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Elected St. Louis school board members plan to play influential role

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2009 - Rebecca Rogers, Chad Beffa and Emile R. Bradford-Taylor -- the three candidates who won seats on the St. Louis School Board last week -- have all heard the questions many times: Why bother? Why waste time running since control of city schools is in the hands of the Special Administrative Board?

The three-member SAB took control of the city schools in 2007 after the Missouri Board of Education stripped the district of its accreditation. The takeover is expected to last through 2011.

State law requires the school system to have an elected board, according to a city school spokesperson. Under the rules setting up the SAB, the elected board acts in an advisory capacity. 

The two boards never meet as a body, but the heads of each -- Rick Sullivan for the SAB and Peter Downs for the elected board -- have held a few meetings. The two boards share a single secretary and communicate through her. The elected board does offer advice, which the SAB can ignore. There has been no friction, but some elected board members have taken issue with some SAB policies, such as school closings and contracting out services.

The three winners all insisted that their races mattered. Rogers got 17,900 votes. Beffa and Bradford-Taylor each got more than 12,000 votes. (Mayor Francis Slay got 22,912 votes in his race for re-election.)

Rogers sums up the "why bother" question in the same way that other winners do by noting that an advisory role can be a powerful one, and that she got in the race to help set the stage for an "orderly transition" of power back to an elected board after 2011.

The three new members -- who replace Bill Purdy, Veronica O'Brien and Flint Fowler -- were sworn in Tuesday and will take part in their first meeting tonight.

Rebecca Rogers

While the School Board races seemed low key, candidate Rogers was anything but. She showed up at public events, such as the mayoral debates, and made eye contact, struck up conversations and passed out campaign material to anyone who would take it.

Rogers is married and has no children. But she brings a strong expertise to the challenges of educating students who are mostly poor and not performing at grade level. As as associate professor in the Division of Teaching and Learning at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, she focuses on literacy development. That's a big issue in city schools, one that will allow her to speak the same language as administrators in discussions about ways to boost student achievement.

But Rogers is more focused on board policy. She talks less about her academic credentials -- a doctorate in education -- than her priorities of expanding community schools and recruiting outstanding teachers.

Chad Beffa

Beffa, a building contractor with two children in Kennard Classical Junior Academy, has been a familiar face at SAB meetings. During a meeting at Roosevelt last winter, he was among those parents who criticized a consultant's recommendation on school closures. The SAB eventually reduced the number of closures.

Beffa's priority is converting some buildings to full-service community schools. He wants the district to put services, ranging from health to recreation, into various schools, depending on neighborhood needs and wishes.

"Parental involvement is the key to turning the school system around," he says. "Full-service community schools, more magnet schools and early childhood programs would help build public support."

Like the other new board members, Beffa is largely indifferent to charter schools. He doesn't completely close the door on the possibility of superior charter schools, such as the high-achieving language immersion school in Kansas City. But he argues that charters as a whole don't perform as well as public schools.

Emile Bradford-Taylor

Bradford-Taylor, a nurse with a daughter at Metro High School, considers herself an advocate for children. For example, she recalls pushing to allow a newly homeless student to remain in her existing school so that her academic work wouldn't be disrupted.

Bradford-Taylor believes an elected board is needed even if day-to-day power rests with the SAB. She cites the example of her own child who was bullied when attending Kennard. Bradford-Taylor says she tried to work through channels to get the school to address the bullying. Frustrated, she says she took the case to the SAB, but was advised to go back to the district officials "who hadn't fixed the problem in the first place." Finally, she says she appealed to the elected board, which helped her solve the problem.

"Not only did they help me get the attention of the superintendent at the time (Diana Bourisaw), elected board members also got back to me later to find out whether my problem had been solved. I can't say I got the same treatment from the SAB," Bradford-Taylor says. "The SAB doesn't listen to parents or the public."

If that is the case now, it might not be, starting on April 25. That's the day the district will hold a summit during which SAB member Richard Gaines promises that the public will get "straight answers from district leaders."

Gaines says, "No subject will be off limits and the public can expect an immediate and honest answers."

It sounds like a fresh way to engage a skeptical public and new members of the elected board say they look forward to the experience.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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