Not All School Board Races Are Ho-Hum This Year
School board elections often prompt little more than a ripple of public interest, but they are stirring up quite a bit more in at least two north St. Louis County districts this spring.
In Normandy, three incumbents are facing four challengers for seats on a board that may not even exist after the end of this school year. In Ferguson-Florissant, two incumbents are facing a slate that was moved to join the field after Superintendent Art McCoy was placed on administrative leave, plus other candidates who entered the race as well. McCoy has since resigned his post.
Most local districts have board seats on Tuesday’s ballot, but not two that have also been so much in the news in recent months. Both Riverview Gardens and St. Louis Public Schools are governed by special administrative boards whose members have been appointed, not elected. An elected board remains in place in the city, but its members have no direct authority in running the district.
What makes a good board member? What is the job like? Check out this discussion from Tuesday’s St. Louis On the Air program.
Here are what candidates have to say in the races in Normandy and Ferguson-Florissant, based on interviews and appearances at recent candidate forums.
Cloudy future in Normandy
Tuesday’s election for three seats on the Normandy school board will be decided weeks before the Missouri General Assembly adjourns in mid-May, but whatever lawmakers decide will have a big effect on what Normandy board members do – or whether there will be a Normandy board at all.
The school transfer law that was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court last June put a severe strain on the Normandy budget. State education officials are seeking emergency funds so the district can last until the end of the school year, and a task force is considering what shape the district might take after June 30.
Meanwhile, incumbents William Humphrey, Jeanette Pulliam and Henry Watts are seeking to return to the board. They are being challenged by Dryver Henderson, John Phillips, Gwendolyn Buggs and Sharon Owens-Hare.
But the challengers aren’t the only ones who think that the current board members should have been more aggressive about the transfer program and saving the district.
Incumbent Terry Artis, who was elected to the board last year, took the unusual step in February of urging voters to turn the current board members out and vote for any of the challengers instead.
William Humphrey, who works with the Boy Scouts, is the current board president and was appointed to the board in 2007. He says that like everyone else, he has to wait until the end of the legislative session to see what happens in Normandy. In the meantime, “I’m giving my due diligence to run a campaign to represent the work that we’ve done over the last three years.”
One of the things he emphasizes is a detailed reformation plan the district has put together under the leadership of Superintendent Ty McNichols. Humphrey says the speed of events following the court ruling on student transfers has given the district little chance to improve its accreditation status.
“The one thing we’re asking is that we have an opportunity to impact change through the reformation plan,” he said. “At this point, even if the legislature supports the transfer program, we’re asking that tuition would be capped, so that as a district we can manage the outgo of revenue to be able to support the educational system for the parents that have made a choice to stay here in the district.”
He said board members considered legal action to challenge the transfers and the state's decision to take over Normandy’s finances. But they concluded that going to court would not be effective.
“We were keenly aware,” Humphrey said, “as we reviewed the matter, that most of the solutions need to occur on the legislative end of that. We’re still always evaluating other legal options and things of that nature, but at this point, we’re trying to allow the system to do those things that make sense.”
Asked about why the board chose Francis Howell as the district for which Normandy would pay transportation costs for transfer students, Humphrey said it was not a question of trying to discourage those who wouldn’t want to face a long bus ride to St. Charles County.
“We had criteria that we evaluated to make sure that we picked the best school that money would buy,” he said. “They were a school district with accreditation, they had similar support levels around special school district services, they were spending approximately the same amount on tuition services. We even looked at the transportation corridors going out Highway 70.
“When we looked at a myriad of factors, it became the school district that we selected.”
Asked about the possibility that Normandy would come under control of an appointed board, not an elected one, Humphrey said the community has rallied around the district and should not be left without a voice.
“Through all of the public hearings that have gone on,” he said, “the constituents of this community have said in no uncertain terms that they would like to have local control over their school districts. And I think what the stakeholders and the citizens of this community are asking for should be taken into strong consideration by anyone making decisions.”
Jeanette Pulliam, a retired educator who was appointed to the board in April 2011, says she is confident Normandy will survive for another school year.
“I think the community is rallying behind the school system,” she said, “and they are saying they can stand up and work for the schools.”
Pulliam also looks forward to the opportunity to improve the district’s standing by putting the reformation plan into action.
“It’s a sound plan for academic success,” she said. “Whether or not we’ll be around to put in place, and whether or not we’ll have the resources to do it, I don’t know. But given the time and resources, it will work.”
She praised the work done by McNichols, who became superintendent last July 1. “He walked into fire,” Pulliam said.
And, she said, voters should judge her by what the board has done during her tenure.
“People can say a lot of things,” she said, “but they cannot back that up with works. You have to show your works. You have to be able to say, I did this, and I can do this…. Undermining others will get you nowhere. Even if it gets you on the board of education, I don’t think you’ll be very successful in what you’re doing.
“I’m for Normandy. I’ll be here whether I’m the board or not.”
Henry Watts, who joined the board last year, has a grandson who is a junior in high school there and wonders whether he will be able to graduate from Normandy. Such concerns, Watts said, worry him.
“I was disheartened,” he said. “Here they were making decisions on the future of our kids in the school district, and it was resonating to the children, the uncertainty. Should I stay? Should I go? What about my friends, my teachers? Our students are thinking too much about that instead of planning what their future should be.”
Watts said that after being a part of the district for nearly 30 years and helping out in a variety of ways, it was interesting to see how board members could work together in a job that took long hours and often could be very emotional.
“I’m a stakeholder in this district,” he said. “This is my community. I believe that if we have a strong district, we will attract new residents who want to live here, stay here, patronize businesses here. I’m totally committed to this district.
“For anyone to make accusations about why the board didn’t do something when they don’t have all the facts, that really bothers me. We have tried to do anything and everything that would lead us to a positive outcome.”
The most vocal of the challengers has been Dryver Henderson, a graduate of the Normandy schools who has begun a support group, the Normandy Schools Town Hall Organization, that the district itself has taken pains to point out is an unofficial body.
Henderson has traveled to Jefferson City for state board meetings and has spoken at meetings held in St. Louis by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; he has pushed for months for the Normandy board to go to court to try to stop the transfers. He also says the move by the state board to take over the district’s finances is not authorized by state law.
He also criticized the choice of Francis Howell as the district to which it would pay transportation for transfer students. He says it clearly was an effort to discourage students from going so far, but one that backfired.
“From a financial standpoint,” Henderson says, “the superintendent and the school board of Normandy should have seen the financial devastation that the transfer process was going to cost.
“By the time they lost 400 students from Normandy, alarm bells rang as the transfer numbers grew big time. It was clear they had made a financially bad choice in schools to choose the Francis Howell school district.”
He said efforts of the board to change the transfer law are misguided.
“Why have they not been lobbying to stop the process entirely?” Henderson said. “They have been lobbying for a fix. The best fix is the elimination of the transfer law. If you want to seek a better or a different school district, the old-fashioned, tried and true way is to move.”
He says the district’s reformation plan is “all right, but it doesn’t go far enough.”
Plus, Henderson added, “if we don’t stop the transfers, if we don’t get funding, what I will do if elected is immediately lobby for stopping transfers locally and immediately sue so that Normandy is given back its financial control. We’ll raise the money from other sources if we have to in order to survive.”
Henderson and the other three challengers aren’t running as a slate, but they share similar views.
John Phillips, an elementary education major at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a graduate of Normandy schools, says “I am Normandy. I am a product of Normandy. I have a much more vested interest and passion in keeping Normandy locally controlled and with full accreditation.”
He wants to push for greater parental involvement with their children’s education, using whatever methods can work.
“We’re in desperate times right now,” he said, “so almost anything within reason is on the table.”
Phillips said he realizes that parents face a difficult situation between sending their children to accredited schools and keeping them in the community.
“You have to respect and follow the Missouri law,” he said. “Since you have to follow Missouri law, you might as well make it painless for parents who decide they want to take their children somewhere else.
“I understand those parents. What I went to do is get Normandy back to the point where those parents would want to keep their children in Normandy.”
For Gwendolyn Buggs, who has three children who graduated from the district, serving on the school board is “about serving those children more than trying to do what the superintendent wants me to do or another boar member wants me to do. It’s about the community and keeping the community alive by bringing our school district back.”
She would like to see more accountability for Normandy teachers, to the point that she says they should have to reapply for their positions even if they have tenure.
“Teachers need a report card every year,” Buggs said. “If they aren’t making the grade, that means they are failing our students.”
She said that McNichols “is doing the best he could do with what’s been given…. I know he has a lot on his plate, but he can’t do it by himself.”
And, Buggs added, she feels Normandy got into the situation it is in because too many voters in the district didn’t care enough to follow how poorly the district was doing.
“I’m just as guilty as any other resident,” she said. “We really weren’t paying attention.”
The final challenger, Sharon Owens-Hare, says that too often, member of the public have been kept in the dark about what the Normandy school board is doing.
She too wants to encourage parents to become more involved, and she thinks she has a good plan to accomplish that goal.
“It’s a shame to say it,” Owens-Hare said, “but most people will show up for free stuff. Maybe if we had some contest for the kids, where they could get a $50 savings bond or the parents could get a free gas card. You really have to get into salesmanship and give the people what they want.”
Owens-Hare has lived in Wellston for decades and graduated from that district’s high school, so she said she knows what the aftermath was when that school district was folded into Normandy.
“More people thought it was going to be a good thing to become Normandy,” she said, “but Normandy was fighting with the accreditation issue itself... I just don’t want it to happen again the way it happened to Wellston.”
Like the other challengers, she wants to see the transfer policy changed so Normandy children could get a good education in their own district.
“What I would like everybody to remember is that this is home,” Owens-Hare said, “and our taxes should be staying in our home area instead of being sent to other areas.”
Superintendent controversy stirs Ferguson-Florissant race
In Ferguson-Florissant, two incumbents – Paul Morris and Rob Chabot – are seeking new terms on the board; the third incumbent, Chris Martinez, is not running for re-election.
They are being challenged by a slate of three candidates who entered the race in reaction to the suspension of McCoy – F. Willis Johnson Jr., Donna Paulette-Thurman and James Savala. Also on the ballot are Kimberly Benz LaWanda Wallace and Larry Thomas.
In part, the discussion about McCoy has been about race. He is African American, as is a majority of the Ferguson-Florissant student body, but no members of the current school board are black. All three members of the slate in the race are black.
Board members have not commented on specific issues involved in their decision to place McCoy on administrative leave, saying only that it was due to “differences in focus and philosophy.”
In addition to the controversy over McCoy, the district suffered the loss of a 75-cent tax increase proposal last August and has had to cut its budget.
The incumbents have been hesitant to say anything about the suspension of McCoy, but a few of the comments they made at a candidate forum March 6 were revealing.
At one point, Paul Morris, the board president and a former teacher in the district, said he had a friend in the audience who voted for him three years ago but would not vote for him this time around “because of what’s gone on for the last four months.”
“I can’t say anything about what’s gone on,” he added, “because that’s just the way it works. That’s the system. We have to live with it. But I can say that the decision that we made was made in the best interests of the students of this district, of the district itself, and we are committed to doing the right thing.
“We’re doing the right thing for the district. It may not be the right thing for me politically, but it is the right thing for the district, and I will stand behind that 100 percent.”
He said that nearly three years ago, he had a “long, long conversation” with McCoy about where the district was going. “Three years later,” Morris said, “we still haven’t gotten anywhere close to that.”
He said Ferguson-Florissant schools have to become more focused.
“My vision for the school district is one of greatness,” he said. “I think we can get there, but we need to be focused. We need to invest in our schools.”
He said he was once told that being on a school board is like trying to steer a battleship with a paddle – it takes a long time to change direction. But, he said, he has been lobbying in Jefferson City for 18 years for educational change, and “I want to continue to make this a better district.”
Rob Chabot, a business owner who was first elected to the board three years ago, said that he sees the primary work of board members to be oversight, and he also wants to make sure they demand accountability.
“This district needs leadership that is willing to make the hard choices when necessary,” he said. “When you are faced with a decision that you know is going to create a firestorm in our community, do you choose the easy way out, and not make the choice that you think is right? Or do you buckle up, make the decision and take the hit? That’s the leadership that I’m offering to this district.
“I’m willing to make those tough decisions. It’s what you do if policies are not followed and directives are not followed and state statutes are not followed and expectations are not met. Do you ignore it?”
That attitude, Chabot said, demanded that he seek another term on the board.
“I could have taken the easy way out and not run again,” he said. “Some people are very surprised that I decided to run again. It all comes back to accountability.
“On this board, I believe in accountability. The only way that the citizens of this district can hold me accountable is by me running again. I stand behind every vote I ever made. I am proud of the service I have given to this district. And I look forward to three more years if you’ll have me.”
Members of the slate formed after the suspension of McCoy talked about challenges facing the district and other issues at a forum earlier this week.
F. Willis Johnson Jr., a senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, said that Ferguson-Florissant must deal with two types of challenges: external ones, such as changes in the law, and internal ones.
“All of us have to look at ourselves and see what we consider to be sacred cows,” Johnson said. “The greatest challenge we face is: Are we going to be radical enough to save our district.”
He said all boards are made up of three elements – wisdom, workers and wealth. And he said he did not understand the claim that McCoy was placed on leave because of philosophical differences.
“We have a mission statement,” he said. “We should have a clear vision statement and a clear set of objectives. We have to check our egos.”
Donna Paulette-Thurman, a retired educator in Ferguson-Florissant, said she wanted to make sure that property in the district maintains its value.
“As the community goes, the schools go,” she said. “And as the schools go, the community goes. We have to have a partnership.”
The top issue the district faces, she said, is keeping its current level of full accreditation; on its first evaluation under Missouri’s new system of classifying districts, it would have been provisionally accredited.
And, she added, there shouldn’t be as big a difference as there is in the achievement levels of the various schools in the district.
“What is one school doing that another school is not doing to provide an education for the children?” Paulette-Thurman asked. “We can’t blame the children. I don’t want to put the blame on anyone. I want to know what we are doing or not doing to have such a large gap.”
The responsibility of the board, she said, is to oversee how the district is run. Running the district is the job of the superintendent.
“We should not be walking into buildings and asking what is going on,” she said. “That’s not our responsibility. We have to trust the person we put into a leadership role in the district.”
James Savala, the father of two children in the district, wants to make sure that the good things that are happening in Ferguson-Florissant are being told.
“The principals and teacher have done a great job of educating our children,” he said. “We have to change around the perception of our district.”
Like most of the other candidates, he wants to make sure that parents get more involved in their children’s education.
Kimberly Benz has four children in the district, ranging from kindergarten up through one who will be in high school next year. She is a graduate of the district and she would like to make sure that board members are listening more to members of the community.
The two strongest challenges facing Ferguson-Florissant, she said at the forum, are maintaining accreditation and strengthening its finances – two issues she said are related.
Benz said she did not support the tax levy that failed last year because she did not feel that the campaign for its passage was being conducted in a transparent manner.
“I think they’re realizing that if they are going to get any more money out of the community in the form of a future tax levy,” Benz said, “they are going to have to let the community know what’s going on.”
In the spirit of that transparency, she wants to make sure that when the search for a new superintendent gets down to a few candidates, they appear before the community for a two-way dialogue on district issues.
LaWanda Wallace is the mother of four children who have attended Ferguson-Florissant schools or are there now. She said having a diverse board is important to make sure all segments of the community are heard.
She said when she decided to get involved in her first race for public office, she did a lot of research on education issues, and she concluded that with Missouri law governing so much of what schools in the state can do, voters should exercise their power with legislators.
“We have a lot of power going on at a higher level than superintendent,” Wallace said. “We just don’t use it.”
If she is elected, how would she determine whether she is a successful board member? “What I would like you to judge my success by,” she said, “is how much I have reached out to you.”
The final candidate on the ballot, community organizer Larry Thomas, did not attend either candidate forum.