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Discussing Prop 1, student stress and more with St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams

On Monday, the Special Administrative Board of the St. Louis Public Schools launched its first tax campaign in 25 years, seeking to approve a $0.75 tax levy in the city of St. Louis.

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams, Ph.D., said the money raised by this tax level, around $26 million, would go to critical efforts such as supporting early childhood education, alternative education and competitive wages for employees in public and charter schools in the city.

Adams joined “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh and St. Louis Public Radio reporter Dale Singer for a broad-ranging discussion about Proposition 1, those rumors about a move to Los Angeles, charter schools, district consolidation and more. Listen to the entire conversation here:

What Adams wants taxpayers to know about Proposition 1

“We see an opportunity,” Adams said. “It is an intersection of a need versus an opportunity— an  opportunity in the sense that the district is moving in the right direction academically and managing its resources very well. We thought this was a good time to ask voters to support the district.”

The district is running a targeted campaign to address with voters the academic strides the district has made with students’ test scores and their plans to expand early childhood education.

Adams said that the dollars raised by the tax levy will go to students and not the Special Administrative Board, an unelected board of governance for the district.

“The district has proven over the past seven years that they have been good stewards of dollars the public has trusted us with,” Adams said. “We started with a $65 million deficit and currently have a $20 million surplus. That did not occur by not being responsible for dollars we receive. I can indicate publicly and privately, that these dollars are not intended to go toward any hires or administrators.

"There is not a kid in the city of St. Louis I've spoken with who is concerned about the governance structure, they are concerned about the kind of support teachers provide to them."

“The SAB is not a board voted in by the public, we work really hard to be transparent, maybe even more than the elected board. We take an extra step to do that. I understand the notion of why the SAB is in place and voters not having the ability to use their democratic right, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt. Our progress over the past seven years speaks to not necessarily the SAB but a collective of people working to get the best results for kids irrespective of how people feel about the ‘governance structure.’

“There is not a kid in the city of St. Louis I’ve spoken with who is concerned about the governance structure, they are concerned about the kind of support teachers provide to them.”

Adams said that even with a tax levy of $0.75, taxpayers in the city of St. Louis would still be paying less in taxes to public education than any of the 25 surrounding school districts.

“The city gets better as it relates to having a better education system,” Adams said. “You get what you pay for in terms of what has to be done. I live in the city, my taxes will go up, I welcome paying the tax because I know that it makes a difference long-term for what happens to young people’s lives and those people coming back and impacting the city in a positive way. I don’t think it will be a regressive tax. it will help the city of St. Louis. It is incredibly important.”

A potential move to Los Angeles?

Earlier this year, Adams surfaced as a candidate for superintendent of Los Angeles Public Schools. He said he did have conversations with the district, but that the SAB and the board of the St. Louis Public Schools knew about the meeting.

“I’ve always told people to talk to people about jobs,” Adams said. “I tell young people it is always to your benefit to have a conversation. That’s what I basically did. That conversation probably became a little more serious for them than it was for me. Obviously, the story got out that I was looking to go to Los Angeles, but that was never my intent to move, to go to Los Angeles.”

Adams’ contract with the St. Louis Public School District ends on June 30, 2016, but the board has already made an offer and Adams is in negotiations currently.

What people should know about Adams

Adams says there is nothing super secretive or exciting that people should know about him.

“I’m pretty boring, to be honest with you,” he said.  “I don’t know that there are any real secrets. I work really hard to make sure we’re doing the best we can for young people in this community — that’s been my focus for the last 8 years.  Outside of that, I like biking and I like watching sports … I’m like any man in America in that way. I have a sweet tooth. I like to draw. I like listening to jazz. As I said, I’m pretty boring. I have two great kids, one in Los Angeles and one in New Orleans…we talk two or three times a week and so, like most fathers, I’m really proud of them. One is a budding actor, the other is a teacher.”

"There's an African proverb that says that 'When elephants fight, grass gets trampled.' We want to make sure that elephants, adults, are not fighting and young people are not impacted by that fight."

Adams has been working with the St. Louis Public School District for the past eight years and he said that he’s proud to work there because the St. Louis community has been a partner with the district in supporting public education.

“I think people believe more about what the district is doing that ever before,” Adams said. “That’s important to me. It is important that the community knows we care about kids and that’s our priority. There’s an African proverb that says that ‘When elephants fight, grass gets trampled.’ We want to make sure that elephants, adults, are not fighting and young people are not impacted by that fight.”

Consolidating St. Louis’ school districts

Adams said that he would be in favor of consolidating St. Louis school districts but he had reservations about the feasibility of such a move.

“It is easy to say ‘do it,’ because I think we could leverage resources, but the challenge will be ‘who does what?’” Adams said. “Part of the conversations we’ve had today were around the elected and appointed board, could you imagine 10 boards? Could you imagine that many people having a say about what happens in a certain area and how it is done? That would be the real challenge. The challenge would not be educating kids, but how you govern that.”

Stress, and discipline, in schools

Adams said that a foremost concern of his has been the impact of traumatic stress on his students. He said he was meeting on Wednesday with his personnel responsible for social work to talk about introducing a trauma-informed curriculum that would help kids and teachers alike identify trauma and successfully deal with it. He said the program Jennings School District has introduced would be a good framework to follow.

He hopes that some of the money raised by Proposition 1 could go to helping introduce such curriculum.

Adams also said that the district is rethinking how it deals with discipline. The dropout rate was in the 30 percent range when Adams started and has dropped to 12-18 percent in the past few years. He said that the district was looking for ways to increase cultural competency with teachers, security, principals in order to deal better with students’ behavior.

In fact, there’s a committee meeting now that Adams believes will recommend the district not suspend any kid kindergarten through third grade next year. He’s also working to make it harder to suspend kids for “disrespect,” which is one of the top reasons that children are suspended.

What’s next?

Although Adams won’t be moving to L.A. any time soon, he says he misses serving as an educator and principal.

“When I retire from this job, I will go straight back to being a principal if someone will hire me,” he said.  “I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to convince my board to go back be a principal now and still be superintendent — still toying with it today. There are a couple of schools I’m concerned about and the magic of the principalship is that you get to change an environment and you can see it happen.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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