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City school transition talks won’t resume before January

Students at Adams Elementary in St. Louis Sept 2016
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Students participate in a group reading excercise at Adams Elementary in September.

While state education officials try to work around obstacles that have blocked efforts to move control of the St. Louis Public Schools back to an elected board, talks on the issue have been suspended until January at the earliest.

And with school board elections set for April, the balloting could take on additional significance.

A group set up by the state school board to discuss the issue has been able to meet only once. In August, its second scheduled meeting was disrupted, then called off, when Bill Monroe, a member of the elected school board, tried to join and refused to leave.

His presence would have given the elected board four attendees, a quorum, and required that the meeting be open to the public and the media. Rather than continue under such circumstances, the session broke up.

The downtown headquarters building for the St. Louis Public Schools
Credit File photo | Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

At the next meeting of the state board, in September, President Charlie Shields said he would have to try to come up with a way for the meetings to continue. He said this week that he hasn’t yet settled on a Plan B, and he isn’t sure the state board will even discuss the issue at its next meeting, in December.

Shields and Missouri education commissioner Margie Vandeven both said the earliest the talks are likely to resume is after the first of the year.

“Until we have a plan that we can bring to our board and talk about, I think it's fair to say those are on hold from our perspective,” Vandeven said. "What St. Louis would like to do in meeting together, they are free to meet and discuss and do whatever. But as far as the board's involvement, we have put those particular discussions on hold for now.”

No quorum, no open meetings

The group set up by the state board was designed to have representatives from three bodies — the state board, the elected board and the appointed Special Administrative Board (SAB) that has run the city school system since 2007. Even with the SAB in charge, an elected board has existed but had no real power.

With two members of the state board, three members of the elected board and one member of the SAB, the transition meetings could be closed because none of the boards would have a quorum present.

And keeping the meetings closed at this stage of the discussions is the best way to proceed, Vandeven said, so the public doesn’t misinterpret general discussion and trial balloons to be specific plans or proposals.

“This is just to get together to talk about relationship building,” Vandeven said, adding that anything discussed by members of the transition panel would be brought back to their individual boards in open meetings before any final decisions are made.

“But at the very, very initial meetings, it was just to talk about specifically how and what kind of relationship-building piece. It was very much believed that it would not be appropriate to have a relationship-building discussion in the open, because people jump to a lot of conclusions,” she said.

Shields put it this way:

“If it's done in a very public setting, that can work also. It just requires, I think, a little more structure around it. So that ideas can be floated in a very constructive manner, and even if they're bad ideas, they can be evaluated and discounted and people can keep moving toward a process.” 

Charlie Shields, president of the state school board, and Margie Vandeven, commissioner of education, at a meeting in Jefferson City on Dec. 1, 2015.
Credit File photo | Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Charlie Shields, president of the state school board, and Margie Vandeven, commissioner of education, at a meeting in Jefferson City on Dec. 1, 2015.

Since the special board took over, the city schools have improved in the three areas of concern cited when it replaced the elected board: student achievement, finances and governance. But the actions by Monroe have prompted questions about whether old problems with dissension within the board mean a transition should be delayed.

Election matters

Shields said the issue of transition makes next spring’s school board election critical.

It’s not a question of making sure the right people are elected, he said. He just wants to make sure St. Louis voters understand what is likely to be at stake.

“That would be very presumptuous on the part of the state board and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to determine if that local school board is capable of assuming control,” he said. “I don't that we're in a position to do that. 

“What I think is important is that the electorate in that school district understands that at some point in the future, this will revert back to the elected school board. It's not just electing people to kind of a shadow board. It's electing people who eventually will have governance of that district. So who you elect to that school board is very, very important.”

For his part, Monroe said he plans to continue showing up at whatever sessions are held on the topic of the transition, and he plans to run for re-election when his seat on the elected board is up in April.

“I was elected to the elected board to look after the interests of our community and our children,” Monroe said. “And that involves the transmission of information and a tactic that is designed to thwart the electoral process. I'm duty bound to make that public, and if they're uncomfortable with that, they'll acquiesce to the need for transparency. But I don't think so.

“I represent the people of the city of St. Louis I'm going to be there. And the only way they can deny me that, the only way is through trickery and the darkness of night.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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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