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Jeannie Foster, the current chair of the St. Paul school board, helped create a racial equity committee to bring more community voices to the board. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

St. Paul voters will choose four school board members out of eight candidates. Six of them—James Farnsworth, Halla Henderson, Jennifer McPherson, Jim Vue, Uriah Ward, and Ryan Williams—are running for four-year terms; three will win. Two candidates, Jeannie Foster and Clayton Howatt, are competing in a special election for a two-year term. One will win. You can find the rest of our school board candidate interviews here.

Jeannie Foster, 48, is chair of the St. Paul School Board and a social worker for Ramsey County in the child protection division.

Describe yourself in 10 words or fewer.

Describe yourself in 10 words or fewer.

“Committed, competent servant leader. Strong belief in education. Love children.”

In one sentence, why should people in St. Paul vote for you?

“I have the experience to do the work, and I will keep it child-focused and centered in decision-making.”

How would you help, or how have you helped, St. Paul Public Schools reverse enrollment declines and attract and retain students? Please give your answer in bullet points/action steps.

  • “With Envision SPPS”—the district plan to close some schools and consolidate programs and resources that would close and merge some schools—“we have done a thorough analysis of our buildings, our capacities and utilizations, and what services are offered.” That’s informed by parents fighting for different resources in particular buildings, she said.
  • “We’re trying to right-size things that have existed in this district for many, many years, even generations. Those are hard decisions for us to make, and I’m a part of that leadership.”
  • “It’s really all tied to looking at our budget, and being aware and doing that work with this team and with our community.”

“We’re looking to offer things that are sustainable. We want our kids to come and get a great education, stay, and then invite their family and friends because they’re having such a great experience.”

  • “We’re looking to be able to offer things that are sustainable. We want our kids to come and get a great education, stay, and then invite their family and friends because they’re having such a great experience.”

“I know right now, there’s a lot of emotions around what’s happening within this district. But for us to have an enrollment increase, that means we have to serve the students we currently have well, to demonstrate that we are providing what we said. We give our kids access and opportunities and options in any St. Paul school, and then again, let us build it and provide it and then they will come.”

Name 2-3 things the district has done well in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, and 2-3 areas in need of improvement.

The district pivoted quickly out of a strike into developing distance learning, Foster said. “While I don’t think anybody did it well, I think St. Paul led the way because we were prepared with technology. We were able to get technology and Wi-Fi into the hands of each and every student in this district very swiftly.” 

She also cited the success of the nutrition services program. “We fed an entire community. That’s no small feat.” Foster also praised the district’s new online school.

However, the district continues to struggle with teacher and bus driver shortages, she said. And communication with the district’s diverse, multilingual families poses an ongoing challenge. “If you don’t tell your story real quick, somebody else is going to tell it,” Foster said. Delays in district communication lead to misinformation and fear, she added. 

Communication is particularly challenging in refugee communities that don’t use much technology, Foster said. “We need to work on how to get access in real time with those families who don’t connect in that way.” 

What’s a signature policy or achievement that you’ve played a role in during your tenure on the school board?

The role of the school board, Foster said, is to focus on the budget, hiring of leadership, and policy. Foster was part of the “robust engagement” that resulted in hiring Superintendent Joe Gothard. 

Ethnic studies is one of the policies she helped shepherd through the board, after a student-led campaign. She also helped create an equity committee for the district, and was one of its first members. Due to that committee, the district included the goal of systemic equity in its strategic plan for the first time, Foster said.

Foster has also helped shift the district’s budgeting process to become “priority-based,” she said. That’s resulted in a process that’s more open, transparent, and accessible to the community. “These are public dollars and our public should be aware,” she said.

She’s also proud of the time she spends in schools speaking with staff and engaging with students.

Give an example of a racial equity problem at St. Paul Public Schools, and tell us what you would do or have done to address it.

Foster cited creating the racial equity committee. That work involved bringing together staff, students, families, and community members from different racial and ethnic groups, genders, and language backgrounds. That diverse group then worked to identify inequities in the district and bring recommendations to the board for action, she said. For example, they noticed that equity was not in the district’s strategic plan—which meant it wouldn’t get funded. As a result of that committee’s work, the plan now includes equity.

The district also has been working hard to recruit and retain leaders of color, she said. A leadership institute provides support for staff who want to move into higher positions. The district is trying to “scaffold that down” into the classroom, so classroom aides who want to become teachers can do so. “Many of our folks of color get scooped up by other districts,” she said. “They feel like there’s this white wall even when they get to these positions. And they’re not supported.” 

The leadership institute creates a mentoring model that will help staff get better support, she said. Back in schools this year, she’s hearing that this plan is working. “Those are some of the things on the back end that people don’t see happening.”

Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?

“Miss Marsilli was both a science and fifth-grade teacher. My mom’s boyfriend was very abusive. She drank and was a functioning alcoholic. And so there’s a lot of stuff happening in the home with us with abuse. And so Miss Marsilli, I would have to say, is probably the one who was able to understand that something wasn’t right and she worked to connect with my mom. And she always made me feel like I could do it. I still to this day remember the support and not feeling invisible with her.

It actually makes me sad even thinking about it because I think about what a lot of our kids are going through now. Kids are showing up to school with a lot of baggage on them. The people who are in front of them, those teachers, those relationships are significant and matter. Our teachers have to deal with a lot these days. It hasn’t gotten any easier. 

“And Barbara Washington, who was the only Black teacher I ever saw. I think that’s why I remember her, she was someone who looked like me. She always spoke to me, gave me different little leadership jobs to do in the building.” 

In two sentences, what’s another issue facing SPPS we haven’t talked about and what’s your plan to tackle it?

“Transportation: There’s a driver shortage, not just in our district, but nationally—that includes the Metro Transit folks as well. So, we need to continue to identify things that might prevent some of those barriers and keep working with partners.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.