State education leaders are returning governance of the St. Louis public school system back to an elected school board and ending 12 years of oversight.
The Missouri State Board of Education held its monthly meeting in downtown St. Louis Tuesday where it voted to end its control of St. Louis Public Schools July 1.
“The time has come to restore governance to the elected officials of this school district,” said Charlie Shields, president of the state school board.
State leaders took over SLPS in 2007 as the district was hemorrhaging money and the local school board was crippled by politicking and infighting.
“Horrible mistakes were made in how the district was handled,” said state board member Peter Herschend.
The seven-member elected board has continued to hold elections and meetings but had minimal influence over education in the city. Only one board member remains from before the takeover, Donna Jones.
A three-person Special Administrative Board, or SAB, made up of designees from the mayor, governor and Board of Alderman president, stewarded the district back to stability and fiscal solvency. That board is currently made up of Richard Sullivan, Darnetta Clinkscale and Richard Gaines.
The SAB hired Kelvin Adams as superintendent shortly after taking over. Adams ended a revolving door of district leadership and has far outlasted the average urban superintendent tenure of about 5 years. He recently agreed to a three-year contract extension.
While the SAB returned consistency to SLPS, academic achievement has largely eluded it.
“Our number-one goal was every child reading at grade level, and we’ve never achieved that goal, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to accomplish that,” Sullivan said earlier this year.
SLPS student test scores are below state averages; only 19% of third-graders were reading at grade level in the most recent state assessments.
The district now offers free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city, a major accomplishment of Adams' tenure. The high school graduation rate has risen 20 points to 78% since 2007. Discipline has also improved, with suspensions dropping by two-thirds.
The current enrollment of SLPS is just under 21,000 students. Since the state takeover in 2007 the district has lost more than 10,000 students as more enroll in charter schools and the city loses population.
The road back
SLPS was granted full accreditation two years ago, starting a slow process of phasing out state control. The law that disenfranchised the elected board did not include a clear blueprint for giving it authority back.
The SAB formed a task force in fall 2017 to study forms of public school governance. They weighed keeping a fully appointed board, a hybrid model of elected and appointed members, and wholly elected board. After support from the community for an elected board, the task force endorsed a return to democracy.
The SAB voted to end its mission in January 2018.
The elected board has gone through intense training over the past year, holding mock meetings with district officials and being mentored by the Missouri School Boards Association.
Elected board president Dorothy Rohde-Collins acknowledged following the vote there will be a public relations battle to win back the confidence of the public.
“Demonstrating that we do know what we are talking about, that we’re in a good position to lead, and that we want the best for the district,” Rhode-Collins said. “Getting that out there will be important for us.”
Adam Layne and Tracee Miller were elected to the St. Louis school board April 2. They’ll join Jones, Susan Jones, Rohde-Collins, Natalie Vowell and Joyce Roberts.
“The most important relationship you have from an educational point from here on is not with the community,” state board member Mike Jones told the elected members, “it’s with those six other people. And that’ll be the key for you making it.”
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