Task force recommends St. Louis public schools return to local control … eventually | St. Louis Public Radio

Task force recommends St. Louis public schools return to local control … eventually

Jan 18, 2018

A task force on the future governance of St. Louis’ public schools says control of the district should eventually return to local, democratic oversight, but members struggled to agree on much else.

In a meeting that began at noon and lasted well into Wednesday evening, a committee assigned with determining St. Louis Public Schools’ future recommended the restoration of an elected school board, but with the caveat that in seven years voters would get to choose whether to keep that elected board.

The Special Administrative Board currently overseeing St. Louis Public Schools is in the process of phasing itself out after a decade of state oversight. The task force’s vote came after months of collecting public input and studying different forms of school governance. While it’s a major move toward bringing democracy back to the district, there are a number of steps to take that could be tied up in Jefferson City before elected board members are again running SLPS.

The task force squabbled for eight hours over how quickly a locally elected board should regain authority and how the process would work.

After a series of votes, the task force’s recommendations boil down to this:

  • Authority of SLPS is returned at some point to an elected school board after the board receives extensive training.
  • The Missouri commissioner of education sets up an oversight board for low-performing districts, including St. Louis.
  • A “supermajority” be required for the school board to fire the superintendent.
  • In November 2024 or April 2025, voters will decide if they want to stick with the elected school board.

The SAB will finalize those parameters at its regular meeting Thursday before sending them to state education officials. While the appointed SAB is authorized through 2019, it can add a recommendation to ends its authority sooner. Ultimately, though, state leaders will make that decision.

The Missouri State Board of Education has the authority to dissolve the SAB and end state oversight of SLPS, but anything more complicated would require legislative involvement.

The state school board presently does not have enough members for a quorum, meaning action on replacing the SAB could be delayed. In addition, several task force members expressed a desire to avoid having to go through the state legislature.

The three-person SAB, composed of members appointed by the governor, mayor and president of the Board of Alderman has run St. Louis Public Schools since 2007, following a state takeover. At the time, academic performance was declining and the district’s administration was in constant flux.

The district has made academic progress since and is under more stable leadership.

“I think the data speaks for that over the last 10 years,” Superintendent Kelvin Adams told the task force, referring to improving attendance, graduation and standardized testing scores.

The state school board upgraded the district to full accreditation in early 2017. It was the first time the district hit that high-water mark since 2000. It reinvigorated a desire from the district's elected board to regain control of the district. The elected board, though disenfranchised, still exists and continues to hold regular meetings but has struggled to shake a reputation of dysfunction.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, said he didn’t want to just “hand over the keys” to an elected school board and supported a transitional board of appointed members.

“There’s no way in the world I’m going to roll the dice” on an elected board with little experience, he said.

Richard Gaines, a member of the Special Administrative Board and chairman of the governance task force on the future control of St. Louis Public Schools, at a meeting Wednesday.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Ray Cummings, a former science teacher who is now an official with the teachers’ union, countered it would result in a “nightmare” to leave the district’s future up to the state legislature.

"Now is a very dangerous time for St. Louis Public Schools,” Cummings said, pointing to the paralysis of the State Board of Education and a governor embroiled in scandal.

Cummings and Charli Cooskey, a member of the elected school board, pushed for the elected board be granted authority after several months of extensive training. That wouldn’t have required legislative involvement, but their motions were defeated.

The task force also considered staying with an appointed board or a hybrid board of elected and appointed members. Referring to other major cities under appointed board control, parent Addie Bond said, “in most cases with an appointed board, it’s because of a takeover or swoop in for dysfunction. I do agree appointed boards are effective in those cases, but they’re not the choice of the people.”

During three public forums the task force held last fall, hundreds of people expressed a desire to return to local control. Comments submitted to the task force through an online survey tilted slightly toward a hybrid board structure. More than 2,000 people weighed in through the forums and survey.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney