This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Nearly three weeks after he was placed on paid administrative leave by the Ferguson-Florissant school board, Superintendent Art McCoy says he still has no definite idea why he was suspended and when he might be able to return to work.
Hours before he was scheduled to appear at a news conference in north St. Louis County, McCoy told the Beacon in an exclusive interview that he has appreciated the outpouring of public support since the board’s vote and was only going out of frustration from not being able to find out more information.
“I’ve been waiting to speak with the board about these matters,” he said in the telephone interview, “and after three weeks and even having my attorney say, ‘Let’s talk,’ it became apparent to me that is not their intention.
“The most important thing is that we minimize the disruption and keep the kids as the focus and do whatever it takes to make sure the kids are our main priority. Learning has been destroyed and disrupted significantly….
“I view this as being an integrity issue for the entire Ferguson-Florissant school system and also other systems in the region. I could not sit back and allow for this great school district as well as the region to go further in the wrong direction and compromise its integrity. I know that we’re better than this."
McCoy said the 6-1 vote by the board on Nov. 6 was a complete surprise. A statement from the board said the move came because of differences in focus and philosophy, not because of any wrongdoing by the superintendent, but board members have declined to be more specific, citing confidentiality constraints.
Paul Morris, president of the board, has said that McCoy’s stance on school transfers did not play a role, and he denied that there is a racial angle.
McCoy is African-American, as are 78 percent of the district’s students; no members of the board are black.
Late Tuesday, Morris released this statement:
"As a school board, we want the community to know that we, too, are frustrated we can't say more on this matter. However, because this is a personnel matter, we are limited in what we can reveal. I want to emphasize that our decisions are ultimately being made with what is best for our students in mind. We share Dr. McCoy's passion in creating an educational environment with the success of all students as our goal.
"As a board, we continue to investigate numerous accusations and are taking the time necessary to conduct a complete and thorough investigation in order to make the best possible decision. Once those investigations are complete, the Board will determine whether to bring Dr. McCoy back or terminate his contract. At that point, Dr. McCoy will be given the opportunity to either respond to the allegations in order to resolve them in the process of his return, or he will be able to address them at a board hearing as outlined in his contract. Since putting him on administrative leave, up until now, we have received no requests from Dr. McCoy or his attorney, to meet with the board.
"Finally, despite what you may hear otherwise, I believe that it has been made clear to Dr. McCoy as to the reasons he is on administrative leave."
Asked what clue he might have had that the suspension would be coming, McCoy said:
“No warning at all. No warning at all. It was a shock to me. I said to them, why? ... I had no indication.
“I said, ‘Do you understand what you are saying? You’re not saying I’ve done anything wrong, but you want to take this action?’ I pleaded with them. I asked them four times. I didn’t beg, but I made a strong plea. I said, 'Don’t do this. It’s not what’s best for children, it’s not what’s best for learning in the middle of the school year. It’s not going to be good for the image of the district and it’s not going to be good for me.'”
McCoy said the meeting was cordial, with no outward show of anger. He said he asked the board to find a different way out of the situation, but his request didn’t change any minds.
“I told them, ‘There are so many other ways you can do things if you want to talk things out.’ There was no time nor room nor allowing for any discussion. The next thing I knew, I was gone.”
At one point, McCoy said, he went to sit in his office and let board members talk among themselves. After an hour, about 11 p.m., he said he was informed of their decision.
He said he told the board, “I’m going to say a prayer and ask God that he touch your heart and show that this is not the right thing to do.”
McCoy said that one board member – he said he would rather not say which one – said:
“I don’t care if Jesus himself comes down and says don’t do this, this is what we’re going to do.”
Transfers and school choice
McCoy has been active in recruiting students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens because of their ability to transfer out of their unaccredited district to nearby accredited ones. Ferguson-Florissant, along with Hazelwood, distanced themselves from a coordinating role by Cooperating School Districts, preferring to handle the student transfers themselves.
According to the Ferguson-Florissant website, 411 students have transferred to the district.
At public meetings held this fall, McCoy was enthusiastic about pushing for more choice for students in failing schools and failing districts – a stance, he says, that is all about making sure children have as many options as possible for a successful school career.
At one point, according to McCoy, Morris, the Ferguson-Florissant board president, said that such a policy is not something that the board has voted on. In response, McCoy said he told board members at the meeting where he was suspended, “I said that the law already allows for school choice. The Supreme Court has said that is the law.”
McCoy said that beyond what he has read in news stories, he knows nothing about reported irregularities in attendance numbers reported by Ferguson-Florissant to state education officials. He said he would not have been involved in submitting such reports.
“My only involvement with data is an expectation that data are reviewed and data are accurate,” he said. “I didn’t make any changes to data. That’s not my role. I don’t have access to that, nor did I direct anyone to do that.”
On the subject of union opposition to his policies, McCoy said he wasn’t sure of that, though he said that in some cases, what he wanted to accomplish could lead to more work by teachers.
“Any time you give more access to children who are most in need,” he said, “it raises questions of will my workload increase, by having more students than I had before or having students who have more difficulty in learning. Both of those affect raises and other things.
“My focus was on doing right for our children. I made enough arrangements to have other needs be met.”
Asked about the issue of race, McCoy said he did not want to say anything about whether that was a factor in his suspension.
“Race is like oxygen,” he said. “You can’t smell it, you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t taste it. But you know it’s there.
“The facts are that yes, I’m their first African-American superintendent. Yes, I’m younger, age 36 now. Yes, this has never happened to superintendents before it happens to one who happens to be black in Ferguson-Florissant. But I’m not here to play that card. I’m here to focus on the children.
“This could have happened to a white person. It could have happened to an Asian. Not doing things the right way happens to many people. I won’t cast stones.”
But he was willing to talk about schooling in the context of civil rights.
“The system is crying for more successful leaders,” he said, “more access to quality education. In that sense, it’s a civil rights issue. Access to high-quality education is a struggle for people who are poor, people who are brown, black, yellow and white. That makes it a civil rights struggle.
“I do think there is a systematic oppression toward those who are seeking access to high-quality education, and I do believe that as a state we can overcome that struggle, that Missouri has a chance to be the best state in the country as a place to have high-quality education for everyone.”
'I’m ready to go back to work'
Since McCoy was placed on leave, he has enjoyed a large outpouring of public support, from a news conference right after the move was announced to a school board meeting that lasted four hours, most of which was taken up by people demanding his reinstatement and the resignation of the board members who voted against him.
As difficult as the experience has been, he told the Beacon, the response has been gratifying.
“I’ve just been so moved by the love and care from students other folks,” he said.
“Education is enlightenment. It’s empowerment and it’s engagement. When I see majorities and minorities, students and parents speaking up and showing up and being engaged, my heart is happy about that. I’m just humbled to be in some kind of way related to it. I didn’t ask for it to be this way, but there is a silver lining in everything.”
While on leave, McCoy said he has kept busy working with organizations where he is on the board, talking with legislators about prospective changes in school law, talking with universities about professional development programs and thinking about courses that can help train board members and others who want to get involved with public schools.
But, he said, he has missed being more directly involved with students. He named certain individuals and said he has worried about their progress. When two students were injured after being hit by a car, he wanted to visit with them and their families in the hospital but felt he couldn’t because of his current situation.
“I’m ready to go back to work,” McCoy said at one point, adding later:
“I miss my babies.”
McCoy’s contract as superintendent was extended earlier this year and now runs through June 30, 2016. His current salary is $217,644. So if the district decides to end his employment, it is potentially on the hook for more than $500,000 in salary.
Asked how he thinks the situation involving his suspension will end, McCoy said he was puzzled as anyone else.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to end. But I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it ends in a way that’s great for kids and great for our community.”
Art McCoy's statement:
Dr. Art McCoy
I want to start by thanking every organization and every person who has shown me love and support.
I truly love our children and I love our community. This is about the children. As a product of the public school system, the children come first for me.
Every parent, community member, faith leader and clergy, elected official, business leaders, community organization leaders, and especially my students, thank you and I love you all.
Thank you for the cards, the letters, the texts, the emails, the tweets, the prayers, love, and support.
Thank you for standing up. Thank you for showing up. Thank you for speaking up.
Thank you for being dignified, intelligent, classy people. Thanks for being dedicated to sustained long-term changes for the better.
Some people are still trying to figure out what this is really about.
As I see it, this is about,
- This is about: the integrity of the public school system (Ferguson-Florissant District and public education) as a whole.
- This is about: Doing the right thing and doing things the right way
- This is about: Setting a good example for all of our children and creating the best of opportunities for children.
Education must move at the speed of the need.
We are learning that all public schools are only as strong as its public. It is only as strong as the public's enlightenment, empowerment, and engagement.
I am a product of the public school system.
We are the people, we have the answers, we have the solutions.
We need the skill and will as educators, leaders, and as citizens to do what is best and right for children.
That is why this is a civil right issue for all people -- black, white, brown, yellow, all.
It is a struggle.
The struggle is as simple as doing the right things and doing things right (doing it the right way) for our children.
Either you have integrity or you don't. I have lived a life of integrity. My actions have shown integrity and now it is showing even more.
Either you love children or you don't. I love all children. That love is even stronger.
Either you will stand for what's right or you won't. I choose to stand for what's right. Now, I am compelled to stand stronger
I choose to always do the right thing.
I choose to always do things the right way; do things with integrity; do things appropriately, and within established policy, procedures, and best practices.
I have no knowledge about the claims this Board is making other than what I see in the media.
I sent a letter welcoming conversation. I have received no responses.
The Board refused a request by my attorney to tell us what they claim is improper about the DESE data.
DESE has a process that all schools follow. DESE releases a draft of the data that is embargoed and expects corrections of errors to occur prior to the due date in August.
It allows for corrections and verification of data. This is normal and encouraged by DESE.
The Board has not contacted me to get any information about the DESE data or anything else.
They have not contacted me for any purpose since the day they suspended me on Nov. 6, 2013.
This situation is not my creation. I happen to be caught up in this situation not by my own doing. This Board has their private reasons, but what matters to me are the children, staff and the community.
Any CEO knows that you never act in a way that tears down trust and destroys confidence in the business, angers thousands of stakeholders. And send out regular press releases to do so.
Any superintendent or school leader knows that you do not cause a disruption to the learning environment and the children.
You don't place a dark cloud over the hard working teachers, bus drivers, secretaries, nurses, counselors and administrators, and students.
After asking the board to meet and discuss and waiting for three weeks, it became clear that they did not want to do so.
What matters most to me are the children. The children here and across the state, nation, and world matter to me.
I wanted to visit the two Ferguson children who were hit by the car last week. I wanted to be there to hug them and their mother and share the support of staff, the community, and others.
I love our children, this community, and the region, the state.
I am grateful that Missouri House of Representatives called me recently to ask that I serve as an adviser to the Interim Committee of Education. I am humbled to serve.
As I have stated, I think the real issue is a systems issue.
The biggest room in our house and system is the room for improvement for our children across the region and nation.
Education must improve.
This is bigger than me.
As I have said many times before, we are in a war against ignorance.
Education is enlightenment, empowerment, and engagement. Truth and justice shall prevail.
We must act with honor and decency. This is what our children deserve from us.
Missouri can be the best the state in the nation for high quality public education. Let's get back to focusing on our children.