Updated 3:30 p.m., Fri., Jan. 24 with news from press conference called by Grade A 4 Change.
Two of three incumbents on the Ferguson-Florissant school board who voted to put Superintendent Art McCoy on paid leave are running for re-election in April, but they will be facing challengers hand-picked because of their support for McCoy.
Filing for the three seats up for election ended earlier this week. Incumbents Paul Morris, president of the board, and Rob Chabot, board secretary, filed for another term. The third incumbent whose term is ending, vice president Chris Martinez, is not seeking re-election.
Five other candidates also are on the ballot. Three of them — F. Willis Johnson Jr., Donna Paulette-Thurman and James Savala — were recruited to run by a group known as the Citizens’ Task Force on Excellence in Education.
A spokesman for the group, Alfred Long Sr., said Thursday that the issue at stake is not so much a referendum on the fate of McCoy in Ferguson-Florissant as it is how the situation involving his job has been handled.
“It’s a referendum on mismanagement of Dr. McCoy,” Long said in an interview, “and also how that affects the students.”
Also on the April 8 ballot are LaWanda Wallace, Kimberly Benz and Larry Thomas.
Morris, the board president, said the thought of not running for another term hadn't crossed his mind, though he acknowledged that the past several weeks have not always been easy.
"Is it more complicated now?" he said in an interview? "Yes. It's certainly more complicated, but it's never easy."
Asked what issues will be featured in the election, he said:
"The election should be about kids. It should be about educating them and keeping the district financially stable. It really shouldn't be about Dr. McCoy, but I'm not sure how much of that will come out in the election."
He said the board has walked a fine line between keeping the public informed and respecting the confidentiality that has to be part of the personnel process.
"Maybe people's opinions will change once they know more," Morris said.
On Friday afternoon, the three candidates on a slate they call Grade A 4 Change gathered with supporters at Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson, where Johnson is pastor. He told the group that the Ferguson-Florissant district had become organizationally unstable and he and his fellow candidates could help bring back better leadership.
Quoting Nelson Mandela that education can be a powerful weapon for change, he said that the district needs to retain local autonomy and keep its academic progress going.
Paulette-Thurman, a former principal in the district, noted that her experience gives her the background to help the district. She said that during the furor over McCoy's removal, people kept coming up to her saying that somebody ought to do something about what was going on.
"Then," she said, "I said I am somebody and you are somebody," and they could be the somebodies who could get things done.
On the topic of black vs. white, she urged people to use the word race not as a noun but as a verb, to make sure they moved to the polls and voted in April.
Savala, a parent in the district, said he had heard what he called the cries of children in the district about what was happening, and "those cries have not been answered."
The candidates said they wanted to make sure to maintain student achievement, stabilize the administration, restore trust and transparency and make sure they are accountable to residents of Ferguson-Florissant.
The school board voted 6-1 on Dec. 11 to place McCoy on administrative leave. At that time, it issued a statement saying that the action was taken due to “differences in focus and philosophy.” Morris said in the statement that the move was not an indication of wrongdoing on McCoy’s part.
Earlier this month, the board issued a list of formal charges against McCoy that could lead to his being fired for cause according to the terms of his contract. The charges were not made public. They will be the subject of a closed hearing scheduled for Feb. 24, which will be McCoy's first opportunity to respond formally to the board’s action.
Asked whether the process should be put off until after the board election, Morris said he didn't think that would be a good idea.
"I certainly feel that this board started it, and I think we should be the ones who finish it," he said. "We shouldn't put that on someone else."
Under his contract, which was renewed earlier this year to run through 2016, McCoy is paid $217,644 a year.
If the three seats at stake in April are captured by candidates favorable to McCoy, the new members plus the one incumbent who voted against putting him on leave, Paul Schroeder, would make up a majority of the board.
Morris and other board members have refused to discuss reasons for placing McCoy on leave. But they have said the action is not related to his active support for student transfers or his stance on school choice.
They have also said the move was not racially motivated. McCoy is African American, as is 78 percent of the Ferguson-Florissant student body. No current members of the school board are black.
Long, the spokesman for the citizens’ task force, emphasized that though all three candidates the group chose to run for the board are black, it does not look at the issue as one of race.
“We’re running on transparency and things like that,” he said. “It’s not Dr. McCoy as a personality. It’s how Dr. McCoy addressed those issues that we stand for. It could have been anyone else.
“A lot of people try to make it a race issue. It’s not a race issue. Had it been switched around, with an all-black board and a white superintendent, it could have been the same.”
Martinez, the one incumbent who decided not to run for another term on the board, said in an email statement:
"First I want to thank the many of citizens who have called, written, emailed and stopped me in public to say thank you for serving and for making tough decisions. The outpouring of support has been inspiring and at times overwhelming. I am honored to serve our kids and their families.
“I decided not to run for re-election about a year ago. Then, the events of the last few months, especially the encouragement of so many voters made me very strongly consider changing my decision. At long last I decided to channel my passion and energy into serving the community in other ways alongside being a father, husband and son.
“I have always been and always will remain involved in education and the community and I look forward new challenges."