Democracy St. Louis

St. Louis Regains Its Elected Board After 12 Years of State Control

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 St. Louis Schools Watch

Susan Turk,
Editor and Reporter

Congratulations Are In Order!

April 16, 2019—St. Louis–This morning the Missouri State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve termination of the transitional school district superimposed on the St. Louis Public School District at the end of its current term, June 30, 2019.  As a result, on July 1, 2019, the elected St. Louis Board of Education will return to governance of the St. Louis Public Schools after twelve long years.

Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven recommended the termination of the transitional district because the Special Administrative Board which has governed the SLPS for the duration has accomplished the purposes for which it was established.  Vandeven spoke about four concerns which motivated the State Board to revoke accreditation and institute the transitional district in 2007.  The four concerns were financial status, accreditation history, student performance and leadership instability.

Vandeven reported that while the SLPS had a $24.5 million deficit representing a negative fund balance of 5.79% in 2007, SLPS now has reserves of $78.6 million or a positive fund balance of 22.24%.  Having less than 3% reserves puts a district in financial stress and allows the State Board to dissolve a school district. Their Annual Performance Reports and accreditation status has improved and stabilized and leadership has been stable.  Improvement was noted in the dropout rate, 13.9% in 2007-8 to 8.2% in 2017-18 and the graduation rate, 55.9% in 2007-8 versus 78.2% in 2017-18, among other factors.

Prior to 2007 there had been no less than 6 superintendents in the preceding 5 years as compared to Dr.Kelvin Adams serving as superintendent since November 2008.

The elected board was credited with having undergone 50 hours of extensive training in preparation for regaining governance. State Board Vice President Victor Lenz declared them ready to resume governance. Commissioner Vandeven reminded the State Board that they had two statutory options, either continuing the transitional district and the SAB or returning the elected board to governance, There is no statutory allowance for a hybrid board of both elected and appointed members. At least one state board member, Peter Herschend, had spoken of a preference for a hybrid board option previously.

State Board President Charlie Shields asked State Board VP Victor Lenz to make the motion to terminate the transitional district and return governance to the elected board effective July 1, 2019. Shields then  asked Board Member Mike Jones to second the motion.   After they did so, Shields asked, Jones, Lenz and Board Member Peter Herschend to offer remarks, which they did.

Mike Jones, who never lacks for eloquence, heaped praise on the SAB. He spoke about how hard it is to govern. He said there should be special recognition for their success. That theirs was a story about how to do things the right way, which should be documented.  Jones also addressed the elected board members present, Dorothy Rohde Collins, Susan Jones, Donna Jones, Dr. Joyce Roberts and Natalie Vowell, telling them that they did not represent the community but the 22,000 children in the school district who can’t represent themselves. He implored them to listen to the advice and concerns of the adults in the community but not to take orders from them, to make up their own minds about what is best for the children and trust their own judgment. He said that the hardest part of leadership was making the least worst choice sometimes. He also told them to figure out how to do what the SAB did. He ended with a riff on becoming a team and trusting one another.

Dr. Lenz also praised the SAB, and spoke about the need to trust each other and the superintendent. He acknowledged that the 12 year length of the SAB’s governance was unusual and advised them to learn the difference from people who were giving good advice versus giving them orders.

Herschend revived the old meme of the 5 superintendents who served during a 2 year period. He criticized that Board as a board that was trying to operate as opposed to make policy. He claimed that was the difference between failure and success, told them their most important job was the selection, maintenance and evaluation of the district’s leadership. “If you do that well, the district will succeed,” he said.  “If you fail, it will revert to where it was.” He implored them to care about the kids and ended by saying they were being handed an opportunity to create a flagship district that others in the country would look up to as an example.

Shields added that in Missouri we believe in local control which is why we have state standards but not a state curriculum. So there is a commitment to elected governance. He said governance by an appointed board was always meant to be temporary. He told them he had never seen a process where people were better prepared for the challenge and said he expected them to do a fabulous job. A voice vote on the motion was then taken and all said, “Aye”.

It was anticlimactic. It was surreal.  I should have been happy.  But the bovine excrement being served up spoiled the moment.

First, the data they were using to explain their reasons for taking over the district came from the 2007-2008 school year. That was the end of the first year the SAB governed the district. It is difficult to cull data from 12 years ago on dese,  Software incompatibility prevented this reporter from accessing the data but memory reminds that achievement data was lower after the SAB’s first year than it had been under the last year of the elected board’s governance. Perhaps that is why it was tempting to use as an illustration. Then again, superintendent at the time, Dr. Diana Bourisaw was insistent that SLPS data supported the district keeping its accreditation.  Perhaps using the 2006-2007 data as compared to the lower 2007-2008 data would have been embarrassing.

Second, although Commissioner Vandeven expressed concern that student achievement did not show improvement, that was barely touched upon.  In truth, the ELA proficient and advanced score of 22.8% and math proficient and advanced score of 18.4% from 2017-18 can be brushed aside as inconsequential because of the annually changing tests over the past 4 years. But, during the tenure of the elected board and even some years during the SAB’s governance, achievement on the MAP has been as high as 35% on ELA and 28% in math. Academic achievement has suffered under the SAB. But this may be a blessing in disguise for the elected board. Achievement scores can only rise from where they currently are.

And third, it was difficult to sit through praise of the SAB’s success and criticism of the elected board when Darnetta Clinkscale sits on the SAB. She was president of the elected board during the period of time that the district ran through those 5 superintendents. How could one board be excoriated and the other upheld as the epitome of boards when she participated in both? Cognitive dissonance ran rampant.  But it has been this way through this entire 12 year period. The SAB has been the good board and the elected board has been the bad board and damn any evidence to the contrary.

It is good that the elected board is returning to governance.  But 12 years have been lost. That’s an entire generation of students.  Back in 2003, when a multiracial group of parents from the Parent Assembly coalesced around the idea that electing parents to the Board Of Education could have a positive impact on student achievement, they could not conceive that our civic leaders would react to their electoral success by advocating that the governor implement a state takeover of the SLPS. Twelve years later, with achievement scores dismal, we will finally get to see whether a board informed by parents can make a difference.

The editor encourages readers to forward The Watch to anyone you think would be interested. Our city and our schools need as much public awareness and public engagement as we can muster at this time.
Questions for The Watch? Letters to the Editor? Stories to contribute? News tips? Send them to [email protected]


April 18 2019, Thursday, monthly meeting of the Special Administrative Board, 6:00 p.m., 801 N. 11th Street, room 108

April 23, 2019 Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., meeting of the Board of Education, 801. North 11th St. room 108, St. Louis, MO 63103.

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