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Is it time for an elected board to run the city schools again? Upcoming talks could mean big changes

St. Louis Public Schools

In 2007, the St. Louis Public Schools were placed under the control of a three-member appointed board. Its assignment was to fix problems in finance, governance and academic achievement.

The district has made progress in all three areas. A deficit became a surplus, infighting among board members has turned into civility, if not always unanimity, and student test scores have made steady gains. On its most recent state report card, the district, which was once unaccredited, scored solidly in the range for full accreditation.

During all that time, city voters have also put an elected school board in place. It has met regularly, but it has no authority over how the schools are run.

Is it time for that to change? Does the movement under the appointed Special Administrative Board (SAB) mean that entity should stay in power for another three years, as authorized by the state school board, to keep the momentum going? Or does it mean that, because the conditions that prompted the takeover by the appointed board no longer exist, the SAB should go away as well and the elected board return to power?

The answer may be coming soon.

Last week, members of the elected board, the SAB and the state school board began looking for a time to sit down and talk about the possible transition.

Three questions need to be answered:

  • When might the change take place?
  • How it would take place?
  • Is it time for it to take place at all?

Understandably, members of all three boards look at the situation differently.
“I think the SAB has served its time,” said Susan Jones, who heads the elected board, “and now it’s time for the taxpayers of the city of St. Louis to have a voice in their education.”

Rick Sullivan, who has been in charge of the SAB since it began, said he is ready to listen to transition discussions, but his preference is clear.

“Our goal as a special administrative board was twofold,” Sullivan said.

“One, we believe that every student should be reading at grade level. Two, we set out to create the greatest urban school district in the United States. Those were our two goals. We're still not there and still happy to work toward gaining those two goals.”

Mike Jones, one of two members of the state board from the St. Louis area, is also likely to take part in the talks. He wants to make sure there’s a good discussion that leads to a smooth changeover.

“You just can't flip a switch and say 'OK, you guys are out and you guys are in',” he said.  “I think everybody agrees that you need a process and a transition period. So the question is, what should that look like?”

The law is unclear

The law that established the SAB for the St. Louis public schools specifies when the board should take power. But it says nothing about when its job is complete and what comes next.

With the steady improvement of the city schools, the state board began discussions on the topic earlier this year, not only for St. Louis but for the two other districts being run by appointed boards: Normandy and Riverview Gardens. Their situations are governed by different statutes, but there are similarities.

Last month in Jefferson City member of the state board focused on one basic point: What happens when the conditions that prompted establishment of an appointed board are gone?

In an interview, education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said, “The Special Administrative Board is put in place to do what it’s intended to do, and once it fulfills that purpose, the ultimate goal is then to transition back to the local board.”

Margie Vandeven elementary and secondary education
Credit Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Margie Vandeven

The key, she and others say, is determining when that purpose is fulfilled.

To Sullivan, the fact that the state board voted earlier this year to extend the term of the SAB for another three years, and that no new data have come out since that time, indicates that board members think the appointed panel still has a role to play.

The elected board has already submitted its  transition plan, which would begin with three of its members joining the SAB at the end of this month, with two more added at the end of this year and the other two added at the end of June 2017.

To Susan Jones, the big question is whether board members who are appointed are as accountable and responsive to St. Louis residents as those who are elected.

“I think more accountability would come with an elected board," she said. "In our elected capacity we would represent the people who voted us into office. Right now, there’s limited transparency.”

Mike Jones said the extension of the SAB’s term was the beginning of detailed discussion.

“We can’t do this perpetuity,” he said. “My read of the conversation is that people were comfortable with the extension, but they also wanted us to have a conversation about transition and what happens next.

“If you presume that the governance model in Missouri public schools is elected boards, and that special administrative boards are a function of a district in some kind of crisis, where the state has had to intervene, at what point, when the district is making progress, do you restore it back to normal governance.”
He used a medical metaphor to make the point.

'You just can't flip a switch and say OK, you guys are out and you guys are in.' -- State board member Mike Jones

“You show up at the hospital,” Jones said, “and you go to the ER, then intensive care. But nobody stays in intensive care forever. You either stabilize and are able to transition to someplace else in the hospital, or you head to the funeral home.”

The numbers that take a district’s vital signs will become out later this year -- first student test scores, then the overall annual performance report. Last year, the district, which currently is provisionally accredited, earned 106.5 points, more than the 98 points needed for full accreditation.

Vandeven said reaching or exceeding that level this year isn’t a prerequisite for a switch back to the elected board, but it is a good indication of sustained progress. Still, she added, any change would have to be a two-step process: The state board would remove the SAB, and governance of the district would then move on to whatever new plan the upcoming negotiations settle on.

Open or closed meetings?

One question about those talks has been whether the participants will meet in open session, with the public and reporters allowed to listen in, or behind closed doors. Since none of the three boards taking part would have a quorum of members present, the legal answer is that the talks can be in private. Whether that’s the fairest way for the situation to proceed is something else.

Carole Basile, the dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, headed a task force in 2014 charged with coming up with a new scheme of governance for the Normandy schools. Originally, they planned to meet in secret, but when that idea surfaced, the commissioner of education at the time, Chris Nicastro, said that the meetings should be open instead.

Basile said that shift inhibited free-wheeling discussion and made her group’s job harder.

“In a public session,” she said in an interview, “you couldn’t just put ideas on the table. The minute you said hey, what if we consider X, someone in the audience would take it and run with it. If we had spent a meeting talking about let’s blow up the district, just to talk about it, people were going to say they’re going to blow up the district.

“You can’t be totally honest, so what happens is that you find a way to get around it. You end up in the same place, but it made it a lot more difficult.”

In a heated situation like the one in Normandy, Basile added, she even got threatening letters about what the group might recommend.

Vandeven said the Normandy situation was different from what is going to happen with St. Louis public schools, because in the city, an elected board is already in place, whereas in Normandy, the task force was talking about devising something totally new.

So for the upcoming talks, she added, the job will be developing relationships that will make it easier to move from the SAB to whatever comes next, whether that is the elected board as it now exists or some type of hybrid, with elected and appointed members.

Still, Vandeven said, having the initial meetings in public could make the process more difficult than it has to be.

“Inviting media to the initial meeting we believe could be an unnecessary distraction to authentic dialogue,” she said, noting that any further meetings when decisions are made would be open.

'I don't think it's an either/or. I think it as to be a yes/and. Finding that balance is really important.' -- UMSL education dean Carole Basile

Recounting his career in politics, Mike Jones came down solidly for closed sessions.

“I saw this without fear of contradiction or without any reservation,” he said. “I am a professional politician. And I would never attempt to negotiate anything this complicated in public.

“The relative honesty and forthrightness that you need inside a negotiation, where people can say what they need to say to each other to move past certain points, you really can’t do that if you’re selling tickets to the show. I know that frustrates people, but that’s not the way the world works.”

Basile said that once a level of trust is established among the parties in the talks, they can go public with more confidence. The basic task, she added, is learning to live with compromise.

“I think they’re going to find the right balance between public and private meetings,” she said. “I think the public is going to have to feel that they are being listened to, so that whatever comes out of closed sessions, they still feel like they’re being listened to.

“I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think it as to be a yes/and. Finding that balance is really important.

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.