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Missouri school boards are caught in culture wars. Advocates yearn for something more

LA Johnson
According to surveys conducted by A Red Circle, parents often lack information about their district’s school boards. Education Advocacy Director Tamar Brown encourages parents to get engaged in elections and form relationships with board members.

Highly politicized issues have dominated local school board races in the past few years, often making school boards synonymous with controversy. It wasn’t always this way. The current chaos can be traced to multiple trends. Heather Fleming, director of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership, notes that ultra-conservative groups have spent decades trying to influence school boards and education policies. Then came the pandemic, which left many parents looking to assert some degree of control.

“We see this movement where masks, book bans, sex education, the various equity programs, [diversity, equity and inclusion] work — all of it is under attack at this moment,” she said. “In districts such as Rockwood, what they continue to find is that the more contentious these issues are, the harder it is to retain quality staff members … and when we face teacher shortages, we definitely are going to [see] that impacting student achievement.”

In October, Rockwood’s Board of Education voted against renewing three longstanding diversity programs that gave students of color a sense of community in the district.

“That's one of the reasons why we're organizing in these districts, because many of these candidates are running on anti-equity platforms and saying, ‘We want to get in there and just teach reading, writing and arithmetic,’” continued Fleming. “But the problem with that is that research shows we have to teach the whole student, and we can't teach the whole student if there are subjects that we can't address that might be within that student's experience.”

Janet Tilley, senior director of research at the Missouri School Boards Association, said the programs Rockwood cut should have gone through a formal program evaluation process. As Rockwood is a dues-paying member of the association, Tilley is now working with the district to help it implement strategies for conducting program evaluations in ways that align with effective government practices.

“They didn't have a good process for doing what is called program evaluation, which is what a board is supposed to do,” she said, adding that she sees evidence that Superintendent Curtis Cain, his staff and the board "are working to make big changes with that.”

Tilley joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to talk about the responsibilities of school boards, how they work with both communities and schools and why it’s important for all citizens to get engaged in school board elections. Listen to this episode of St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Engaging with your school board is important. Here's why

Related Event
What: General election for St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education
When: April 4

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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