Updated at 8:00 p.m. to include details from Wednesday afternoon’s news conference.
Ferguson-Florissant school board president Rob Chabot officially introduced the district’s new superintendent Wednesday afternoon in front of a backdrop of Ferguson-Florissant students.
“Dr. Joseph Davis clearly demonstrated to the board the ability and the passion we feel is necessary to accomplish great things for our students, families, staff and our community,” Chabot said. “The choice for me was a pretty easy one….being a father with students in the district; I had to look at it also as the best person to oversee the school district that my children will be attending.”
When former superintendent Art McCoy was placed on administrative leave in 2013, speculation arose over the possibility race played a role the decision. McCoy is African American, at the time the school board was all-white. Since then, one African American board member has been elected.
Almost 80 percent of students in the district are African American. But Chabot says race wasn't a factor in board deliberations.
“It never came up,” Chabot said. “That’s why we brought both Dr. Bryan Davis and Dr. Joseph Davis (to the district as finalists). We really were willing to make the decision of who was going to be the best person to serve our school district.”
Bryan Davis is white, Joseph Davis is African American.
Instead, Chabot said it was Joseph Davis’s ability to connect to the diverse community represented in Ferguson-Florissant that made him the best candidate.
“It really was that Dr. Davis really engaged the community. He really connected to everybody. There are 11 municipalities that make up our school district. We’re pretty big in regards to that. Different socio-economic levels, education levels. It seemed Dr. Davis—Dr. Joseph Davis-- really made a connection to everybody,” Chabot said.
Davis said he was aware of the controversy surrounding Art McCoy’s resignation during the application process.
“I’m aware of the things that happened,” Davis said. “But I can tell you that for me it’s about coming in and stepping into a position where children want a leader who cares about them, cares about their education, who wants to make sure they have a safe environment. And that’s what I’m about. Moving it forward.”
The school district is currently fully accredited by the state, but is in danger of becoming provisionally accredited if scores don’t improve this year.
Davis said he will work to keep the school district in good standing by supporting the Ferguson-Florissant principals.
“We’ve got to make sure our standards are rigorous and also make sure that great learning is happening for students in their classes every day. So I see my work as being a supporter of principals so they can make sure our teachers get the support that they need so ultimately our students get it,” Davis said.
“Principals are instructional leaders,” Davis added. “Teachers are the cornerstone. But teachers, if you read into the data, when they leave a school often it’s because of the lack of support they’ve gotten from principals. And we want to make sure principals have the support they need to be able to support teachers.”
Davis said supporting principals means helping them be clear about the standards and the curriculum.
“Curriculum can change. Standards are more national,” he explained. “But what curriculum do we build to teach the standards?”
“There’s always a push on the low students. Well, we’ve got students who are doing so well, but we don’t want to hold them back. We’ve got to keep pushing on them.” Davis added. “For me closing the gap is the kids at the top, whether they are black or white, keep pushing them. And the ones at the bottom … they need a different set of supports. Give them what they need to close the gap by coming up.”
Ferguson-Florissant began searching for a new superintendent after Art McCoy resigned from the position last March. McCoy had previously been suspended by the school board for reasons never made public.
The Ferguson-Florissant School District has hired Joseph Davis, a school superintendent from North Carolina, as its new superintendent, to begin on July 1.
Davis was one of two finalists for the job after a nationwide search for a successor to Art McCoy. He left the district after being placed on administrative leave in 2013 for reasons that the district has never fully explained.
Davis will have a three-year contract starting at $200,000 a year. He has been superintendent of schools in Washington County, N.C., since 2012. He was also a deputy chief of schools in Chicago, where he supervised principals to help raise student achievement.
“My goal for the Ferguson-Florissant School District is to do everything I can to assure that our children are successful — both in school and in life,” Davis said in a statement released by the district announcing his appointment.
“This is an outstanding district and I am proud to be a part of helping shape the future of Ferguson-Florissant students. I also look forward to working with the families of our students and the community at large to continue to improve our district so that we can do even more to benefit kids.”
The vote to hire Davis was unanimous by the Ferguson-Florissant School Board.
After McCoy’s departure, Lawrence Larrew has served as acting superintendent. The search for a permanent superintendent attracted 141 applicants, including 33 current superintendents and 19 former or interim superintendents. The other finalist was Bryan Davis, a superintendent in Wisconsin.
Robert Chabot, president of the Ferguson-Florissant board, said Joseph Davis embodied the characteristics the district was seeking in a new leader.
“First and foremost, “ he said in the district statement, “Dr. Davis cares about kids. Combine that with his experience and leadership skills, and we are confident we have chosen the right person to lead our district.
“The board is very eager to work side-by-side with him as we strive to continue our pursuit of educational excellence for the students, families and community of Ferguson-Florissant.”
Both finalists met with members of the community last month after the board had narrowed the field. At a news conference, when he was asked about the possibility of coming to a district in north St. Louis County after the notoriety that Ferguson had attained following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Joseph Davis said:
“I hadn’t heard a whole lot about Ferguson until the Michael Brown situation, and I think that’s not necessarily fair, when you think about what has happened, and what is here.
“I did my research. I still am learning. But this is a great community…. I uncovered the layers and began to look at what’s in this community. It’s deeper than what we’ve seen in the media.”
McCoy’s departure from the district highlighted the fact that though he and the majority of the students in Ferguson-Florissant are black, no African Americans were board members, though that has now changed.
At the news conference, Joseph Davis said it was important for a superintendent to connect with the community, and he would bring a background to do that well.
“Sometimes,” he said, “when we look at schools and communities, especially when they are poor communities, and largely when they’re communities of color, we have lower expectations, and we shouldn’t.
“We just have to have great people around to make it happen, and have the courage to make it happen. Don’t be afraid of some of the challenges you face. Because I was one of those little black boys in school who came from a poor community, and I had great opportunities. But you have to have courage and adults who can make it happen.”
Ferguson-Florissant remains fully accredited, but its performance on the annual state evaluation has slipped in the past two years into provisional accreditation territory. In 2014, it dropped to 65.7 percent from 69.3 percent the previous year. Anything between 50 and 70 percent is considered provisionally accredited, but state officials have said they do not plan to change districts' accreditation status until this coming year's third year of testing under the latest version of the state's evaluation plan, known as MSIP5.
New superintendent for Mehlville
The Mehlville School Board also chose a new superintendent this week, hiring an educator who won’t have to move so far.
Chris Gaines, who has been superintendent in Wright City, will take over in Mehlville July 1 at a salary of $185,000. He was one of three finalists for the job to succeed Eric Knost, who left Mehlville to become superintendent of the Rockwood School District. Norm Ridder has been interim superintendent for the current school year.
Gaines was hired after a 4-3 vote by the Mehlville School Board.
At the school board election in April, two seats are at stake. One of the board members who voted against hiring Gaines, Ron Fedorchak, is seeking another term. One of the members who voted in his favor, Katie Eardley, is not. Besides Fedorchak, three other candidates are on the ballot.
Gaines, 44, became superintendent in Wright City in 2008 after serving as superintendent of the Crawford County schools, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis, for seven years.
Mehlville was chosen as one of the districts to which transportation costs would be paid for students who transferred out of the unaccredited Riverview Gardens school district starting in 2013. The transfer process has proceeded smoothly.