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East St. Louis school board accepts oversight, puts superintendent on leave

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2011 For the second time in 17 years, the state of Illinois is stepping in to take over some operations of the chronically troubled East St. Louis schools.

This time, after a vote Wednesday by the District 189 school board to accept the state oversight, state officials will be in charge of more than finances, which were the focus of a state oversight panel from 1994 to 2004. Because poor academic achievement prompted the latest move from Springfield, said Matthew Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, raising those scores will be the main goal of the new effort, which Vanover called "very stringent."


"It's of great concern to everyone that they have such low levels of achievement that have gone on for a number of years," Vanover said.

After considering the state agreement and other matters in a 90-minute closed meeting, board members came out to accept the oversight by a vote of 6-0. By the same vote, they placed Superintendent Theresa Saunders on administrative leave, with pay, starting immediately.

Saunders had sat with board members when they voted to go into their closed meeting but was not present for the votes. She will be replaced by LeRoy Triefenbach, currently the district's chief financial officer.

Board member Carl Officer said that the action against Saunders was not related to the acceptance of the state oversight. He would not specify why board members voted to put Saunders on leave, saying only, "We're investigating that." He said that he expects the matter to be resolved in 45 days, about the length of time left on Saunders' contract. He also would not discuss why she was being paid while on leave.

Of the agreement with the state, Officer said:

"It's a good agreement for the state, for the children of the district, for the taxpayers of the district and for the board."

Immediately after the board meeting, the man designated to be the interim liaison between District 189 and state education officials, John Perkins, began meeting with district officials. Perkins, a retired superintendent at a district in the Champaign area, has previously served as a liaison from the state with the North Chicago school district, the only other one in Illinois with a similar oversight agreement.

Eventually, a full-time liaison with the state will be named. Vanover said the liaison would work out of Springfield and spend a day or two a week in East St. Louis.

The agreement between East St. Louis and the state is set to extend initially until June 30, 2014, then be renewed automatically for three more one-year periods, until June 30, 2017. It may be extended beyond that time if both the state and the district agree.

Under terms of the agreement, the liaison will have the authority to review and approve -- or disapprove -- personnel decisions, contracts, budgetary decisions and the search for a new district superintendent, who would take over for the 2012-13 school year, as well as any other superintendents needed while the agreement is in force.

Hiring decisions have been a point of contention with some district critics who say board members care more about hiring relatives than educating students. They now will be taken out of the hands of the board entirely.

The liaison also will advise the district and the superintendent on "general operational and administrative matters" as well as any other areas determined by the state superintendent, Chris Koch.

The agreement further spells out that the district must cooperate with the liaison and state education officials, and its failure to comply with terms of the agreement could lead to the removal of board members.

In the area of academic achievement, which prompted the state takeover, the agreement calls for new instructional improvement plans for the district as a whole as well as for each individual school building. The plans have to be drawn up within 90 days, along with a timeline for putting them into place in the classroom.

Before the vote, Officer said he had no doubt that he and his fellow board members would vote to accept the agreement. "Either we do what the state tells us to do," he said, "or they remove us."

Vandover, the spokesman for the state school board, said the agreement "was not forced" on District 189, but the state was required to take action because students in East St. Louis had scored so poorly so chronically in academic achievement. "The board made this decision on their own," he said.

Asked what power the local school board had left, if the state was going to be in charge of finances, personnel and academics, Vanover said it would still have a say at least in disciplinary matters.

What would have happened if the school board had rejected the agreement with the state? Vanover said the state could have dissolved the board, with a new one appointed by the state school superintendent, and it could have moved not to recognize the district, which would make it ineligible for state and federal funds.

Vanover said that District 189 had no specific academic goals to meet for the state control to end, but he emphasized that poor academic performance was what led to the takeover, so solid gains in the classroom are expected.

"I can't imagine we would pull out without seeing substantial improvement in academic achievement," he said.