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What's next for St. Louis schools?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2009 - The five-member committee whose earlier report led to the St. Louis Public Schools being unaccredited and run by a special administrative board is being reconvened to recommend the future course of the district.

Chris L. Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the panel – led by former Washington University Chancellor William H. Danforth and attorney Frankie M. Freeman – will hold open meetings to solicit ideas, then submit a report on how and when a transition should take place and recommend any changes in the law that might be needed to make their plan a reality.

“At the time we made our original recommendations,” Danforth said at a news conference at Harris-Stowe State University Thursday, “we knew that if a transition group was appointed, it would not go on forever. We had recommendations about a timeline and what should be done.

“We made our original recommendations at a time when there were a lot of unknowns. ... I think there are less unknowns today.”

The state School Board decided in 2007 to take away the city schools’ accreditation and turn the task of running the district over to a three-member special administrative board. Nicastro said that that board and the superintendent it hired, Kelvin Adams, have taken “some encouraging steps” since that time, even though “the school district still has a long way to go to regain accreditation.”

She said the reconvened committee – which will include attorney Ned Lemkemeier, Dr. Donald Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American, and Michael Middleton, deputy chancellor of the University of Missouri at Columbia – has no predetermined parameters in its study of when an elected school board could once again take over the district.

“What do we really want in the largest public school district in the state of Missouri?” she said. “How can we best serve the students?”

Besides the questions of academic achievement, Nicastro emphasized the budget problems city schools face. Despite closing schools and cutting staff, it still faces a multimillion-dollar deficit that Adams has said he will work to close without directly affecting work in the classroom.

“Going forward, there is no question that the district is going to have to wrestle with some tough financial issues,” she said.

But those are not going to be the primary focus of the panel’s deliberations, she added. “We need to know at what point it makes sense for us not to have state supervision.”

Nicastro said she would like to see the committee finish its report by next fall, so any changes in the law that might be needed could be introduced in time to be considered by the Legislature in 2011.

Noting that the committee will start with a strong knowledge of the city schools and their problems, she said, “These folks know better than anybody else what the issues facing the St. Louis are.”

To some degree, that prior knowledge worries Mary Armstrong, the president of Local 420 of the American Federation of Teachers. After Nicastro’s announcement, she wondered whether having a committee with the same makeup as the group whose work led to the takeover by the state is the fairest way to proceed.

“You know how they say if you keep doing the same thing in the same way, you’re going to get the same result?” Armstrong asked. “If we have the same people looking at the same things, how are you going to get a different result?”

Danforth answered that concern this way:

“It’s a different question. Then, it was how are we going to go from where we were to the next step. Now, it’s how to get back to a permanent arrangement. I don’t think we necessarily are bound by what we said before.”

David Jackson Jr., a member of the elected board -- which has continued to monitor the schools even though it has no power – said he thought the committee’s earlier report was a good one, but the state chose the wrong remedy. He was hopeful that with the plan for open meetings, the panel will get good information and come to a good conclusion.

“If they do what they said,” he said, “talk to the special administrative board and to the elected board at the same time, they will get a better picture of the true condition of the district.”

Former elected board member William Purdy said Nicastro’s involvement was encouraging because her former experience as superintendent of schools in Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood will give her a good understanding of the problems facing the city schools.

“She’s young and will look at the situation much more objectively and in a less political way than the previous commissioner,” he said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.