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Will St. Louis schools revert to an elected board? State hopes to start the process

St. Louis Public Schools

After a lively discussion, the Missouri state school board agreed Tuesday to convene a meeting that could lead to the St. Louis Public Schools returning to the control of an elected school board.

Since 2007, the city schools have been under the authority of a three-member appointed Special Administrative Board. Since the schools scored solidly in the full accreditation range on their most recent state report card, talk has increased about when the switch back to the elected board could occur.

Even though it has no real power, an elected board has continued to sit and meet regularly during the time that the SAB has been in charge.

Meeting in Jefferson City on Tuesday, state board members said the two members from the St. Louis area — Mike Jones and Vic Lenz — should sit down with Rick Sullivan, head of the SAB, and President Susan Jones and one other member of the elected board. The meeting could set out the process under which control of the district could return to the elected board.

Mike Jones said that such a transition would only work if all three parties can agree on how it can be done.

“The first discussion is the shape of the table,” he said, referring back to a classic sticking point in negotiations to end the war in Vietnam. “If you can agree on that, you’ve got a chance for peace in our time.”

The state board’s discussion began after the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reviewed the five criteria it had proposed earlier that should be considered before districts get out from under the authority of an appointed board. Besides St. Louis, that would include Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

The criteria are leadership; finance; effective teaching and learning; climate and culture; and parents and community.

The debate then moved into the questions of how solidly and consistently a district would have to meet those criteria before a change in governance could take place. In the case of St. Louis, which is governed by a different law than Normandy and Riverview Gardens, the way forward is unclear.

Mike Jones likened the situation to that of a colonial power that cedes independence to a former colony.

“You’re going to need a neutral agreement between the parties,” he said. “The culture shock from flipping a switch, and then they go home when somebody else shows up, is probably not in the best interest of all the work that everybody has done up to this point.”

Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said that when the discussion of the changeover began, reactions were mixed.

“We did hear from some who believed very strongly that they are ready today to go back to the elected board,” she said. “And we heard from some who very strongly believed they were not ready.

“What we were trying to do with this exercise was to put together some specific objective criteria to look at, so we could put St. Louis Public Schools against this criteria, and eventually Normandy, eventually Riverview Gardens. We just want to make sure we’re making the right decision on when it’s appropriate.”

She added that members of the elected board in St. Louis have sought training to improve their effectiveness if and when they take over.

Lenz said he wasn’t sure of the best way to proceed, but he wants to make sure that whoever takes over the city schools is ready to do so.

“I don’t know how to do it,” he added, “but somehow it seems that we need to look at the people who are going to come in and take over and make sure they’re ready to take over. I don’t want to be judge and jury, but we need to help them be as ready as possible to do the best possible job that they can.”

Mike Jones emphasized that any solution has to be a negotiated one.

We need to look at the people who are going to come in and take over and make sure they're ready to take over. — State school board member Vic Lenz

“We don’t have the authority to impose an administrative solution about how this is going to work,” he said. “So for us to kind of opine publicly about what we think it ought to be, you dig yourself a hole. You’ve got to get people to the table to actually start negotiating.”

Susan Jones, president of the elected board, said in an email she would be willing to take part in the kind of meeting that the state board was suggesting.

While members of the state board seemed willing to proceed, they weren’t all sure that the situation would work out the way everyone hoped. Peter Herschend put it this way:

“I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.