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Who will run the city schools? Different models pose different problems

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2010 - Members of the elected board for the St. Louis Public Schools and the panel that could recommend that they regain authority agreed on one point during a joint meeting Wednesday: There is no one perfect way for public schools to be governed.

Beyond that, the two sides exchanged ideas but came to no conclusions about who should run the city schools -- an elected board, an appointed board, the mayor's office, some hybrid version of the three or some other structure altogether.

"With any system," said Peter Downs, president of the elected board, "you can find good performance and bad performance. No system by itself is a panacea."

Downs, Rebecca Rogers and David Jackson of the elected board sat down with William Danforth and Donald Suggs, part of the five-member panel that Chris Nicastro, Missouri's commissioner for elementary and secondary education, has asked to come up with recommendations for how the city schools should be governed.

The same panel issued recommendations that led to the state establishing a three-member special administrative board to take over day-to-day oversight of the schools in 2007. The elected board remains in place as a sort of shadow government, keeping track of what is going on but having no real power to run things. 

Rogers said she hoped that a plan could be approved to put an elected board back in charge of the city schools before the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. She said traditions of American democracy have shown that people who elect their school boards become more engaged in their communities.

She and Downs broke their argument down into areas such as finances, student achievement and stability of the school system, which has had a recent history of turmoil at the top.

In terms of finance, Rogers said that "the district is struggling. We need to be thinking in a forward-looking way about not only cutting expenses but also generating new revenue." She suggested that a tax to fund special education programs, and sharing the costs for basic services between the city and the district's 12 full-service community schools, would be good places to start.

Such schools, she said, can become hubs in the community.

Downs noted that since 2000, in six separate years the district budget has had an operating surplus, and in four of those six years, it was run by an elected board. He acknowledged that other factors affected the schools' financial position.

He also gave Danforth and Suggs statistics on the system's dropout rate, noting that from 1997 to 2003, when an elected board ran the schools, the rate fell from 21.1 percent to 7.6 percent. When proxies chosen by the mayor ran the schools from 2004 to 2006, the rate began to rise again, to 18.7 percent.

For one year, 2007, an elected board once again was in charge and the dropout rate was 12.1 percent. Since then, with the special administrative board in charge, Downs said the rate has "soared" to 27.5 percent.

Danforth expressed skepticism about the accuracy of the figures, noting how difficult it is to track students who may not have really dropped out but simply enrolled elsewhere. Downs conceded problems with the data, but said, "Looking at the data available, with all its faults, there are problems with all three governing models, but the problems have been the least with an elected board."

Rogers suggested that two ways to improve city schools would be a measure of public financing for school board races and to make sure that a resident of St. Louis be named to the seven-member state board of education. Now, the board has a member from Kansas City, but the closest anyone on the board lives to St. Louis is Deborah Demien, from Wentzville.

The two sides also discussed the model where a mayor takes control of schools -- a system used in New York and Chicago, with varying degrees of success. St. Louis has not experimented with such direct control, and Downs said experience elsewhere has shown that it "makes schools unaccountable to parents and citizens and can all too easily corrupt school policy and administration to the ends of mayoral politics."

"They're designed to make adults look good," he said, "but they do nothing for the children."

Added Jackson: "I think any mayor should have a part in public schools. How you do that, I don't know."

In a statement he distributed at the meeting, Downs concluded:

"Elected boards, because they usually represent different views in the community, tend to be more transparent about school performance and school policy than other forms of governance. That transparency is an essential basis of the discussion that needs to take place in a community to form policy and reform."

As he has at past meetings, Danforth said his panel will continue to gather information but he gave no timetable for when recommendations may be forthcoming. Nicastro has asked that a report be issued in time to make specific proposals for consideration by the Missouri Legislature next year.

The underlying question, Danforth said, remains: "How are you going to be sure that things are going right in the St. Louis Public Schools."

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.