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Education

Powerless but determined, elected St. Louis school board still works to monitor schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2009 - Six St. Louisans with elected positions but no authority gathered last week in a school dance studio, just as they do every month.

The room at Carr Lane Visual and Performing Arts Middle School is lined with barres for aspiring performers; for inspiration, silhouettes of dancers are painted on the walls in varying stages of graceful movement.

In a way, the meetings of members of the elected board of the St. Louis Public Schools are similar to those painted dancers: They give an illusion of movement, even progress, but the reality is quite different.

It's not for a lack of effort or dedication. But ever since real control of the city schools was handed to an appointed three-member Special Administrative Board (SAB) in 2007, under state law, elected board members have no power, no budget, no staff and no real say in how the schools they were elected to run are operated.

They are charged with monitoring how the schools are doing and reporting back to the public -- the people who elected them. And they are determined to do that and whatever else they can accomplish.

"I don't feel our meetings are worthless," said Donna Jones, who was elected to the board in 2006. "I think they are very important. They represent a glimmer of hope. We know we're doing the right thing, coming together and talking about the issues.

"I really don't feel hopeless. I think the only hopelessness I feel is when I'm talking to people who feel they don't they have any power. We're all born with power. It's all a matter of how you see yourself. That is how America was born."

ONE DISTRICT, TWO BOARDS

The state takeover of the city schools created an instant level of tension that persists today, to varying degrees depending on who is talking.

David Jackson, who was elected to the board in 2007, says that President Rick Sullivan and the other two members of the SAB have expressed a willingness to work with elected board members, but that goal has not been reached for one reason or another.

One of the biggest frustrations for members of the elected board has been the inability to get the SAB to respond to requests for basic information, such as the salaries of workers whose jobs have been eliminated as the school system makes broad cuts to try to balance its budget.

"We've been trying to track employees who are being let go and the contracts that are being let to take their place," said Chad Beffa, who was elected to the board earlier this year, "but the SAB says salaries aren't public information.

"To me, when you audit something, you can't be (allowed) to look just at selected material. That's what we are supposed to do, audit what the appointed board does and report to the public. That's all what we are supposed to do."

Rebecca Rogers, an education professor at UMSL who also joined the board earlier this year, voiced similar frustrations.

"At almost every turn in the road, our participation and requests for information have been stonewalled by the SAB," she said in an e-mail.

"The elected school board is comprised of seven qualified and committed citizens and parents of St. Louis. We are volunteering our time, service and expertise to support the achievement of the district. It is a disservice to the school district and to the voters to not take advantage of our time and expertise.

"I have been surprised that the SAB has not invited us to collaborate on educational reforms in the district. In fact, just the opposite has occurred. On several occasions, the elected school board has offered to make recommendations and give insights about district matters and the SAB has declined or ignored our input."

Members of the elected board have taken to using Missouri's sunshine law to file formal requests with the SAB for the information they want. A presentation to the board on the sunshine law by members of the attorney general's office at its December meeting seems to have strengthened that resolve.

But using legal tools to improve what is supposed to be a collegial relationship may not be the best answer.

"I'm fortunate," said Jackson. "Because of my previous relationships with (SAB member) Richard Gaines and Rick Sullivan, I can get some information that I have requested. But for the majority of the board and majority of the information, they just won't release it.

"With Sullivan and (elected board President) Peter Downs, there has been a lot of issues of mistrust and misinformation. It got to the point they completely stopped talking to each other."

Sullivan said in an interview that he considers the SAB to have a good working relationship with members of the elected board, and he points to a policy put into place almost two year ago about how the SAB would help the elected board fulfill its role of auditing and reporting to the public.

"Both boards are really focusing their time and energy on improving student achievement," Sullivan said. "I think the communication is ongoing."

He pointed specifically to the fact that in January, a draft of the budget for the next school year will be submitted to elected board members as soon as it is available, and the SAB will respond in writing to their questions and comments. He said questions from Rogers and Downs on budget matters and pilot schools have received timely replies.

For his part, Downs sees a bit of a thaw in the standoff, but the situation has not reached the point that he would like to see.

"It's nowhere near where it should be, but it's better than it was," said Downs, who joined the board in 2006. "We're getting away from the sense that we had to be antagonists."

But that doesn't mean Downs and his colleagues think the SAB has made much progress in improving the education of city students or the administration of the schools.

"The usual games that people play in how to control a school system have all been played," Downs said, "and no one is happy with the results. None of the usual recommendations have worked."

"It's very frustrating," said Jones. "We don't get the information we need to perform our duties, and therefore we can't report to the people who are asking us important questions about what is going on in the district. There is no transparency."

And Beffa says that this isn't the first time the state's efforts to take over a St. Louis area district have fallen short.

"Look at the state intervention with Wellston," he noted, citing a district that has been under state control and is now expected to be merged into Normandy. "That was their first experiment, and you can see how that's working out.

If the state and an administrative board can't work things out with a district with 600 students, what are they going to do with 30,000?"

WHAT'S NEXT?

Now, the five-member committee headed by Dr. William Danforth and civil rights lawyer Frankie Freeman -- whose report led to the SAB in the first place -- has begun meeting again to help plan for the future of the city schools. Elected board members wonder whether their time to return to authority is coming -- or will be delayed.

"As I listened to the first public meeting," wrote Rogers, "it struck me as hugely inefficient to ask a group of people who know very little about the district to make recommendations for future governance. In their process, much context and important information will be missed. This is an injustice to the people of St. Louis whose lives depend on high quality public education."

And she questions the makeup of the group who has been assigned to come up with new structure for governance.

"I find it hard to understand why a committee who knows little about the day-to-day operations and the year-to-year successes and failures of the school district is charged with making recommendations about future governance for the district," Rogers wrote.

"The most qualified and knowledgeable people about the school district and educational reform are not on the committee. While all individuals are certainly qualified and respected citizens of Missouri; why is there only one educator on the committee (Michael Middleton)? Why isn't there at least one member of the SAB and of the elected school board? The superintendent? Area professors who specialize in urban education, educational reform and policy?"

While it remains without real authority, Downs hopes the elected board can build on its current role, which he sees as an ombudsman, dealing with concerns that the public feels aren't being heard by the SAB.

"When we study the issues, collect comments from people and issue recommendations," he said, "that's more than just sitting at monthly meeting and discussing what's going on."

And for Jones, the issue is one of public accountability for public money, letting the people who pay for the schools have more to say about how it is spent. She feels her election was a good start.

"I feel the recommendations that the Danforth commission made the first time didn't bear the kind of fruit they promised," she said. "It has been catastrophic for the community. We are in dire straits. I feel it's an emergency, and it's not going to get better.

"St. Louis Public Schools are going to be totally dismantled. This is an experiment to see how far they can get with it. Obviously they don't think an elected board that represents the people can't do the job. This is about privatization of public education dollars."

Recalling her election in 2006, she said:

"We're fighting against big power. But I never feel frustrated. In my election, there was no money. I was a regular mom. I had no political experience. I think I represented some hope that people had we could make a difference. People came together. They came from nowhere.

"I was real surprised. I was happy. Regardless of the way things look like now, when I see people at the store or the car wash or wherever, people remember. They know how St. Louis politics works. There's not a lot of fairness going on. They're disappointed, but they know."

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