St. Paul school board member Jean O’Connell worked at 3M for 34 years. As an engineer, she learned quickly that it wasn’t enough for an idea merely to work on paper; it also had to work on the factory floor.
It’s an approach O’Connell hopes to expand upon in a second term on the St. Paul Board of Education.
“All of my years as a manager at 3M, I felt the reason I was successful was because I listened to the people who really did the work,” she said. “I spent a lot of time at 3M in manufacturing and quality, listening to people on the floor, trying to make their ideas a reality.
“I’d like to figure out ways in my second term to make that happen in the district.”
That collaborative approach is, no doubt, among the reasons O’Connell, who has served as the board’s chair for the last two years, is one of three labor-endorsed candidates for school board in St. Paul this year.
“Our work on the school board is to approve budgets and approve direction, but if it is clear that the employee base doesn’t understand the ‘why’ of that direction, then you’re setting the whole system up for failure,” she said. “It’s important to figure out where people who do the work are at, and try to explain to them, from my perspective, why something is a good idea – and to listen to them.”
In general, O’Connell said, the school district is on solid footing. Voters in the district last fall approved a levy referendum that extended funding levels for eight years, ensuring the students will have access to technology necessary for a 21st century education.
The school’s strategic plan, she said, is sound, but it won’t work if front-line staff and management are not on the same page.
So how do you get everyone in a district with 6,000 employees to buy into a common direction?
“I think its about trying to influence people,” O’Connell said, “trying to influence the administration to really think about how they’re approaching something and whether they are engaging this group or that group.”
Communication can’t only happen between labor and management when something is wrong, she added.
“What can we do to help recognize our employees better?” she said. “We definitely need to create more opportunities for recognition.”