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Education

With no St. Louis member, state school board will discuss future of city schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 20, 2010 - When the seven members of the Missouri Board of Education discuss the future of the St. Louis Public Schools in Jefferson City on Friday, one perspective will be missing - someone from the city itself.

At stake will be whether the board extends the authority of the Special Administrative Board that has run the district since 2007, as recommended by a committee headed by William Danforth and Frankie Freeman.

Since 2006, the state board has lacked a full-time member from St. Louis. Three people have been named to succeed Vanetta Rogers, but none has been confirmed. No more than one member can come from each of the state's nine congressional districts, and not more than four members can come from one political party.

So with no one on the board from the 1st or 3rd congressional district, which make up the city of St. Louis, and with four Democrats and three Republicans on the board currently, Gov. Jay Nixon's next appointment would have to be a GOP member from the city.

What qualities is he looking for? Spokesman Scott Holste wouldn't get specific, but he said in an e-mail that "the importance of this particular board means the governor wants to ensure that we have a board member in place who will be a thoughtful, strong supporter of public education."

That qualification may have derailed earlier efforts to fill a St. Louis seat on the board.

When Rogers left, then-Gov. Matt Blunt nominated people - first Donayle Whitmore-Smith, then Derio Gambaro. But in both cases, their support for using tax credits to send children in failing districts to parochial or private schools derailed the nominations. Then-Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, blocked their confirmation, using the prerogative of senatorial courtesy.

Earlier this year, Nixon nominated Tony Thompson, head of Kwame Construction, to sit on the board as a Democrat, but the nomination was withdrawn shortly thereafter, without a confirmation vote by the Senate. Then, he had another opportunity to name a Democrat from St. Louis when Russell Thompson of Columbia, a Republican, left the state board.

Instead, Russell Thompson was replaced by attorney Russell Still, a Columbia Democrat who formerly sat on the Columbia school board and is the husband of state Rep. Mary Still, a former aide to Nixon when he was attorney general. So a St. Louis representative on the board will have to come from the GOP - not a combination that is easy to find.

"We've heard there are Republicans in the city," said Robbyn Wahby, Mayor Francis Slay's education adviser. "We have great people who want to offer their time and talent for the betterment of our community. They do it for all kinds of issues. I'm sure they'll find someone who can do it for this issue as well."

Wahby said she knows Nixon's office has been looking for the right person, and she is glad he is not rushing to find someone just to make sure St. Louis has representation. "We'd rather he take the time than putting someone in there just to fill the seat," she said in an interview.

She also notes that Chris Nicastro, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education for Missouri, has urban experience from her days as superintendent in Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood, so it's not as though no one at the state level understands the special problems of the city schools.

Still, she said, the unique St. Louis perspective would be valuable as the state board debates whether the Special Administrative Board should continue, as recommended in a report the Danforth-Freeman committee issued earlier this month. The report is on the state board's agenda for discussion Friday, with a vote expected next month.

"We have very poor children," Wahby said. "We have an unaccredited district. We have citizens who want to use public education and feel they either have to pay or leave the city to get it. We have charter schools, and we have a voluntary choice plan. We have to make sure folks who sit on the state board really understand that complexity.

"I think we're pretty lucky that the commissioner understands the region and has a good idea of what St. Louis needs, but it would be better if we actually had someone from St. Louis there."

David Liechti, a Democrat from St. Joseph who is president of the state board, agrees. While he says that the board's job is to look at education across the entire state, "I would love to have another board member from St. Louis.

"You can always use more input. But I don't think it shortchanges the city. We're relying on the committee that studied the issue to interact with community leaders to get us the right information."

Liechti said he wasn't sure what the delay has been in finding a permanent replacement for Rogers. "The politics of that," he said, "I really don't understand."

Neither does Rogers herself, who retired from the Red Cross and is now concentrating on the welfare of children on a more personal level -- making sure her two grandchildren make it to the school bus on time each morning.

"I think it's very important that someone with a level of intimate knowledge is there," she said about the need for someone from St. Louis on the state board.

"You have professionals who are very much able to learn about all areas of the state. They take the time to try to understand all of the problems. I respect their desire and their ability to be informed and act in a responsible manner. But I still think there are limitations when you should have a body of eight people and only seven are making the final decisions."

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