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Supporters demand reinstatement of Ferguson-Florissant superintendent

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Frustrated with a lack of information about why Ferguson-Florissant school superintendent Art McCoy was placed on administrative leave, a coalition of education advocates called Friday for a fuller explanation or the resignation of board members who voted for the move.

The board voted 6-1 Wednesday night to place McCoy on indefinite paid leave, saying no wrongdoing was involved but the superintendent had “differences in focus and philosophy” with the board. He became superintendent of the 12,000-student district in 2011 and had his contract renewed earlier this year through June 30, 2016; his current salary is $217,644.

Board President Paul Morris has refused to give any more information about the decision, saying it was a personnel matter. But at a news conference Friday afternoon called by a group known as the Citizens’ Task Force on Excellence in Education, several speakers said if McCoy is not reinstated, board members should resign.

The possibility of complaints to be filed with federal agencies and questions of racial motivation involving McCoy were also raised. McCoy is black; the Ferguson-Florissant school board is all white.

Adolphus Pruitt, first vice president for the Missouri National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he has notified the Department of Education and the Justice Department of plans to file a complaint under Title VI against the district if McCoy is not reinstated immediately.

“We want the Justice Department to take a look to make sure there isn’t any racial undercurrent for this decision,” Pruitt said.

He added that the issue is not necessarily race as much as it is McCoy’s demonstrated ability to inspire black students to achieve, a goal he said that has proved to be difficult in the past. According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 78 percent of students in the district are black.

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Pruitt said, “he bridged that gap.”

Speaker after speaker praised McCoy’s ability, integrity and track record at Ferguson-Florissant and criticized what they considered to be inadequate justification for his being placed on leave by the school board.

Students said he had made them see that they could succeed if they worked hard.

“He has set the bar high for us,” said Caro Brown, a student at McCluer North High School. “He has shown that he believes we can do it.”

Redditt Hudson, a parent in the district, called McCoy one of the most dedicated educators in Missouri and said there is nothing he has done that is inconsistent with the stated mission of the Ferguson-Florissant schools. He said he had spoken with McCoy, who reacted to the move by the board as his "usual dignified, awesome self."

“We cannot afford the arbitrary dismissal of a man who has done nothing but lift this district,” Hudson said.

Another parent, Archilla Bufort, added:

“I need to know why a man of such caliber, integrity and dignity would be put on leave…. Who does his focus differ from? Is it the people of this community, or is it the six people on the board who voted for him to be put on administrative leave?”

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley also appeared at the news conference. He noted that his position has no authority over education, and he normally would not get involved in a situation such as that in Ferguson-Florissant, but he called the move “an extraordinary circumstance.”

Calling McCoy “simply a brilliant man,” Dooley added:

“It seems to me he is doing exactly what he should be doing, making sure that all children are getting a quality education…. If Dr. McCoy’s philosophy differs from the board’s, then what is the board’s philosophy?”

Dooley said that urban education has become a new political battleground in the United States. “This fight is one that none of us – rich or poor, old or young, black or white – can afford to lose,” he said.

Charles Henson, who said he was the first African-American president of the Ferguson-Florissant school board and was serving when McCoy was hired, said some current board members are uncomfortable with what he called McCoy’s level of integrity and intelligence. “They just don’t understand him,” Henson said.

He said when McCoy was hired, two members out of seven on the board were black.

Ted Hoskins, mayor of Berkeley, said he did not understand the rationale given by the board for placing McCoy on leave.

“When you talk in terms of philosophy,” he said, “that’s a political term that means they don’t have a reason…. We need to have questions seriously answered. Why would this board seriously disrupt this community in the middle of a semester?”

The Rev. Freddy J. Clark, pastor of Shalom Church, City of Peace in Berkeley, where the news conference was held, downplayed the racial angle of the action against McCoy.

“I want to believe we are far removed from the race piece at this time,” said Clark, who is African-American. Of McCoy, he added:

“It just happens to be that his shell has been sun-kissed.”

Clark said he spoke with Morris, the Ferguson-Florissant board president, and asked if they could meet to discuss the matter, but he could not arrange anything.

“With anything short of Dr. McCoy being reinstated,” Clark said, “we will be asking for the resignation of board members.”

The district has not responded to comments about McCoy’s being placed on leave beyond its initial statement concerning focus and philosophy. But Paul Schoeder, the one board member who voted against the move, told the Beacon that while he couldn’t discuss the personnel aspect, he did praise McCoy’s leadership.

“I think his personal story is pretty compelling for our children,” Schroeder said. “It tells our kids there are good possibilities for him.”

He noted that McCoy has a good reputation among his fellow superintendents and other educators in Missouri.

“He does a very good job of modeling how we would like our teachers to interact with our kids, in terms of questioning them but also being supportive.”

Also praising McCoy’s performance and expressing surprise at his being placed on leave was Kathleen Sullivan Brown, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“He’s been doing outstanding work at Ferguson-Florissant,” she said. “He’s worked to get help for students in an underresourced community. Art’s been bringing the community into the schools to raise money. He raised $22,000 to help transfer students.”

Noting McCoy’s biography – a teacher at age 19, administrator in several local districts, superintendent in his 30s – Brown said Missouri could use more like him.

“He is an outstanding young educator,” she said. “He’s vocal about what the state should be doing. He speaks his mind, but he works hard and collaborates with people. I was very surprised and very disappointed to hear this.

“I hope they are able to work out their differences. I think it’s critical at this time to have people like Art. He’s somebody we should be listening to, not marginalizing.”

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said that “not having Art McCoy is a huge devastation. I think that the board is underestimating him, not only his value to the district but to the region.”

Chappelle-Nadal, who also serves on the U. City school board, said that McCoy “is one of the brightest minds I’ve ever known, and I have high standards very high standards…. I think it’s political. He’s strong, he’s courageous and most of all he speaks his mind.”

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.