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Special board appointed to take over unaccredited Riverview Gardens schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2010 - As expected, the state Board of Education voted Thursday to appoint a three-member special administrative board to take over operations of the Riverview Gardens School District in north St. Louis County as of July 1.

The board will be made up of:

Lynn Beckwith, former superintendent of the University City schools and currently a professor of urban education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who will chair the panel; Veronica Morrow-Reel, a resident of the district who has been active in its affairs for many years and is on the Dellwood Board of Aldermen; and Mark Tranel, director of the Public Policy Research Center at UMSL and a resident of the district who has been active on its committees for many years.

Morrow-Reel, who has a daughter who will be a senior at Riverview Gardens High School next year, said she has tried to attend most meetings of the district's board but had never thought about running herself to serve on it. She has been active in an advisory council designed to help parents get more involved in the schools. She also helped push for the district to be audited.

"I look at this as an opportunity to show that the kids can do better," she said in an interview.

Morrow-Reel hopes that the administrative board can take some time to learn how the district works before it has to take any big actions.

"Basically I want to look at everything before we make any major decisions," she said. "We can't say we want to do this, this, this, this and this without having been on the board before. We need to some fact-finding first."

One thing she would like to see right away is less news coverage of the district's problems.

"I really hope the press eases up on our kids," she said. "If anybody were to ask me what has affected achievement, I would say one of the things has been the bad press the district has been getting. It really affects the kids." 

In a separate interview, Tranel said he has co-chaired a couple of bond issue campaigns for the district and has been part of a public engagement process to revitalize it. He lives in Bellefontaine Neighbors.

He said it was too soon to talk about priorities for the special administrative board because it doesn't have any official authority until July 1.

"We will be given lots of information and start to address things," Tranel said. "We haven't met or developed any strategy."

He said Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, had approached him to serve on the board.

"I'm a resident of the district," he added, "and if there's a way I can help out, I'll do my best." 

The board was appointed for a three-year term, which can be extended if necessary.

Nicastro said the panel will begin working immediately to prepare for the transition.

Our earlier story: 

The former superintendent of the Riverview Gardens School District had some tough love for some old friends Tuesday night.

Chris Nicastro -- now Missouri's commissioner for elementary and secondary education -- said that as of the end of June, the district will be run by a three-member special administrative board because it had gone three years without being accredited.

After a series of meetings with the district's staff as well as elected officials, clergy and others in the north St. Louis County area served by the district, Nicastro -- who as Chris Wright was superintendent at Riverview Gardens from 1994 to 2001 -- held a public meeting at the gymnasium of the district's high school.

Her message was twofold: She has every expectation that the district can regain accreditation, but it has to be run differently, and the special administrative board should be viewed as saviors, not conquerors. 

"It's not my department's intention to replace the team," Nicastro said. "We're here to join the team."

The change has to be formally approved by the state Board of Education, which will take up the issue on Thursday in Jefferson City. If it goes along with the recommendation -- and there seems to be little doubt that it will -- three members of the community who have already agreed to serve will assume authority over the district as of July 1.

The three members of the new board, to be confirmed Thursday, will be Mark Tranel, director of the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; Veronica Morrow-Reel, an alderwoman in Dellwood and a parent of a child in the Riverview Gardens schools; and Lynn Beckwith Jr., former superintendent of the University City schools. 

The current elected school board, she said, will act in an advisory capacity but have no real power.

Because the district technically has ceased to exist in its earlier form -- or lapsed, as state law defines it -- all contracts will end, including those of tenured teachers and of newly hired Superintendent Clive Coleman. Nicastro said the special administrative board (SAB) has been strongly urged to retain Coleman.

All contracts with vendors will be nullified and have to be reconsidered. Teachers may be rehired, but those with tenure will receive probationary contracts.

The SAB will be in charge for three years, though it can be reappointed after that time if the state board thinks such a move is necessary. If the SAB goes out of business after three years, an elected board would be reinstated.

For that to happen, the state board would have to determine that Riverview Gardens has made significant progress in improving student performance and will be able to continue to improve. Currently, the state requires districts to meet nine out of 14 academic standards to be accredited; in its last review, Riverview Gardens met none.

Riverview Gardens has 6,630 students and a budget of $66.3 million. Three of its 13 schools have been designated as persistently underperforming and are eligible to apply for improvement grants from the federal government. The change to an SAB will not affect that process, officials said.

Under state law, Nicastro said, once the district had gone unaccredited for three years, one of three things had to happen. It could have been merged with another district, but that option was dismissed as impractical because of the district's size and the fact any other district would have had to approve the change.

It also could have been divided into smaller districts, but that choice was also not made. What was left, she said, was the SAB, which is similar to the one running the St. Louis Public Schools but will be named by the state board because Riverview Gardens is governed by a different law.

Noting the time she served as superintendent before moving to a similar job with the Hazelwood schools, then to her current position, Nicastro said she felt a personal stake in making sure Riverview Gardens succeeds.

"I feel deeply about these kids and this district," she told reporters before the public meeting. "I've invested a lot of myself."

The tone of the meeting with about 150 residents was cordial but subdued. Nicastro greeted many employees on her way in, hugging some of them, and answered many questions submitted on cards during the hour-long session. Reaction to the SAB ranged from wary to relieved.

The Rev. Tommie Pierson, who is currently president of the elected board, said he was confident his colleagues would be able to work with SAB and said it will have the power to change things in a way that the elected board can't.

"They can terminate contracts," he said. "We can't. That's one of the things that got us where we are."

He said that people who oppose the move should look at it from a different perspective.

"To them, it's a state takeover," Pierson said. "To me, we have a district that has lapsed and they're coming in to revive the district."

He was heartened by Nicastro's push to make sure the elected board would have an advisory role in running the district.

"If they come in and tried to make sweeping changes without the advice of the people who have been in the trenches," Pierson said. "they're going to have problems."

That view was echoed by Shonte Young, an alderwoman in Moline Acres who has twin boys in elementary school and a daughter in high school in Riverview Gardens; she also serves as a volunteer volleyball coach.

"I don't see it as a gloom and doom situation," she said. "I see it more as an opportunity. I don't believe for a moment that this is going to go any way but great."

She said part of the reason for her upbeat attitude is the residual confidence in Nicastro from her days as superintendent.

"There is a lot of trust in her," Young said. "They know she genuinely cares. They trust she is going to act in the best interests of the children and the community."

As to who will be on the SAB, Young said she hopes the members will know how to operate schools.

"I don't want a big name with no experience running my school district," she said. "I don't care whether I've heard of them, as long as they know what they're doing. I want someone with experience to pull us out of this situation."

Coleman, who was hired to take over as superintendent on July 1, said he wasn't sure of the depth of the problems the district had when he agreed to take over. But he is ready to work with the SAB to turn the situation around.

"I am not bailing out," he said. "It's not my intention to quit. I want to be a part of change."

And Raven Martin, a sophomore who has attended the district schools all her life, said she was hopeful but skeptical that things will get better, not only for her but for her brothers and sisters coming up through the lower grades.

She got special reassurance from Nicastro, who gave her a big hug as she headed into the public meeting, saying:

"It's going to be all right."

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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