Kurman Gaines, the first of colored people to head St. Paul’s public schools, died at home on Sunday in Alexandria, Louisiana. He was 82 years old.
Gaines was one of many African American educators recruited from the South to work in the St. Paul area. He was first a science teacher and then held various leadership positions before joining the State Department of Education. He became Commissioner before accepting the position of Superintendent of St. Paul in 1991.
W. Raiford Johnson, a longtime local orchestra leader and fellow from the South, met regularly with Gaines as president of the city’s Black Teachers’ Alliance. He said Gaines helped black teachers keep their jobs amid unfounded accusations at a time when the teachers’ union helped little.
“He was the only superintendent who ever participated in this kind of discussion, and as a result, there have been many changes in the education of our children,” Johnson said.
After seven years in charge of County, Gaines took a job in the private education sector in Atlanta.
“People were really depressed when he decided to leave … because we never had the kind of exalted leadership that we had when people were heard and felt they could be effective with the students,” Johnson said.
During the seven years of Gaines’ life, the area grew rapidly and became much more diverse. Enrollment increased by about 10,000, and by the time he left, students of color accounted for 61 percent, up from 43 percent when he started. The proportion of students eligible for a lunch subsidy rose from 49 percent to 62 percent.
He began a corrective reading program for first graders, built a high school in Arlington (now Washington Technology Magnet), and worked with suburban areas on an integration school.
Gaines came up with lofty goals for student achievement, but alumni actually dropped during his tenure, which he attributed to the district’s changing demographics.
At the same time, the district lost some support from politicians who demanded vouchers for private schools, and the general public, which in 1992 voted against raising taxes.
“He led through difficult times, when the job got harder, the community refused to provide him with the resources he wanted, and the demands for accountability grew,” the Pioneer Press wrote when Gaines left. “On dark and bright days, through success and trials, he led with dignity, honesty, grace, good humor and a deep sense of care.”
Joe Nathan, who served as an administrator when Gaines was Superintendent, said that Gaines treated everyone with respect.
“He was a model,” Nathan said. “Many of us learned a lot from him because whether he agreed or disagreed with you, he treated you with great respect and was an amazing listener.”
John Broadrick, who taught mechanical arts high school when Gaines was assistant principal there, said that Gaines was firm but fair about discipline. Gaines often visited schools to meet with students and was a hit with staff, Broadrick said.
“He had the ability to make students and staff feel good, both about 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 skills training business. He also served on various Louisiana councils.
Gaines fell ill about a week before his death.
A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, but there are no details yet.