St. Paul voters stood by two school board incumbents while moving the full board in a younger direction Tuesday.
In a race touched by the late angst of a school-closing proposal, board Chair Jeanelle Foster held off a strong challenge from Clayton Howatt, a former PTO president who came to represent opposition to an Envision SPPS plan that would close and shutter five schools and merge others.
The two competed to fill the remaining two years of a seat vacated by Steve Marchese.
Vice Chair Jim Vue topped a field of candidates seeking one of three four-year board seats, with two challengers backed by the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) — Halla Henderson, 27, and Uriah Ward, 30 — in the two slots behind him.
"Serving our young people as a school board member will be the honor of my lifetime," Henderson posted on Facebook late Tuesday night.
Just outside the mix for a four-year seat was James Farnsworth, 23. He had hoped for a late lift from wards that looked favorably at his candidacy as he pushed hard in recent weeks against the Envision SPPS plan.
Jon Schumacher, a former board chair, said he backed Foster and Vue, but began to see the proposed school closings become an issue while making calls on behalf of their campaigns. He also backed newcomers Ward and Henderson, citing Ward's help passing a district funding proposal and Henderson's background as a first-generation Eritrean and Arab student.
"They represent a younger generation, which is critical for all of our leaders," he said of Ward and Henderson.
Candidate replies to a recent Star Tribune voting guide revealed a broad understanding of priorities laid out in the district's planned use of $207 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding. They also were united behind a need to boost services to the city's English-language learners.
But the district's declining enrollment and budget woes remain a major issue. Candidates and voters turned their attention in recent weeks to the board's coming decision whether to accept an Envision SPPS proposal that would close Galtier Community School, replace it with an early-learning hub and send the kids to nearby Hamline Elementary.
Howatt, who helped save Galtier from closure in 2016, opposed the plan and would have been seated in time to cast a "no" vote. Four other candidates — Farnsworth, Henderson, Ward and Jennifer McPherson — also made clear they were opposed, but they would not take office until January.
The district has argued that its elementary schools should be larger to offer students a well-rounded education that includes a core curriculum plus subjects like science, art, music and social studies taught by specialist teachers.
Foster, who supports the move to "well-rounded schools," has been sidelined by COVID-19. Vue, the board's vice chair, led meetings in her absence and has not tipped how he will vote.
Schumacher said the school-closing issue was a lesson to board hopefuls: "It's not an easy job."
As a blend of old and new prepares to take office, he said patience is needed.
"We're not done with COVID or distance learning yet and you have to figure out a way to create a new system that educates all of our kids successfully," he said. "And that's difficult."
Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.