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Government, Politics & Issues

Opponents of state control of city schools won't fight Supreme Court verdict

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2008 - Some members of the elected city School Board say they intend to keep working to support city schools in spite of a state Supreme Court ruling that left them powerless to run the system.

In a decision handed down Tuesday, the court affirmed the right of the Missouri Board of Education to yank accreditation for the city school district and allow a three-member appointed board, called the Special Administrative Board or SAB, to run the system. The SAB is supposed to run the system until mid-2011.


The three SAB members were appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt, Mayor Francis Slay and Aldermanic Board President Lewis Reed. Blunt’s appointee is Rick Sullivan, an area business executive, who also serves as CEO of the district. The other two are Melanie Adams and Richard Gaines.

The court ruling was a response to a lawsuit challenging state arrangements that left the elected board in office but stripped of its powers. One elected board member, William Purdy, says the group raised about $50,000 to challenge the SAB’s authority. He says he’s disappointed by the ruling but says he and other foes of the SAB “have probably reached the end of the line.”

Purdy added, “I’m disappointed, but that’s the way it is. It means three members of an appointed board are now unquestionably in charge. They were not elected. The citizens have no way of holding them accountable. No matter how well or how poorly they run the system, the taxpayers cannot put them out of office.”

One reason Purdy finds the ruling so disappointing is that the SAB, he says, isn't held accountable for its shortcomings. He says one area where the SAB has fallen short involves strategic planning. The elected board held several well-attended community meetings as part of its recently released strategic plan for the system. By contrast, Purdy said, the SAB is just getting around to strategic planning in spite of the time it has been in charge of the system.

Jim Morris, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says the ruling addresses the concern raised by Purdy.

He said the court action “affirms the decision by the state Board of Education, the basis for that decision, the standards used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the process that we followed in deciding St. Louis’ accreditation.”

He said the community has representation because “the three members were appointed by elected officials. There still is a local force. I would say this decision helps undergird the credibility of the special board and perhaps helps give it more credibility.”

Purdy says he will not seek re-election in April. The seats held by two other board members -– Veronica O’Brien and Flint Fowler -– also are up for grabs in April. It was unclear whether either would run again. As of Tuesday, only one candidate, Bill Haas, had filed.

Sullivan Wants To Stay

Much of the criticism of the SAB has been aimed at Sullivan. One parent, Chad Beffa,  and elected board member Peter Downs say incoming Gov. Jay Nixon should consider replacing Sullivan with an educator. Nixon hasn’t commented on the issue, and most people are unsure whether the next governor has the authority to remove Sullivan before Sullivan’s term expires.

But outgoing state Sen. Maida Coleman of St. Louis, a critic of the SAB, feels Sullivan should be replaced. She says that while the law is vague about what a new governor can do about the SAB, "I believe Jay Nixon will be within his powers if he decides to replace Sullivan. I expect the new governor to examine this issue very closely because of how volatile it has been in the city."

Sullivan said, "My appointment has a term which expires in June 2010. I believe the SAB is important to the operation of the St. Louis Public Schools, and it’s not my intention to resign or step down.”

He added that the SAB wanted to continue to work with elected board members. “The SAB has frequently invited the elected board to events and give us feedback about various matter,” Sullivan said. “We’ll continue to look to their input and suggestions to improve student achievement.”

Both Purdy and Downs say it’s important for the public to continue electing school board members even though the SAB will run city schools.

Downs notes that the terms of the three candidates who run in April won’t expire until after the SAB control of city schools come to a close. But Downs says the elected board hasn’t decided what its role will be in light of the court’s ruling. He said the elected board will hold its regular meeting on Jan. 13 and decide how to co-exist with the SAB.

Downs adds that he senses that community residents are more concerned about the SAB doing better planning on issues such as closing schools. He says the SAB should be more creative -- considering, for example, whether some schools could be kept opened through dual uses, such as converting unused space for social services.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeff Smith, also of St. Louis, fully supports the work of the SAB and argues that Sullivan has done a good job. Smith says replacing Sullivan hasn't come up in his conversations with Nixon, but that he and Nixon have discussed the need for a St. Louis area representative on on the Missouri Board of Education.

Blunt has tried twice to fill the slot on the board with candidates from Smith's district but got no support from Smith. He says he wants a candidate who isn't an "ideologue" and isn't pro-voucher but is favorable to charter schools. Smith says Nixon would have no problem finding a good state board candidate.

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