Elected city school board charts a way it can regain authority | St. Louis Public Radio

Elected city school board charts a way it can regain authority

Aug 25, 2010

The elected board of the St. Louis Public Schools wants to resume control of the district no later than July 1 of next year, ending what would be four years of state control of the city schools. It also is looking for new sources of funding and a cap on new charter schools until the district's enrollment stabilizes.

In an introduction to its transition plan , prepared over the past several months in public meetings, with comment solicited from parents, citizens and teachers in the city, board President Rebecca Rogers frames the question of who should be running the system this way:

"Will the citizens of St. Louis control public schools through democratically elected representatives, or will our schools continue to be controlled by political appointees?"

Though the district has been run since 2007 by a three-member Special Administrative Board (SAB), balloting for the elected school board has continued to be held, and the seven-member board has met regularly to monitor operations of the district, as designated by state law. (Read an earlier Beacon story about the elected board here.) 

The SAB -- CEO Rick Sullivan and members Richard Gaines and Melanie Adams -- was appointed by the governor, the mayor and the president of the Board of Aldermen, under a law passed by the Missouri Legislature. The state Board of Education created the transitional school district, which was authorized through June 30, 2011.

Last December, Chris Nicastro, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, reconvened a Special Advisory Committee led by Dr. William H. Danforth and attorney Frankie Freeman to look into what shape future governance of the district may take. The committee wrote the recommendations that led to the state takeover in the first place.

Since the SAB took control, the district has hired a new superintendent, Kelvin Adams, and taken steps to close schools, cut staff and make other changes to bring the district's budget under control. Earlier this month, it won passage of a $155 million bond issue for physical improvements to the district's buildings.

Academic progress has been harder to come by, though, and the city schools still fall short of what would be needed for them to regain accreditation from the state.

That record prompted the elected board to recommend that "a period of 30 days beginning 30 days prior to July 1, 2011 or whatever date the State Board of Education suggests to DESE (whichever is sooner), will be the period in which all district operations are reviewed, updated and prepared by the Missouri School Boards Association in collaboration with the elected school board for the return of elected governance to the St. Louis Board of Education."

To give the elected board a stronger financial base to work from, the report proposes that the state and the plaintiffs in the long-running desegregation case forgive the district's debt to the desegregation fund and give the district the balance remaining in the fund, about $80  million.

It also proposes to undo some of the rollback of the approved city school tax levy rate, required under the Hancock amendment, to provide additional funding. Further, it wants the state to share the costs of services such as housing and health care that are provided at the district's full-service community schools.

Further proposals include full funding by the state for early childhood education, summer school and transportation; a tax for special education services; added collaboration with the public library system for personnel and resources at school libraries; and development services for the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation to research and solicit grants.

Once the elected board regains control, the transition report recommends that in Missouri districts with more than 15,000 students, school board races be funded by the state, with a cap on how much additional money candidates may raise, to limit what it called "the flood of corporate money into school board elections" -- money that the report says "corrupted the election process" in the years before the SAB took over.

Academically, the report calls on the state to consider a growth model to measure student progress rather than the current proficiency model, which it says "unfairly penalizes students, teachers and schools by not accounting for growth."

Finally, the elected board plan seeks a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools in the city until the district's enrollment stabilizes and annual assessments of charter schools similar to those done for public school districts.

In her statement accompanying the transition report, Rogers, who is an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that allowing the elected board to resume control of the district would help achieve that goal.

"There is evidence that the school district has fared better academically and financially under the governance of a democratically elected school board," she said.

"However, we also recognize that no governance model is the magic solution and that appropriate state and local supports are necessary for the St. Louis Public Schools to regain and maintain accreditation, financial stability and stability in leadership."

Further, the report says, "the state takeover has not and cannot address the systemic problems that impede quality education for the children of St. Louis."

Rogers stressed the fact that the elected board's report was "drafted, debated and finalized" during a series of open meetings; she compared the process' openness to the way she said the Danforth committee has operated. Its meetings have been open, but much of the work has been done by staff. It is expected to make recommendations to Nicastro this fall.

Danforth said Wednesday he would have no comment on the elected board's report prior to his committee's issuing its own. Efforts to get reaction from DESE were unsuccessful. In a statement released late Thursday, Sullivan of the SAB said:

"It is my understanding that the Special Advisory Committee has sought input from many community stakeholders.  I do not feel it is appropriate for me to make any additional comment until the committee has completed its work and the education commissioner has reviewed the report and made any appropriate recommendations."

In an interview Thursday, Rogers said that Nicastro had received the recommendations of the elected board. "She was very supportive and appreciated the work we had done," she said. "More important, she agreed with many of the points we had made." She said board members plan to meet with Nicastro after the Danforth committee makes its recommendations.

Rogers said an elected board would be more sensitive to curriculm changes that would bring positive results.

"I think what we're seeing now is business-model quick fixes," she said. "There are some improvements, but you have to consider reform in a bigger picture -- paying attention to school culture and professional development opportunities. These reforms are top down, so that probably means they won't be sustainable over the long term. Reform has to come from the bottom up, with faculty and students internalizing the changes."

In its report, the elected board emphasizes that its members have had continued involvement with the city schools, even as the SAB has had control. It stresses the importance of board elections in the community and says that in the long run, "a state run school system ... diminishes the capacity of a community to govern itself by removing leadership and decision-making from the community."

Urging against continued authorization of the SAB, the report says:

"It is unreasonable to expect appointed people to continue to govern a district in perpetuity. Appointing new people will lead to further instability. What is needed is a stable governance structure, one that is accountable to the people and gives administrators and educational leaders in the district the professional room to innovate with their teaching."

Reviewing the state's experience with controlling school districts, the report noted the Wellston schools, which lost their accreditation in 2003 and were taken over by the state in 2005, went out of existence on July 1 of this year and were absorbed by neighboring Normandy. On the same date, the state took over the Riverview Gardens schools, where a separate SAB was put in charge.

David Lineberry, associate executive director for education and training of the Missouri School Boards Association, said that his group has the experience and the interest in performing the kind of review that the elected board seeks, and a joint work session between the two groups is scheduled for later this week.

He noted that the association did a similar programmatic review to help the SAB before it took over.

"That kind of review absolutely demands the cooperation of the superintendent and the staff," Lineberry said, "so it would ultimately be a more broad collaboration between just the association and the elected board."

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.