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Education

Candidates for elected city school board want full power back

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2010 - The five candidates running for two seats on the elected St. Louis School Board don't agree on everything, but they're unanimous on one issue: They want the elected board to get back the power to run the system.

Since 2007, the city schools have been run by an appointed Special Administrative Board (SAB). Voters have continued to elect a separate board as well, but its powers are limited.

A committee led by William Danforth and Frankie Freeman, whose recommendations led to the takeover by the SAB, is studying the issue of what should happen next; its final report is due on Friday.

Meanwhile, five people are running in the Nov. 2 election for the two seats that are up for grabs on the elected board: Incumbent Donna Jones, former member Bill Haas, Derek Craft, Bill Monroe and Doug Petty. Board member Peter Downs is not seeking re-election.

The candidates appeared Wednesday night at a candidate forum at Legacy Books and Cafe on Delmar, where a couple dozen people heard their opening statements, then their responses to questions.

Here is what they had to say.

Donna Jones

As a parent in the system for 20 years and a board member since 2006, she came out strongly against the SAB and against charter schools that she said are "sucking the lifeblood out of the St. Louis Public Schools."

"People keep saying that charter schools are here to stay," Jones added. "We need a moratorium on charter schools. Charter schools as well as St. Louis public schools are suffering."

She said the city school system is broke because funds have been mismanaged; that is why, she said, she and other elected board members opposed the $155 million bond issue for city schools that was passed overwhelmingly by voters in August.

Jones also said that state education officials have worked to make sure that the city schools do not regain accreditation so that the system can eventually be disbanded.

"Think of the psychological damage that it does to our children who go to unaccredited schools," she said, "and when they say that adults don't think enough of them to think they will be able to get accreditation back."

She criticized the outsourcing of custodial positions, saying that removing adults from school buildings who were familiar to students helped destabilize lives that already suffer from a lack of adult supervision. Jones also said that black teachers are being targeted by the district for discipline and dismissal.

Bill Haas

Haas served on the board from 1997-2005. Since then, he has run unsuccessfully twice for Congress but decided to run again for the school board this year. "It's nice to get back to my roots," he said.

He has served as a substitute teacher in the city schools for the past four years and said the experience has given him a perspective that would make him a valuable member of the elected board. He also said he wants to make sure that the state cannot take over school districts again without residents of the district having a say in the matter.

"I'd like to be the catalyst to develop a statewide referendum prohibiting state takeovers of public schools without a vote by residents," Haas said. "That's the only way we're going to stop the power grab by Jefferson City."

When it comes to charters, he said: "My goal would be to make St. Louis Public Schools so good, no one wants to send their children anywhere else."

He wants a state audit of the district to "tell us what we are doing wrong, what we are doing right and what we can do better."

Haas said the city schools should have zero tolerance for allowing any child who reaches the third grade to be reading below grade level. "If you don't get them by third grade," he said, "you never get them."

Asked whether there should be a moratorium on charter schools, Haas said he was not sure, but on the issue of the state takeover, his opinion was much firmer.

"DESE's just the devil," he said of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "I really expected more out of them. How dare they take democracy away from the people?"

Bill Monroe

Of all five candidates, Monroe was the most accepting of charter schools -- in fact, he was a founder of the now-defunct Thurgood Marshall charter. He blamed its failure on the actions of the management company that ran the school, but he said that charters themselves are not the enemy,

Instead, he prefers the choice that charters give to parents, adding:

"I will educate my child at the best level possible."

He would like to see the governance of the district revert to an elected board by June 2011, with the SAB and the elected board sitting down together to make sure that the transition is as smooth and as open as possible.

A former policeman, he recalled the days when he had to kick down doors to go after drug dealers, and said that serving on the school board would give him the opportunity to "kick down the doors of ignorance."

"The elected board will be the recipient once again of the stewardship of the St. Louis Public Schools," Monroe said. "I think it's headed in that direction."

Derek Craft

Craft said he became involved with the schools when his son attended Sumner High School from 2002-06, a time of turmoil in the district. He also has volunteered at the Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club.

He would like to see a renewed emphasis on civics and citizenship in the city schools' curriculum, so that students get a better idea of who their elected representatives are and what they do, and so that elected officials become more involved in the schools.

Today, he said, the subjects taught in the city schools still reflect an industrialized society instead of one that has moved into the computer age.

On charters, Craft said that students and their parents deserve to have options.

"I am for choice," he said, "whether its magnets or charters. As a board member, I'd like to see that all schools are held to the same standards."

Doug Petty

He said he was encouraged to run and help the schools achieve an "image makeover."

As far as charters, Petty said he accepts the fact that they are "the reality of where we are today. They are part of where we live," and he would like the city schools to establish a closer working relationship with them.

"The most important thing about them is that students have to be served," he said.

On the outsourcing of custodial and food service jobs, he said he did not like to see anyone lose a job, but the district had to consider efficiencies wherever possible.

Asked about whether black teachers have been targeted for dismissal, Petty said:

"That sounds a bit conspiratorial. The most important thing is teachers' effectiveness in the classroom, even if they are polka-dot."

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