Judge refuses to step in; state of Missouri now controls St. Louis Schools
By Marshall Griffin, KWMU / AP
Jefferson City, Mo. – The state takeover of the St. Louis public school system is now in effect, after a judge in Jefferson City refused to stop the takeover Thursday night.
The three-person appointed board that's now running the district is meeting Friday morning for the first time.
Lawyers for St. Louis schools claimed that the State Board of Education acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it voted to strip the district of its accreditation.
But Paul Wilson, who represents the state, said board members made the right decision.
"Unless there's some legal basis for them to be excused from the consequences of their performance, the State Board of Education's determination ought to be allowed to become effective," he said during arguments Thursday.
In a three-page order late Thursday, Callahan said St. Louis officials did not prove their case and rejected a request to temporarily block the state takeover.
"With absolutely no disrespect intended to the current superintendent and her staff, the Court does not find that the petitioners have carried their burden of proving their position on this issue to be superior," Callahan wrote.
The State Board of Education voted in March to strip the St. Louis district of accreditation, saying it came up short on academic and financial standards. A three-member board appointed by the governor, mayor and alderman president is to manage the schools.
Gov. Matt Blunt appointed developer Rick Sullivan to head the board. Mayor Francis Slay chose Melanie Adams, who was the first executive director of Teach for America when it came to St. Louis and now works as managing director for the Missouri Historical Society. Aldermanic President Lewis Reed on Thursday named Richard Gaines, an insurance broker who served on the St. Louis School Board from 1983 to 1989, including a stint as its president.
Gaines said he had reservations about taking the position, but had agreed because of his respect for Reed.
"What I bring uniquely is the fact that I've been there before," he said.
The lawsuit makes more than two dozen claims, basically arguing that the state acted unconstitutionally in removing accreditation and setting up an appointed board. Without loss of accreditation, the appointed board would have no power and serve merely in an advisory role.
After the ruling, School Board President Peter Downs said he hoped the appointed board would work with him and other elected board members.
"This is a small setback, but we are going to continue to fight for better schools and local control," he said in a written statement.
Superintendent Diana Bourisaw said she intended to remain with the district because the students need stability.
One aspect that St. Louis school attorneys focused on is whether the state education department followed the proper steps in the rule-making process. If formal rules on accreditation are lacking or vague, then the state board's action removing accreditation would be void, and the elected board should remain in control, attorneys argued.
Assistant attorney general Paul Wilson, representing the state board and agency, argued that the department properly placed broad concepts in a rule, and that providing a separate detailed manual that hasn't been adopted as a rule does not invalidate the process. The manual offers guidance for districts on what performance they need to reach and how data is calculated to establish their level of accreditation.
"We are pleased with the decision the court affirmed the standards and the process that we used to evaluate the school district," said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "In this case, the data clearly show that St. Louis has been losing ground in academic performance.
"We feel the state action is not only justified, but also necessary to get this school district back on track."
The lawsuit also argued the district was treated differently from others with similar performance and that an appointed board denies city residents' rights to vote for the local governing body.
The section of state law providing for a so-called "transitional" district and board is tailored specifically to St. Louis in response to the federal desegregation settlement. It allows the state board to dissolve or recreate the transitional district as needed.
Other school districts generally have a two-year window once declared unaccredited before being subject to a state takeover.