The Missouri State Board of Education started advancing education policy in the state for the first time in six months with just enough members to do so.
The board’s meeting in Jefferson City was its first since December, when former Gov. Eric Greitens’ efforts to fire the education commissioner led to acrimony within the board and education community.
“These have been some difficult and challenging times, to say the least,” said Mike Jones, a board member from St. Louis.
By the time board President Charlie Shields swore in the two members appointed by newly-seated Gov. Mike Parson Tuesday, the meeting room had a more friendly, jovial atmosphere.
“The governor and first lady are committed to public education in this state and the fact this was his first priority as governor shows that commitment,” Shields said.
Branson businessman Peter Herschend returned to the board after, he said, he “was requested to unserve” last summer by Greitens. He first joined the board in 1991.
“The difference that we have made in the education attainment of students in this state since I came on in 1991, the measurable difference in performance, the measurable difference in expectations is earth-changing. It is a profound difference,” Herschend said.
Carol Hallquist, from Kansas City, was also sworn in. She is a former corporate executive who started a school principal mentorship nonprofit.
Parson will need to select three more people to fill out the board at some point, but with Herschend and Hallquist, the board now has a quorum and can approve actions. The fifth member is Vic Lenz from St. Louis County.
One priority that has been stalled over the past months is coming up with a new version of the academic standards Herschend hinted at.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is working on a sixth iteration of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, which is how the department measures a school district’s academic performance. The board also uses those metrics for deciding whether a district meets accreditation standards.
DESE officials gave an update, saying it plans to have a final version to the board in September. The new version is expected to take family economic situations more into account when measure students' year-over-year growth, among other changes.
Charter school reauthorization
The board also approved the renewal of charters for five schools in St. Louis and Kansas City. That action is largely a formality, which is a constant annoyance for the board, as the ability to close a struggling or failing school falls on its university sponsor.
The board’s inability to finalize renewal had raised the question of whether the charter schools could still open in August. After confirming with lawyers, DESE assured them they could, regardless of the board’s efforts.
Lift for Life Academy, Eagle College Prep Endeavor and Lafayette Preparatory Academy, all in St. Louis, were all granted five more years of operation.
Gordon Parks Elementary, in Kansas City, was applauded for its improvement in academic performance since its last five-year renewal. Kansas City’s Brookside Charter School also was reauthorized.
Finding a commissioner
Board members also talked about restarting their search for an education commissioner but took no action. The board, stacked with loyalists to Greitens, fired Margie Vandeven as commissioner in December.
Racing the clock ahead of Senate confirmation in January, the five Greitens picks tried to find a new commissioner at a breakneck speed. Ten people applied, but they were not considered because the Senate never approved the former governor’s nominees to allow that iteration of the board to meet again. Shields, Lenz and Jones objected to both firing Vandeven and the condensed search process.
Shields said the political climate at the time likely scared more people off from applying. Now, Shields said, because DESE is under good interim leadership, the board is in no need to rush in finding a new commissioner.
“We need to be deliberate and take our time,” Shields said.
Future of St. Louis schools governance
Ending state control of St. Louis Public Schools also is on the state school board’s plate. The three-person Special Administrative Board that’s governed SLPS for a decade voted in January to cede power back to an elected board. It ultimately needs state board approval.
SLPS elected board members will go through a rigorous training over the summer but details haven’t been finalized. The seven-member elected board — which continued to hold elections and meetings without having authority — wants to take back control before the 2018-19 school year starts in August. The appointed-board has pushed for a slower timeline.
“I think if we put a little push on it, it can move things ahead,” Lenz said.
The board did not take a vote on a timeline but agreed it will try to bring parties into consensus on a training schedule.
“We’re closer than we’ve been in a long time,” Shields said.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney