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State school board members disagree on when elected board may run St. Louis schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2010 - JEFFERSON CITY -- Members of the state school board agree that an appointed board should keep running the St. Louis Public Schools until the system makes more progress, but they disagree on at what point the transition back to an elected local board should begin.

The authority of the Special Administrative Board (SAB) that has run the city schools since 2007 will expire at the end of June 2011 unless it is renewed by the state school board. At its meeting Friday, education commissioner Chris Nicastro presented the report from a committee headed by William Danforth and Frankie Freeman, which studied the governance of the schools and said the SAB should retain control at least in the near future.

None of the members of the state board attending the meeting expressed opposition to that stance; the board is expected to vote at its meeting next month. But the question of how long the SAB's authority should last prompted a disagreement between Peter Herschend of Branson and Stan Archie of Kansas City.

For Herschend, the board's vice president, the improvements made under the direction of the SAB are good, but they need to continue until the city schools regain accreditation -- a point that Nicastro said could be as much as 10 years away. The loss of that accreditation is what triggered the takeover by the appointed SAB.

"I believe this board should take a stand that St. Louis Public Schools will be returned to public control when the district is fully accredited, not provisionally accredited, under whatever measurement system we are using at that time," Herschend said.

"To take a school district and say 'You're getting a D, that's good enough' -- that's not good enough. We need to be more demanding."

Herschend pointed out that the SAB was the board that hired Kelvin Adams as superintendent; his leadership was praised as one reason that the St. Louis Public Schools have made academic progress.

"Around that gentleman lies the operational key to success, backed by the transitional board," Herschend said. "That's the combination. You lose that position, and we fall back."

Archie countered that he isn't sure that the appointed SAB is the best way to run a school district, and movement in the right direction, not necessarily accreditation, should be the benchmark for putting an elected board back into place.

"I think once we've recognized the challenge and put into place a system that is leading toward the mobility we are looking for," Archie said, "the transition should start before reach accreditation is reached. I don't know that we have to wait until they cross the finish line."

The state board has no members from St. Louis

Nicastro noted that the state will soon be moving to a system that evaluates school districts for accreditation on an annual basis, rather than the current five-year cycle, so it will be easier to track whatever progress the city schools are making.

She noted that the most recent report showed the strongest academic performance by city students in a while, but she acknowledged that the movement was small.

"Progress is slow," she said. "It's very incremental, but nevertheless there's evidence there is progress. They have a long way to go, but we believe they're on the right path.

"Changing and improving a large urban district not a quick process. It takes prolonged, sustained effort over six to 10 years. I would say we have a long way to go."

Besides academic movement, she said, the city schools also have to show improvement in their financial performance, particularly in light of cuts in education funding from the state.

"Budget cuts have hit them as hard or harder as other districts," Nicastro said.

While the state board has the power to extend the SAB's authority to run the city schools, it has no say over whether current board members would remain. That would be up to the people who appointed them: the governor, the mayor and the president of the Board of Aldermen.

Ensuring stability was emphasized by several board members, noting the rapid turnover in administration and elsewhere that preceded the loss of accreditation.

"It's like a mortgage," said Herschend. "They are going to be forever upside down in academic attainment. It is imperative we do everything we can to keep the current machinery in place."

Nicastro also noted that when an elected board does return to power, the Danforth-Freeman committee recommends that its members be newly elected, not automatically be members of whatever elected board is in place at the time.

One of the big problems under the old system, the committee said, was that "voters weren't taking very seriously the election of school board members," she said.

Nicastro praised the Danforth-Freeman committee for providing the state board with direction on what the future of the city schools should look like, and she urged action on its recommendations "sooner rather than later."

"We need to put everybody on notice what the future will be after June 30," she said.

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