new and expanded learning programs such as the new East African Elementary Magnet School are designed to attract and retain families in the district. “I believe we have a school and program for every young person in SPPS,” she wrote.

Ellis ran last year in the DFL political primary for state Senate District 65, losing to state Sen. Sandy Pappas.

She has been endorsed by school board members Jeanelle Foster, Halla Henderson and Jim Vue, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, the Stonewall DFL, AFSCME Minnesota Council 5, OutFront Minnesota and Women Winning.

Carlo Franco

Carlo Franco, 28, described himself in a candidate questionnaire as a fourth-generation West Sider, a graduate of Humboldt High School and a first-generation college graduate with an undergraduate degree in child psychology. He serves as the youth engagement and training manager for the city of St. Paul, the president of the West Side Boosters and a member of the board of directors for Neighborhood House.

Carlo Franco (Courtesy of the candidate)

“My vision is for a St. Paul Public Schools district where our schools respond creatively to the needs of every community in our city; where our students feel safe, heard, and prepared for a changing world because we will have invested in our frontlines,” he wrote. “This vision will require strengthening channels of transparent communication and leadership.”

He said his priorities include investing in more school counselors, social workers, community intervention workers and restorative justice coordinators. He led programs at Humboldt High School from 2017 to 2021 dedicated to positive school climate and student achievement and would like to see that replicated district-wide.

On the subject of declining student enrollment, Franco said that “above all, we need to talk more intentionally to families that are leaving our district or not choosing our district all together. … We also must ensure we are fully engaging with our current families and students to ensure we are meeting their expectations and needs.” That includes improving school safety through “restorative practices” and offering higher quality out-of-school-time opportunities such as sports and arts, as well as culturally-specific programming, smaller class sizes, individualized supports and better preparedness for life beyond school.

Franco has been endorsed by school board members Halla Henderson and Uriah Ward, the St. Paul DFL, the St. Paul Federation of Educators, the Stonewall DFL, Outfront Minnesota Action, AFSCME Council 5, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 32, the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation and Run for Something.

Abdi S. Omer

Omer did not complete a candidate questionnaire for the Pioneer Press. In a phone interview, he said he was an electrical engineer by training and worked for St. Paul Public Works as a street designer. Omer, who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years, was born in Somalia and said he would bring a needed immigrant perspective to the school board.

“I’m involved in community activities,” Omer said. “I was a tutor and translator. I’ve raised 11 children. I have seen firsthand — we have a large population here. I can see on their behalf about the issues, and why many families are leaving public school education and enrolling in charter schools.”

He said he’s an advocate for early-childhood education, afterschool programs and other efforts to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

On the subject of public safety in schools: “I talked to some white parents who said they support police officers in schools, but when you talk to minorities, especially Blacks, they’re quite concerned about officers in schools. Some are more interested in efforts around mental health. I think you can find a solution in between, and find some common ground where everybody feels comfortable.”

On the subject of declining student enrollment: “It’s a good idea to reach out to the community, see what their concerns are and bring them to the board. They’ll have more confidence when they see someone of their background. We need to increase the number of people of color in teaching and as mentors.”

Erica Valliant

Erica Valliant, 44, is the equity director of People Serving People, a family shelter. She has a background in financial services and has held various securities and insurance licenses. She has four children currently attending the St. Paul Public Schools; a fifth graduated in 2020.

Undated courtesy photo, circa September 2023, of Erica Valliant, candidate for St. Paul School Board in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

“I am a relationship builder and community leader who can connect the dots between policy, practice and reality,” wrote Valliant, in a candidate questionnaire.

Valliant said her priorities include “working to make sure our students are graduating with strong financial literacy skills while exploring wealth justice. Investing in ensuring access to quality early learning education and pre-k for all children. Promoting critical thinking skills and practice and learning how that looks in the age of A.I. Addressing school culture and safety.”

On the subject of school safety, Valliant said she would “advocate for full funding of restorative justice practices programming and needed supports. Ensure adequate staffing levels so that the professionals serving our kids can do so safely and can focus on instruction and connecting with young people. Work to foster a culture of school pride, respect and belonging with staff, students, and families.”

On declining school enrollment, Valliant could not be reached for comment.

Valliant has been endorsed by the St. Paul Federation of Educators, St. Paul DFL, AFSCME Council 5, the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, Women Winning and OutFront Minnesota.

Gita Rijal Zeitler

Gita Rijal Zeitler, 52, obtained her master’s degree in nursing and public health from the University of Minnesota. In a candidate questionnaire, she described herself as an “Asian immigrant mom with a biracial family” who has “worked closely with parents and teachers while my children were attending a charter school and now as they attend a St. Paul public school.”

Zeitler said her priorities include “improving test scores in math and reading by offering a robust tutoring center, advanced and catch-up classes. Improving school safety. Addressing mental health issues at the site. Tapping community resources — parent volunteers, retiree volunteers, more opportunities for teenagers to engage for hands-on experiences like teen tech centers.”

Gita Rijal Zeitler, candidate for St. Paul school board in the November 2023 election. (Courtesy of the candidate)

“It makes me nervous when I hear candidates who are running for school board want to dismantle the testing system and offer no plans of what they want to replace it with,” she wrote.

On the subject of school safety: “Have well-trained security guards ensure who goes in/out to the building, communicate with parents about school safety and what they can do — kids not coming to school with a sharp object/knife/firearm. Address mental health issues. Have a school hotline to report suspicious behavior/acts and mandatory follow-up of each hot line call.”

To combat declining enrollment, she said St. Paul Public Schools should reward the best teachers with increased pay. “Students who are lagging behind academically must be identified early and have an intervention plan. … Parents and local resources must be used more to make school more friendly and also to tap free resources for our children.”

Her husband, Jeff Zeitler, is running for St. Paul City Council.

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