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With new board and new slogan, Riverview Gardens starts fresh

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2010 - Just in case anyone had doubts that the Riverview Gardens School District was starting fresh -- with a new board, a new slogan and a host of old problems -- the head of its Special Administrative Board (SAB) made it clear with just three words Thursday night.

"What was, was," said Lynn Beckwith, former superintendent of the University City schools and now a professor of urban education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He added:

"The district lapsed as of June 30. This is a new district as of July 1."

Beckwith and his colleagues on the three-member panel appointed by the state in May have been meeting informally in recent weeks to gear up for the takeover. They took charge with two meetings on Thursday, one in the morning where they approved necessary contracts to keep the district running, and the second one in the evening so the public could attend.

Not many took advantage of the opportunity, and the meeting was over in about 15 minutes.

But that brief session belies the difficulty of the road ahead for Riverview Gardens, whose poor academic performance led to lost accreditation from the state in 2007. Because the district never won it back, by law it lapsed and the state had to take it over.

As part of that process, all contracts, agreement and policies ended as of Wednesday, including the employment of all of the district's teachers and administrators. It has been working to screen, evaluate and hire a staff before the first day of work for teachers on Aug. 2.

Superintendent Clive Coleman -- himself a relatively new hire by the district, though he has been working as a consultant in recent weeks -- made clear how thorough the housecleaning has been when he said to the SAB earlier this week that he is telling candidates for principal positions, "You have an empty building. You really don't have a school."

After Thursday evening's brief meeting, Coleman said that the hiring process is proceeding, with 400 internal teaching candidates interviewed and more than 1,800 external candidates waiting to be evaluated. From that pool, about 400 teachers will be hired. The ratio of candidates to principal positions is similar, he said.

"I'm really happy to see so many educators interested in this reform movement," Coleman said. "A lot of people in Missouri want to be part of this rebirth."

Emphasizing how thorough the change will be, Coleman added:

"This is not rehiring. This is a hiring process. We want a highly qualified staff. That is the only way we are going to improve and move forward."

As the member of the SAB who does not live in the district, Beckwith automatically becomes head of the panel under state law. Though the law allows him to be compensated for his service, Beckwith made it clear he will not accept any money for his role with the district.

Other members of the SAB are Veronica Morrow-Reel, a Dellwood alderwoman who was elected vice president, and Mark Tranel, a professor of public policy at UMSL who was elected secretary-treasurer.

Earlier this week, Coleman introduced a new slogan for the district: "The Rebirth of Educational Excellence."

He also introduced a new school calendar, where students will attend classes for 180 days -- higher than the average year for neighboring districts -- and those days will be 30 minutes longer. Students will report for the first day of class on Aug. 18.

Teachers in the district will begin work with a staff convocation at the Touhill Center on the UMSL campus on Aug. 2. The meeting will include a presentation by students whom Beckwith called "diamonds in the rough who only need polishing to shine."

Of the opening day get-together, he said: "We strongly need to come together as a family that first day."

The budget picture presented to the SAB wasn't exactly heartening to a district seeking a rebirth. Funding for the new fiscal year is expected to drop by $1.6 million from the state, due to a smaller enrollment and cuts in state aid; $6.5 million in federal stimulus money that is now being used to support the funding formula overall is running out, and officials are not sure how it will be replaced.

Further budget problems are expected to lead to even more cuts in the coming year, the district's budget officials say.

Riverview Gardens can't look to Washington for help, either, at least not on a continuing basis. Federal grant money, primarily from a program known as Reading First, is projected to drop by $1.8 million. The district still hopes to receive school improvement grants that will be awarded to some of the state's worst performing schools -- including the district's high school and two middle schools -- but which schools will receive the money, and how much they will get, will not be determined until later this summer.

Overall, the district expects to have total revenue of $58.5 million and total expenditures of $57.5 million, for a fund balance of about $1 million; that number could shrink, depending on the final hiring plan. Reaching that point meant cutting 57 full-time equivalent jobs, for a reduction of $3.9 million.

Richard Thies, head of the district's teachers union, said he remains unhappy with the way the hiring process has gone. He noted that teachers will be expected to work nine more days in the coming year than they did last year, and those days will be longer, but they have no idea how their salary may be adjusted.

"We are still pushing collaboration and communication in the district," Thies said. "At this point, nobody is listening to us."

He met with Tranel between the two board meetings on Thursday and said some progress was made, but added: "I just think it's going to take a little while for things to fall into place."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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