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Once again, Illinois will intervene in East St. Louis schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2011 - After a 90-minute executive session, the East St. Louis School Board emerged to announce that it would accept state oversight. It also announced that the superintendent of schools would be placed on leave with pay indefinitely.

Previous story: If teachers in East St. Louis want to get across the lesson that history repeats itself, they don't have too far to look for an example.

From 1994 to 2004, a financial oversight panel put in place by Illinois state education officials kept track of how District 189 spent its money. By the time it had to go out of business because members couldn't get authorization to stick around, it had helped turn a daunting deficit into a balanced budget with a nice cash reserve.

Now, seven years later, state school officials have concluded once again that the district needs outsiders to keep a closer eye on things.

On Wednesday, the East St. Louis school board will meet to decide whether to accept conditions laid out last month by state school Superintendent Christopher Koch.

He wants to put into place a new district superintendent who would have "complete and absolute" authority over financial decisions of the district. He wants district board members to have no involvement at all with hiring. He wants an outsider to assess the district's "leadership, curriculum and instruction, operations and financial status." And he wants to require written approval before the district enters into any contracts.

Will the East St. Louis board be willing to give up its longstanding independence? Will the district's reputation of caring more about hiring friends and relatives and less about educating students finally change?

Veteran observers have their doubts.

Richard Mark, who headed the last state-appointed panel over the district, put it this way:

"East St. Louis is a small community, and it's not unusual that people have relatives that work in the same firm or in the same school district. But when board members take away jobs from good educators and give them to janitors who may or may not show up for work, that's the kind of nepotism I'm against.

"From what I have seen from East St. Louis District 189, they give you a lot of lip service and a lot of stalling, but not a lot of results."

Andrew Theising, of the Institute for Urban Research at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, was equally blunt about the prospects for real reform.

"It's going to be one more futile attempt," he said, "unless the state will actually use the powers that it has. Most of the state interventions in East St. Louis have been more symbolic than substantive. The state has a lot of power at its discretion, but those panels that have been over the city and the schools have been reluctant to use the full power.

"For this to be different, the state has to be prepared to take drastic steps, which may include dissolving or completely redesigning not just District 189 but the districts around it."

Record of Low Achievement

In a memo prepared for the Illinois State Board of Education's April meeting, Koch said that District 189 has a long history of "low academic performance and a lack of compliance with federal and state special education laws." He met with district personnel, including Superintendent Theresa Saunders, on April 5 to tell them he was going to recommend that the state board give him authority to intervene.

He noted that part of the problem was financial; in the 2010 fiscal year, Koch said, administrative costs in the East St. Louis schools made up 8.7 percent of its budget, compared with a 3.5 percent statewide average. Compared to other districts of similar size, District 189 had the highest percentage of administrative costs.

Laying out the powers that he wants the state to have, Koch said there was no other route to take except a direct state takeover, adding:

"The District Board must realize that the alternative may include their removal."

The state currently has that power in one other district, in North Chicago. Mary Ann Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois department of education, said that that district, too, has had a long history of poor academic achievement and rapid turnover in superintendents.

"They actually asked for our help, especially in regard to their poor performance," Fergus said.

North Chicago signed an agreement with the state in November 2010 that gives state officials authority over finances, hiring, contracts, expenditures and personnel down to the teacher level. Senior staff members at the state level have regular conferences with the district to monitor its progress, Fergus said.

State law requires action when districts have been on academic or financial watch lists for a certain period of time, and East St. Louis fits that model, she added. Other districts do as well, but Fergus said the tight Illinois budget has kept it from pursuing remedial action in other cases.

"This sort of work is expensive and intensive," she said, adding that other kinds of assistance, such as federally funded school improvement grants help in other areas. "We don't have the staff and the funding to do this in all our districts that need some help."

In a March 4 letter to Lonzo Greenwood, president of the District 189 board, Koch spelled out in detail a series of problems and failures to comply with federal guidelines, including problems with a lack of qualified personnel in special education, lack of documentation of education of children with disabilities and the discipline of students in special education classes.

Spelling out the powers and the options that state officials have in such situations, Koch concluded:

"The district is currently at the stage in the state accountability process whereby the State Board of Education has the authority to take these aggressive actions."

Few Options Left

Whether the board will heed Koch's warning is unclear.

Carl Officer, the former mayor of East St. Louis who is now a member of the school board, says the district has spent down whatever financial reserves it had when he joined the board, through a combination of overspending and a lack of revenue.

Asked what he thought the board would do at its meeting on Wednesday, just days before a state-imposed deadline to consider the conditions set out by Koch, Officer said:

"I don't see where we have an alternative. Either we accept it or they remove it all.

"They're not going to dissolve the district. I don't think that's an option. I think we'll get state oversight and state direction. We're going to have a new superintendent, hired by the state and paid by us, then make the changes that are necessary. They will review the programs we have adopted and move forward. I don't think we really have any other options."

Saunders said in an interview that she doesn't think state action will necessarily mean she is out of a job. But she agreed with Officer that the board has little choice but to go along with Koch's proposal.

"I'm confident that the district is going to accept any support that the state is going to offer," she said. "There is no controversy there.

"It's not like the board members will just sit on their thumbs and do nothing. They will make decisions that will have to be ratified by the state board of education. That will be the only difference."

Efforts to reach Greenwood, president of the school board, were unsuccessful -- a result that Officer predicted when asked if he knew of the best way to reach him. "He's not going to talk to you," he said. "He has no reason to talk to you. You're a reporter."

That level of communication -- or lack of it -- is reflected in the district's website. A list of links is placed near a slogan that proudly declares: "East St. Louis, the epicenter of education for world class leaders." But most of the links either provide outdated information or none at all.

For example, the message of greeting from Greenwood begins:

"As we continually navigate through the 2009-10 school year .... "

Does the Past Predict the Future?

If the record of the financial oversight panel that was in place for District 189 from 1994 to 2004 is any guide, even if the school board accepts the latest plan from the state, there is no guarantee that any long-lasting changes will result.

Mark headed the earlier panel as a volunteer while he was a hospital executive; he is now senior vice president of customer operations for Ameren Missouri. He recalled the struggles he and his colleagues had to make conditions for the school district better.

"We got fought at every turn," he said of the battles with the East St. Louis school board. "It wasn't like they said, 'Now we get it, let's follow the rules.' Every month, when we did invoices and payments, there was a fight. Why are you sending these teachers to Las Vegas? Why are you spending this that wasn't in the budget? We could see that without more oversight, they would end up right back where they started in 1994."

And even if they had been able to fix the financial problems, Mark added, that achievement would not necessarily translate into better results in the classroom.

"People thought that if you control the dollars, you could force improvements academically," he said. "But what we found was that you could restrict the dollars, but there was no commitment to push teacher performance and academic improvements in the schools. We didn't see a real focus on trying to improve the academic part.

"I would think the state has to learn from the past and look at the history of this board. They've been there and they haven't done the right thing for 15 years, so I don't know why putting in a new oversight panel would make them do the right thing now. I always have hope, but I'm not very optimistic."

Theising, the SIUE professor who has been a longtime observer of the city and the schools in East St. Louis, said state education officials shouldn't look at the problem as involving only District 189.

"For this to be different," he said, "the state has to be prepared to take drastic steps, which may include dissolving or completely redesigning not just District 189 but the districts around it.

"I think there are very few leaders who are willing to pay the political price to fix East St. Louis. It would mean changing the people who live in District 189 and changing the voters of District 189 and drawing the district lines so they go outside of East St. Louis and take in some of the suburbs farther east, basically diluting the corrupt power structure."

That structure, Theising added, goes back decades, to longtime Mayor Alvin Fields, who managed to win re-election in 1963 even though he was a white man in a predominantly black city.

"Fields knew that he had to bring African Americans into the political machine," he said. "What he did was make a deal. In exchange for political support from the African-American community, he gave African-American leaders the schools, which was one of the three big sources of patronage, along with City Hall and the levee district.

"The schools have become a training ground for City Hall politicians, and we see the schools still being treated in that manner today. I think it is accurate to say that educating kids has come second, and economic development and employment have come first."

Neither he nor Mark sees much chance that the situation will change, even if the state moves in again.

"Institutions are designed to replicate results," Theising said. "They can replicate good results, and they can replicate bad results. The institution of East St. Louis schools is replicating bad results, and until we fundamentally change the institution, by making District 189 an entirely different shape and bringing in a different electorate, the institution is dysfunctional.

"I don't think it matters who serves in any particular position. What matters is accountability, and there is no accountability being exercised in the school district."

Mark is equally forceful, saying:

"If you're going to have that kind of stuff continue, the only way it's going to be successful is if someone says, 'Here's the line. If you cross it, we will remove the whole board.' Then do it. That would be the best thing that could happen for the children of East St. Louis."

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.

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