Curman Gaines, first superintendent of color for St. Paul schools, dies at 82

Curman Gaines, the first superintendent of color to lead St. Paul Public Schools, died at home Sunday in Alexandria, La. He was 82.

Gaines was one of many African-American educators recruited from the South to work in the St. Paul district. First a science teacher, he was promoted to various leadership positions before joining the state education department. He became commissioner before accepting the St. Paul superintendent job in 1991.

W. Rayford Johnson, a longtime band director in the district and a fellow recruit from the South, met with Gaines regularly as president of an alliance for Black educators in the city. He said Gaines helped Black teachers keep their jobs amid unfounded accusations at a time when the teachers union wasn’t much help.

“He was the only superintendent who would ever engage in that kind of discussion, and a lot of changes occurred as a result in the education of our children,” Johnson said.

After seven years leading the district, Gaines took a private sector education job in Atlanta.

“People really were despondent when he decided to leave … because we had never had the kind of uplifted administration that we had under him, when people were heard and felt like they could be effective with students,” Johnson said.

The district in Gaines’ seven years grew fast and much more diverse. Enrollment swelled by around 10,000, and students of color accounted for 61 percent by the time he left, up from 43 percent when he started. The share of students qualifying for lunch subsidies grew to 62 percent from 49 percent.

He started a remedial reading program for first-graders, built Arlington High School (now Washington Technology Magnet) and worked with suburban districts on an integration school.

Gaines came in with lofty goals for student achievement, but graduation rates actually fell during his tenure, which he attributed to the district’s changing demographics.

At the same time, the district lost some support from politicians, who clamored for private school vouchers, and the general public, which in 1992 voted down a tax increase.

“He’s led in difficult times, where the job got tougher, the community declined to give him the resources he wanted and the demands for accountability grew,” the Pioneer Press editorial board wrote when Gaines left. “Through dark days and bright, through successes and challenges, he has led with dignity, integrity, grace, good humor and a deep sense of caring.”

Joe Nathan, who worked as an administrator when Gaines was superintendent, said Gaines treated everyone with respect.

“He was a model,” Nathan said. “Many of us learned a great deal from him because regardless of whether he agreed or disagreed with you, he treated you with great respect and he was a terrific listener.”

John Brodrick, who taught at Mechanic Arts High School when Gaines was an assistant principal there, said Gaines was firm but fair with discipline. As superintendent, Brodrick said, Gaines often visited schools to meet with students and was popular with staff.

“He had an ability to make students and staff feel good about the work and about themselves,” he said.

Johnson, who kept in touch with Gaines and his wife, said Gaines left Atlanta for Alexandria in retirement and started a business providing job skills training. He also served on various boards in Louisiana.

Gaines fell ill about a week before his death.

A memorial service is planned for Saturday but details are not yet available.

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