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Next step for city school board remains an open question

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 15, 2010 - As the committee assigned to help figure out what's next for St. Louis Public Schools winds up its work, one of the main questions it is asking is: How should the city school board be chosen, by election or by appointment?

But based on the discussion the five members had on Monday afternoon, as important as how is the question of who.

The committee led by William H. Danforth and Frankie Freeman came up with the recommendations that led to the city schools being run by a Special Administrative Board starting in 2007. It was reconvened last year by Chris Nicastro, Missouri's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, to come up with ideas on what the next step should be.

Committee members seemed to agree that going back to an elected board at some point is probably the best road to take. But when the changeover should take place, how the transition would work and who would be the best type of person to serve on the new board remain open questions.

Lawyer Ned Lemkemeier, who led the discussion, said he would prefer that the SAB remain in place until the city schools regain their accreditation -- a process likely to take several years, based on the latest preliminary data released by state education officials earlier Monday.

He said that the state should measure any progress made by the city schools against their performance this school year and praised what he has seen under the direction of Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

Board member Donald Suggs agreed, saying:

"It seems like we're on the right path, and the last thing I want to see is for us to disrupt that."

Michael Middleton said he worries about what kind of people will be persuaded to run for the board once the SAB gives way to an elected board.

"In St. Louis in this era," he said, "which method is most likely to produce the best people, election or appointment? I'm not sure we can legislate responsible behavior."

Freeman added, "How do you assure the competence and the stability?"

Danforth said the idea of a mixed board, some appointed and some elected, doesn't seem to have support from anyone.

At what is supposed to be its final meeting on Oct. 8, Danforth said he hoped the committee will have a draft report of recommendations to submit to Nicastro and the state school board.

The difficulty in coming up with those ideas might be was underscored by the results of two focus groups -- one made up of teachers, the other made up of parents -- that was presented to the committee by UMSL professor Terry Jones. You can see details of the presentation below.

Comparing results of the discussions held last month with similar groups that were convened four years ago, Jones ran through several conclusions:

  • Weak leadership in the city schools is an obstacle to success.
  • The problems do not necessarily reside with the SAB or with the current superintendent but are deeper and more systemic, leading to a perception of instability.
  • Many people are skeptical about the future success of the city schools.
  • Board members are too often seen as having political agendas that may not have the schools' best interests at heart.
  • The city schools too often seem to be impatient and fail to stick to policies that may yield positive results.

"They have seen board after board not doing what they should be doing," Jones said.
As far as the challenges that the schools face, Jones listed these:

  • Coming up with a single strategy for success, then sticking to it.
  • Finding ways to measure progress in a reliable manner.
  • Reconciling disparities among different schools in different parts of the city.
  • A lack of confidence that any progress will continue.

On the issue being pondered by the Danforth committee, whether the board should be elected or appointed, Jones said people retain an attachment to the concept of an elected board, but they remember the drama and dysfunction that past boards suffered from.
They also said that if board members are appointed, they would prefer the appointments be made by legislators, not by the governor or the mayor, but Jones qualified that statement by saying individuals wanted their particular legislator to do the appointing, not the legislative body as a whole. See the entire presentation here:

Parent and Teacher Opinions Regarding St. Louis Public Schools