This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The crowd that jammed the gym at McCluer North High School Wednesday night was concerned with more than the return of Art McCoy as Ferguson-Florissant superintendent. They also cheered the prospect of the departure of the board members who placed McCoy on leave last week.
For more than three hours, dozens of speakers filed to microphones set up on either side of the gym, praising McCoy’s leadership, compassion and ability to show students what they aspire to when they grow up.
As the crowd spoke, the seven members of the board sat silent, glumly listening to parents, students, graduates and others calling for their 6-1 decision to place him on paid administrative leave to be reversed and for them to be either recalled or voted out of office at the earliest opportunity.
“He’s a role model for our children,” Viola Murphy, who taught in the district for 32 years, said of McCoy. “He has high standards for our kids. He tells them that an education is an important factor in their lives, and he is constantly, constantly encouraging them to learn.
“It takes a special person to reach our kids, to make them want to learn. Dr. McCoy has that ability.”
Chuck Henson, who served on the board when McCoy was hired in 2011, said the decision to place the superintendent on leave appears to have grown out of a long-simmering situation.
“I was outraged but not surprised,” Henson said. “I was disgusted but not surprised. I warned you that this would happen. Time and time again, we had this conversation, and it always came down to a vote of 5-2.
“I was here, and I will tell you that the mistrust was not coming from Dr. McCoy. It was going to Dr. McCoy.”
Since the board announced last week that the superintendent would be on indefinite leave because of "differences in focus and philosophy,” the move has been met with a constant drumbeat of criticism for the decision and support for McCoy. Much of the discussion has been framed by race; McCoy is black, as is 78 percent of the student body in Ferguson-Florissant, and the school board is all white.
Board President Paul Morris has said that neither race nor McCoy’s active role in recruiting transfer students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens were factors in his being placed on leave, but he has refused to give further information.
Just listening, not answering
Wednesday evening’s session began with Morris telling the crowd estimated at 1,500 that he appreciated their passion and he had arranged the meeting so that as many people as possible would have the chance to speak. He said board members were there to listen and would not be responding to comments made by those who chose to speak.
The only member of the board who wanted a turn to give his views was Robert Chabot, who said that his vote to put McCoy on leave was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make as a board member. It was a decision not made in haste or in malice but a decision that I believe was in the best interest of the students in this district.”
He said “trust issues” had developed between himself and McCoy, hinting that student discipline was a problem.
“It’s difficult to hear from teachers who are unable to teach because of a lack of respect,” Chabot said, “but it’s entirely different when you hear it from students themselves…. We were told there was no discipline problem because the data doesn’t support it.”
He said he respected McCoy’s resume – to wild applause – and understood the crowd’s frustration – to widespread grumbling. But, he said, he voted as he did because “I felt the long-term success of our district was at risk.”
Chabot’s views did not match those of the vast majority of the speakers who addressed board members. When it was pointed out that the terms of Chabot, Morris and Chris Martinez expire next year, the crowd cheered.
Then came the parade of speakers who praised McCoy’s academic background, his compassion for students and their families, his leadership abilities and the image he projected for youngsters who needed a positive role model in their lives.
Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
-- Bill Monroe, a member of the elected board of the St. Louis Public Schools:
“As I look at this board, as I look at its composition, I’m distressed. I’ve heard the word respect. I’ve heard the word respect come out of some of your mouths. Please respect us as people who think. I say to you directly that race is a factor.”
-- Redditt Hudson, a parent in the district:
“You have put all of our children at risk by an arbitrary decision based on the flimsiest of reasons that you could not articulate if I gave you the chance.” He said he was going to file a request to get copies of the minutes of the closed session where McCoy’s leave was approved, so see what reasons board members gave for their actions.
-- State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City:
“When you are facing an accreditation review in 2015 and you dismiss your superintendent in 2013, that’s a problem. That’s a problem…. Your superintendent was fighting for everything this district deserves.”
-- Lakricia Cox, a parent in the district:
“I simply cannot imagine a board that would not want to capitalize on the strengths and educational leadership that he can contribute to the Ferguson-Florissant School District.”
-- Umar Lee, a graduate of the district.
He recounted what he called a history of racial harassment in Florissant and added, “the main issue, as it has always been in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, is race.”
-- Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins:
“This not about the April election. This is not about Dr. McCoy. This is about the civility of our region.”
Referring to the board, he told the crowd they need to keep the pressure on.
“They think after tonight we’re going to go away…. If you all don’t come back tomorrow and the day after that, you can kiss this district goodbye, and McCoy is going to be a superintendent somewhere else.”
-- Keisha Griffin, the mother of four students in the district:
“He made a bridge where we can go to our teachers and our principals and use him as an outlet, and he would point us in the right direction, to the right resources that we needed.”
Charges of duplicity
One of the more emotional statements came toward the end of the night from Patricia Washington, spokeswoman for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and a resident of the Ferguson-Florissant district.
She took exception with a letter issued by the district late Tuesday that said the board had met with Dooley to discuss the McCoy situation. Washington said no such meeting had taken place. The letter was later revised to say that the board had been in contact with Dooley, who acknowledged he had had a brief phone conversation with Morris, the board president.
But Washington lectured the board on that misinformation, calling the mistake “scurrilous.”
“I want to trust and believe that this is not a fait accompli,” she said about the action taken against McCoy. “I want to trust and believe that you have said that you want to resolve these issues and differences with Dr. McCoy. Unfortunately, my trust and my faith have been shaken by one act, placing a letter on your district website and sending it out to parents inferring that you have met with the county executive to discuss the issues.”
Washington said that the board’s decision has not hurt McCoy, who can easily find another job in another school district.
Rather, Washington said, “With the stroke of a pen and one administrative act, you have undone the efforts of so many people who have come before you, bringing this community together. You have widened a chasm in this community with the stroke of an administrative pen.”
When the last speaker had finished, Morris said that the board now would convene some time soon and deliberate on what its next step would be.
Asked about his reaction to the evening, Morris said, “It was quite an event. You can tell there are a lot of feelings for Dr. McCoy.”
How will the situation be resolved?
“I can’t predict the future.”