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Government, Politics & Issues

Committee says appointed board should keep running city schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2010 - The appointed board that has run the St. Louis Public Schools since 2007 has done such a good job that it should remain in place until the district gets accredited or makes sufficient progress toward that goal, a committee asked to study the situation has recommended.

The decision on when control should switch back to an elected school board would be up to state education officials.

The five-member panel -- headed by William Danforth and Frankie Freeman -- is the same group whose recommendations led to the state takeover of the city schools by the Special Administrative Board (SAB). It adopted the report on a unanimous vote Friday at Harris-Stowe State University, with no discussion. The report is available online.

After the vote, Danforth said: "Our message is to stay the course."

After being reconvened last year to study what the next steps should be, the panel said a transition back to an elected school board should occur only when more progress has been made toward regaining accreditation, and even then the governance should change only gradually over a number of years.

"We can't see the future," Danforth said in an interview Thursday before the panel voted to approve the recommendations, "but as long as progress is being made, the SAB should stay in place."

After the committee adopted the report, Rebecca Rogers, president of the elected board, said she was hopeful in the sense that the panel called for the elected board's return to power eventually. But she said she had hoped for a more definite timeline.

She also noted that when the SAB took over in the first place, three factors were cited: accreditation, stability and leadership. Given that list, Rogers said she hoped that accreditation would not be the only benchmark used to determine when the transition back to the elected board takes place.

"Each should be a piece of the puzzle," she said of the three factors.

The Danforth-Freeman committee's report now goes to Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for Missouri. She plans to review it, plus public comment, and present the issue to the state board of education at its meeting Oct. 22 in Jefferson City.

Rogers  said she hopes Nicastro and the state board also consider the elected board's transition report, which was issued in August. It calls for an end to the SAB next June.

Rogers said one of the big disappointments of the Danforth-Freeman committee's report is that it weakens the capacity of city residents to govern themselves. But she said the more important issue is not who runs the schools but the amount of money they are given to operate.

"Governance is not the issue," she said. "resources are the issue."

Asked how DESE would determine whether sufficient progress was being made so that a move back to an elected board could begin, as outlined in the Danforth-Freeman report, DESE spokeswoman Michele Clark said the district would have to achieve at least provisional accreditation before any such return would begin.

"Student achievement is going to have to be the key part of that," she said. "It's not about the governing body. It's about student achievement. We hope it's not a long-term process, but it does take a long time to turn these things around."

Since the SAB took over, city residents have kept choosing people to serve on an elected board, but its authority has been severely limited. 

He and Freeman both said that their panel looked at various forms of governance and found that an elected board would be most acceptable, once the schools have shown solid improvement. Freeman said having a hybrid board, with some appointed members and some elected ones, would not be good because there should not be two separate classes of directors.

In Thursday's interview, Danforth said that a main reason for the committee's conclusion is that the SAB has brought an end to the turmoil, turnover and infighting that characterized the city schools before the three-member appointed board took over. Specifically, he cited progress made since the board named Kelvin Adams superintendent in 2008.

"We think stability is important," Danforth said. "We think consistency is important. The fireworks stopped, and the meetings became calm and orderly.

"Our committee thinks the SAB has done a wonderful job in appointing Kelvin Adams. We think very highly of him, and we think the board has done a wonderful job of turning over the proper authority to him and not micromanaging things."

Danforth also praised the improved data collection that has helped the city schools determine just how well students are doing.

He noted that the city school system is complicated and that no one should expect dramatic changes in a short period of time.

"The second-graders of today will still be in the system 10 years from now," Danforth said. "You have to be patient. To think you can judge the schools by the last year's results is pretty naive."

Danforth said the transition to an elected board could be accomplished with a timetable that would add two elected board members every two years, with SAB members remaining in place, until seven elected members are in place, when the SAB members would leave.

But accomplishing such a change would require new legislation, he said.

"The legislation should spell out how it should happen, but not when," Danforth said. "That's the type of decision that should be left to DESE. One of the reasons we made our initial recommendation is that it didn't need legislation, but we now need legislation to get back.

"The idea is to have continuity and to have people on the board who know what is going on. We're recommending consistency and stability, and this is one way to get it."

Among other accomplishments achieved since the SAB took over, Danforth pointed to the overwhelming passage in August of a $155 million bond issue "over the objections of the distinguished elected board."

"I've always thought," he added, "that the people of St. Louis would support education if they see that things are being done right."

Freeman expressed concern -- on her own behalf, she stressed, and not on the part of the committee -- that the community make sure that when an elected board regains control of the district, its members are sufficiently qualified to run the schools properly. Moving the school board election to November from April should help ensure that the campaign receives more attention, she said.

"The community has to at least recognize the value in their voting for the right people to serve on the board of education," Freeman said.

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