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So long, SAB? Talks to move SLPS back to elected board called positive and cooperative

The St. Louis Public Schools elected board discusses business during its June meeting as state board of education member Vic Lenz looks on.
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Public Schools elected board discusses business during their June 2016 meeting as state board of education member Vic Lenz looks on.

Updated at 9:40 p.m. Tuesday with comments after the meeting - Nine years after a three-member appointed board took over a dysfunctional, poorly performing St. Louis Public Schools system, talks have begun on how an elected board can regain authority over a calmer, much-improved district.

Three members of the current elected board, along with two members of the state school board and the president of the appointed Special Administrative Board, gathered at the district’s downtown headquarters Tuesday evening.

The two-hour session was characterized by those who took part as cooperative and positive. The group plans to meet again next month.

Besides the various board members, state education commissioner Margie Vandeven also took part. She said it was clear from the tone of the session that those involved have the best interests of St. Louis children at heart.

"People were focusing on how do we work together in the way that will be most productive for the students in the St. Louis school district," she said.

Rick Sullivan, who heads the SAB, said that earlier comments he had made about the work of his panel not being finished didn't accurately describe his feeling about a transition. He wants to make sure that when the change does come, it goes off without a hitch.

“I think part of this process," he said after the meeting, "is to say here’s what’s been done, here’s what’s being worked on, and we can work with you in making that a smooth transition for you, the elected board, to pick up what we have been working on through this process.”

And Vic Lenz of the state board added that if things go as they should, city residents shouldn't even notice that a change has taken place.

The conversation about the transition is one that elected board president Susan Jones believes is overdue.

“There should be a (transition) process but this process should have started a while ago,” said Jones, who will be participating in the joint transition talks along with fellow elected board members Kathy Styer and Katie Wessling.

Jones was careful to emphasize that she’s entering the meeting with an open mind and isn’t going to insist on a set timeline or method for regaining authority.

“I think that this is first and foremost a move in the right direction and I appreciate the two boards including the elected board in this conversation of transition,” Jones said. “I hope that this leads to new and greater opportunities for the board to work in its capacity and to build a better rapport between all three boards.”

Her colleague Katie Wessling echoed that sentiment.

“I hope people come with an open mind as far as getting to know the other people at the table,” Wessling said. “We pretty much know each other only through news media for the most part. And I would hope that everyone is willing to be open to actually getting to know each other and understanding each other beyond previously made conceptions.”

Both Jones and Wessling said the transition plan put forward by the elected board would be their starting point for discussions. That plan would add a couple elected board members to the decision-making process every six months, with all seven members added over the course of a year and a half.

(Scroll down to see their board's proposed plan.)

Wessling said she hoped they come up with “concrete steps that will be taken, and it will be taken in a timely manner according to the timeline determined to be appropriate, but that it will not be an incredibly drawn out process.”

The transition talks follow recent discussions by the state board over whether, when and how the SAB would go away and the elected board would take its place.

The law that established the SAB provides little guidance over how the process can be reversed, or what kind of benchmarks should be used to determine when it should occur.

The SAB was put in place because of certain problems with the city schools in terms of student achievement, finance and governance. Once those problems have been solved, the argument goes, the justification for the SAB to continue goes away.

But proponents of the change, including several members of the state board, have noted that the SAB was put in place because of certain problems with the city schools in terms of student achievement, finance and governance. Once those problems have been solved, the argument goes, the justification for the SAB to continue goes away.

The infighting that characterized the elected board in the time before the SAB took over is gone. A financial deficit has become a surplus, and the latest state evaluations of the district show individual schools scoring in the full accreditation range, though the district as a whole still is classified as provisionally accredited.

The state board voted in February to extend the life of the SAB through the end of June 2019, but that vote doesn’t mean the board must remain.

Lenz, of south St. Louis County, the vice president of the state board, will be part of the transition talks. He cited the steady gains as evidence that the return to an elected board is on the horizon.

“Eventually,” he said, “if the city keeps doing as well as they’ve been doing, it’s going to reach the point where they’re fully accredited. At that point, we need to look at re-establishing the elected board in control. We need to begin moving in that direction, so when that time comes, we’ll be ready to do that transition.

“The people in the district should have a voice in the operation of their schools, so that’s what I’m hoping to get back to.”

Lenz and his colleague Mike Jones of St. Louis represented the state board during the transition talks.  Sullivan, who has headed the Special Administrative Board since it was established in 2007, represented the SAB.

The two state board members who will take part in the discussions both said they are going into the meeting ready to listen, with no preconceived ideas of how any transition should proceed.

But as they have said before, they want to make sure that any process is gradual, so that the people who end up running the city schools are ready to do the job.

“If you ‘flip a switch,’” Lenz said,  “you'd be asking a group of people who have not been in the decision making for nine years to now move and make some pretty critical decisions. You don’t want that to happen until they’ve actually had time to come up to speed on what’s happening, what’s going on, why and so forth.”

'You need a process. You can't just do something one way for nine years and then tomorrow, you're going to do it a different way.' - Mike Jones

Mike Jones put it this way:

“You need a process. You can’t just do something one way for nine years and then tomorrow, you’re going to do it a different way. We have to collectively agree on what that process is. In that case, we’re all equal in that conversation. Nobody has any particular authority. In order to make it work, we’re going to have to have everybody agreeing and working cooperatively to make it happen.”

Elected board president Susan Jones said she understood the need for the transition to take place over time, but she felt that she and her colleagues were ready to take authority.

“If anything we’re going in more ready than anyone who may have just stepped into the position and not received school board training or been able to actually serve and listen to the constituents of the city of St. Louis,” she said. “When you are in a position of being appointed you don’t have the same accountability to the community as we do as an elected official. And so I’m really just looking to work in that capacity. That’s why people vote, that’s why the citizens of St. Louis elected us, because they wanted to have a voice in their education and they deserve that.”

SAB president Rick Sullivan was not available for an interview on Tuesday’s meeting. But he has said that while he is ready to listen to a discussion about moving back to an elected board, he doesn’t think the job of his panel is over yet.

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

“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 said he agrees that every student should read at grade level, but he’s not sure that a failure to reach that goal should mean the SAB remains in place.

“If that’s what it takes,” he said, “we ought to be taking over literally every school district in the state of Missouri, if that’s the criteria to return to self-governance. I think that’s an aspirational goal that we ought to get as concrete as possible, but that can’t be a realistic criterion for whether you return a school district that’s under state control back to regular governance.

“Obviously, no situation is perfect. We’d all like to see the highest possible standards. But that’s different from the question of have we created a situation where the return to normal governance is the appropriate public policy position.”

Follow Camille Phillips and Dale Singer on Twitter: @cmpcamille @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.