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For Riverview Gardens schools, summer is no time for vacation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2010 - As the Riverview Gardens School District heads toward uncharted waters, teachers and other employees are becoming increasingly concerned that they may not have a seat on the boat.

On July 1, the north St. Louis County district will cease to exist, replaced by a new district taken over by the state and run by a three-member appointed special administrative board (SAB). All contracts established by the lapsed district will end -- no teachers, no administrators, no support personnel, no vendors.

Even though the SAB doesn't officially take control for another 17 days, it held its second organizational meeting Monday morning, where board president Lynn Beckwith made clear that for Riverview Gardens to turn around, the conditions that led to the state takeover in the first place, business as usual has to end.

"We're going through fundamental change in the district," Beckwith told an audience of about 40 people, many of them district employees trying to get a firmer grip on what their future may hold.

"This is a paradigm shift. What was, will no longer exist on July 1. It's almost like we're starting from scratch, like we're creating a new district. The way it was, will be history. We're not talking about incremental change. We won't get where we want to go with incremental change."

Who will help the district get where it is going is still unclear. Much of Monday morning's meeting dealt with the transition, with SAB member Mark Tranel, a professor of public policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, asking very basic questions -- like how will a district employee with a year-round contract know whether to show up as usual on July 1?

The entire situation may be similar to changing a tire on a moving car. While the elected board remains in place for the rest of the month, and employees whose contracts end June 30 remain Riverview Gardens employees, the district is trying to run a process by which teachers and others may reapply for their jobs, if they wish.

By the end of the month, the district hopes to have a list of the people who should be hired by the SAB, which plans to meet twice on July 1 -- once at 10 a.m., when it will have a budget meeting and vote on contracts, and again at 7 p.m. Tranel asked whether they should be meeting even earlier, so workers who appear on the job will be sure they have something to do.

Superintendent-in-waiting Clive Coleman -- whose hiring also has to be confirmed by the SAB but who has been working as a consultant in the district since being hired a few months ago -- assured the SAB that the process will run as smoothly as possible.

But Beckwith, a former superintendent of schools in University City, pointed out how difficult the transition is for people who aren't sure whether their paychecks will continue.

"If I were an employee of this district right now," Beckwith said, "it would be very stressful for me to know if I had a job or did not have a job."

His statement met with murmurs of approval from the audience.

In an interview after the meeting, Beckwith acknowledged again the hardships that the uncertainty has caused, adding: "We're going into new waters."

To Richard Thies, president of the district's chapters of the National Education Association, planning for the journey has been less than successful.

"It's horrible," said Thies, who is an instructional technology teacher in the district's elementary schools.

"Nobody even is aware of the application process. They put a little icon on the Riverview Gardens website's home page, but they didn't even let people know it's there."

Asked if he has been getting a lot of questions from the 300 members of the union, Thies said he has, but "I don't have answers, because no one will provide answers. I sent out an e-mail asking for clarification, and no one at the Riverview level even responded.

"The process in place currently is not a valid one in our opinion."

Financially, Riverview Gardens' situation is similarly in flux. It currently is applying for school improvement grants for its high school and its two middle schools, with draft applications due at noon today. It is seeking $2 million for each school, and using the so-called "turnaround" model, which calls for replacing the principal and half of the staff. Final applications are due in July.

Beckwith questioned the use of such short-term funding, saying that whatever changes the money may bring might not be able to be sustained long-term.

"People get very used to what they have," he said. "We want to make sure we don't build a house that cannot stand."

Overall, budget projections show a reduction in state aid of $1.6 million because of a decrease in enrollment, and a loss of another $1.8 million in federal funds. The district has $6.5 million in federal stimulus funds for the upcoming school year, but the future of that source of money is uncertain, and the outlook for state aid is equally murky because of Missouri's budget problems.

The projected budget is for $57.5 million, $1 million less than projected revenue. Altogether, the revenue breakdown is 60 percent from the state, 19 percent from local property tax, 9 percent from the federal government, 8 percent from Proposition C sales tax money and the rest from various sources.

Besides its two meetings on July 1, Beckwith said the SAB would hold a community meeting at 7 p.m., Tues., June 22 at Westview Middle School, 1950 Nemnich Road, where members of the community may sign up to speak for up to three minutes, to address what he called "a lot of unanswered questions" about the transition.

The SAB also plans a meeting on June 28, and will meet regularly on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month at 7 p.m., though that schedule will not hold for July because of previous commitments made by board members before they were appointed to the SAB.

Besides Beckwith's appointment as president -- a post he got automatically because he is the only member of the board who does not live in the district -- Tranel will serve as secretary-treasurer and Veronica Morrow-Reel, a member of the Dellwood Board of Aldermen, will be vice president. She did not attend Monday's meeting because of a death in her family, Beckwith said.

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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