State school officials want to keep appointed boards in St. Louis, Riverview Gardens | St. Louis Public Radio

State school officials want to keep appointed boards in St. Louis, Riverview Gardens

Feb 12, 2016

In the wake of progress made by schools in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, state education officials want appointed boards to continue in both districts for another three years.

Authorization for the three-member special administrative boards (SAB) in the city and Riverview Gardens expires on June 30. Extensions for both boards are on the agenda for a state school board meeting in Jefferson City on Tuesday, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is recommending that both boards stay in control until 2019.

Recommendations in such matters are typically adopted by the state board.

In materials for Tuesday’s state board meeting, DESE said continuation of both appointed panels will help continue the stability and consistency that St. Louis and Riverview Gardens schools have achieved in recent years.

Margie Vandeven, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview Friday that extending the boards’ terms at this time of the year will let everyone know who is in charge as the districts begin negotiating contracts for the coming school year, including one for St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

She acknowledged that elected boards generally may be the best way to govern a district, but once the state has intervened to help struggling schools, keeping a consistent focus is important.

“Any time you change out a system,” Vandeven said in an interview Friday, “you’re going to make changes, no matter whether it’s the transitional board or the elected school board.”

Accountability and consistency

Rick Sullivan, one of three members who have been on the St. Louis SAB since 2007, said in a brief interview he did not want to discuss the possible extension until the state board votes next week.

State school board President Charlie Shields and education Commissioner Margie Vandeven
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Even while the SAB has had sole power to run the city schools, an elected board has remained in place. In the past, as the deadline for reauthorization of the SAB’s authority has approached, the elected board has prepared transition plans to regain power.

Susan Jones, the current president of the elected seven-member elected board, said that returning governance to her group would mean returning power over the schools to the city residents who pay the taxes that run the district. She said her board is ready to lead and is updating a transition plan.

“There are many advantages of having an elected board,” she said in an interview. “First of all, it gives the community a voice and power. It encourages citizens to take a greater interest in their school. It helps hold education leaders accountable to the community.”

Jones said she intends to be in touch with members of the state board to make her case before Tuesday’s meeting.

Vandeven noted that because of the way the SAB was appointed in St. Louis – one member each by the mayor, the president of the Board of Aldermen and the governor – voters are represented in that way as well.

“”I think there’s accountability in both systems,” she said. “But trying to have a high functioning government level that is as tight as can be is essential.”

Meeting about transition

Earlier this week, two members of the state board – Vic Lenz, the board’s vice president from south St. Louis County, and Mike Jones of St. Louis – met with members of the elected board. Lenz said in an interview that the issue is not what an elected board can do for the schools that the SAB can’t but is “a question of the makeup of the board and how the board is operating.”

He noted that the city schools have gained stability over the nine years that the SAB has been in control, and he wants to make sure that performance can be maintained.

“Our discussion with the elected board was more in the line of not why this or why that, but what can you do to put yourselves in a better position to be ready to run the city school system when that time comes,” Lenz said.

State school board member Vic Lenz
Credit Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

“They need to build a cohesive group, a group that works together and thinks together and build a culture on their board that is working toward academic improvement. That’s what has to happen. That’s the only thing that’s really going to raise the school district out of low performance to high performance. That’s a major job, but that’s what schools are all about.”

Lenz said he hasn’t made up his mind whether to accept the recommendation that the SAB in the city be extended for another three years. He is a former president of the Missouri School Boards Association and noted that 12 years would be a long commitment for the SAB members to make.

He also praised their selection in 2008 of Adams as superintendent.

“We’re lucky to have Kelvin Adams as the superintendent,” Lenz said. “I am thrilled that he’s not moving on to Los Angeles. I think it bodes well for the city school system that he’s still there and will be able to continue the progress that has been taking place.”

Like the authority of the SAB, Adams’ contract as superintendent also expires on June 30. A spokesman for the school system said members of the SAB are pleased with Adams’ performance but are waiting to see whether their authority is extended before taking part in talks to approve a new contract for him.

Methods of intervention

In recent years, Missouri has tried various ways of intervening in school districts with persistently low achievement.

After installing the SAB in St. Louis in 2007, the state board put a similar panel in place in Riverview Gardens three years later. But there, unlike in the city, the district itself was replaced, with all contracts having to be renewed and approved by the new board.

A third model was imposed in Normandy in 2014. On July 1 of that year, the old Normandy school district was dissolved in place of the new Normandy Schools Collaborative. It is being run by a Joint Executive Governing Board that includes one member of the former district’s elected board and four members approved by the state board of education.

Education commissioner Margie Vandeven
Credit Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

All three districts have shown varying degrees of improvement since the changes in governance took place.

The St. Louis schools have moved in recent years from unaccredited to provisionally accredited. In their latest annual report card from the state, the district earned enough points, 76.1 percent, to qualify for full accreditation, but DESE said it wanted to see whether that progress could be sustained before recommending an upgrade.

Riverview Gardens remains one of only two unaccredited districts in the state, along with Normandy. But since its SAB took over in 2010, it too has shown progress, particularly in the past two years.

Riverview Gardens, too, scored in the full accreditation range in its latest report card, with 79.3 percent, and in recognition of its rapid gains the state board plans to re-evaluate its accreditation status in June instead of waiting until December, as it typically does for possible changes.

Vandeven said it is too soon to tell which method of intervention has been the most successful.

“I think each of the scenarios has advantages,” she said. “We have not yet sat down to look at which one is the most effective. I think each of them has different strengths, how they come together and function.”

If Riverview Gardens were to gain provisional or full accreditation, the ability of students living in the district to enroll in schools elsewhere, as provided by Missouri’s transfer law, would be in question.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger