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by Tom Steward in the Watchdog.org on Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Aaron Benner may be gone, but as St. Paul Public Schools’ most vocal critic, he’s anything but forgotten. The 46-year-old teacher who resigned his classroom job in early August is running for school board, which could result in his adversaries — from the superintendent down — working under him, come November.

“I’m not a disgruntled employee. I think I have a unique opportunity to tell people this is what I’m seeing, this is wrong,” said Benner, one of nine candidates campaigning for four school board seats. “I’ve been a classroom teacher for the last 20 years, and you guys have been lied to. You guys being the St. Paul public.”

Benner now serves as an African-American liaison and behavior coach at Community of Peace Academy, an acclaimed St. Paul charter school. He may be a long shot, but district officials take his candidacy seriously.

“As a rule, the District doesn’t comment on school board elections, but Superintendent Silva has said and maintains that she can work with anyone who might get elected,” said SPPS spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey.

As a black educator, Benner gained national attention for disagreeing with the district’s plan to decrease suspensions of black students without strict disciplinary procedures as a backup. It sparked a districtwide debate over racial equity, as well as academic and behavioral expectations.

At the same time, district officials started looking into Benner’s job performance — retaliation in his view.

“I don’t mind if you disagree with Aaron Benner, I have no problem with that. But you cannot try and fire me because I’m trying to bring a conversation, bring a dialogue about what’s going on in our schools and you don’t like it and I’m bringing attention to it? How dare you?” Benner said. He recently filed a discrimination complaint against SPPS with the St. Paul Human Rights Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

True to form, the St. Paul native plans to run an unconventional campaign. So far, he’s turned down offers for donations, appearances and other support. In fact, the announcement even took some of Benner’s closest colleagues by surprise.

“That was not part of the plan. I didn’t know Aaron was going to do that actually. But I’m excited because I think Aaron brings direct experience in the classroom if elected,” said Ian Keith, a teacher who joined Benner in challenging district disciplinary procedures. “He is a passionate, articulate outspoken person who would bring a strong perspective on maintaining high standards of conduct in closing achievement gaps.”

The only incumbent running for re-election previously met with Benner and other teachers to discuss their concerns, but supports the school district’s overall direction.

“The district is in a good place right now. We have areas we need to tighten up, we have some areas we need to address, but we’re in a good place right now, especially when you compare our work with what’s happening in traditional public school districts nationwide,” said Keith Hardy, SPPS Board of Education vice chair.

Benner got into the race too late to be considered for endorsement by the teachers union in what’s supposed to be a nonpartisan race.

“We’ve already endorsed the four DFL-endorsed (Democratic) candidates and we’re excited about them and working with them. So I don’t know that we’re going back to the drawing table and starting over,” said Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

The endorsed candidates are running under the banner of Caucus for Change. School choice advocates argue special interests make it more difficult for outside candidates like Benner to prevail and challenge the status quo.

“It’s always a challenge to run without those endorsements, but we need people to run on their own platform,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, an education reform advocacy group. “…The school board is supposed to be a nonpartisan election. I think it’s important that we have candidates who are not union-endorsed or are not DFL-endorsed that are running for election.”

Running for school board wasn’t part of his lesson plan, but Benner holds out hope for an upset.

“Right now, I have a ton of support. And people have been spreading the word about me running, which is good. Are they going to vote? I hope so.”


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