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Dissension on elected school board cuts SLPS transition talks short

The downtown headquarters building for the St. Louis Public Schools
File photo | Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 8:50 p.m. Aug. 16, with results of an attempted meeting - A meeting to discuss moving the St. Louis Public Schools back under the control of an elected board was adjourned just five minutes after it started Tuesday evening because one member of the elected board who was not supposed to be there refused to leave.

The dispute could scuttle any effort to have the elected board replace the appointed Special Administrative Board that has run the district since 2007.

The transition group was carefully constituted so none of the three boards taking part — the SAB, the elected board and the Missouri state school board – had a quorum present. That way, its meetings could take place in private, as the members preferred, at least at first.

But right before the scheduled 5:30 p.m. start time, a fourth member of the elected board, Bill Monroe, showed up at the city schools' downtown headquarters, went into the meeting room and would not leave. Quick huddles among the others followed, and at 5:45 p.m. the president of the elected board, Susan Jones, told the group that her board’s procedures were not being followed, so she thought it best to end the meeting.

One of the elected board members who was chosen to attend, Bill Haas, offered to leave, saying, “I’d like to see practicality trump principle.”

The question came up whether the seats for the elected board members could rotate. But Vic Lenz of south St. Louis County, vice president of the state board, said that solution wouldn’t work.

“That’s what we’re here for,” he said, “to find middle ground. But we expect to meet with the same people each time.”

Five minutes later, members started filing out.

In an interview afterward, Monroe said he was not trying to undermine the transition process, but he thought the head of the Special Administrative Board, Rick Sullivan, had too much power in the procedure.

“The community has to have a voice,” Monroe said, “and this is not the voice of the community. This is the voice of the czar Rick Sullivan and the SAB. This is their voice. It's not scuttling the process. The process has to be made fair and has to be transparent.”

He said he intends to keep showing up at the transition meetings, even though the elected board had chosen Jones, Haas and Katie Wessling as its representatives.

In an email after the meeting, Haas said Monroe’s action was ill-advised.

“Bill did the worst possible thing: gave them excuse not to hurry to give us governance back,” Haas wrote.

Elected school board member Bill Monroe entering the meeting of the SLPS transition group in August, 2016.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Elected school board member Bill Monroe enters the meeting of the SLPS transition group.

The SAB was put in power by the state school board in 2007 because of three factors: Poor academics, financial problems and dysfunctional governance. When the district made progress in all three areas, talks began to move back to authority for the elected board.

But Mike Jones of St. Louis, a member of the state board, said after the meeting was adjourned that the situation shows that the governance problems, which had ebbed in the past nine years, may be resurfacing.

“This is one of those leadership tests that they have to be able to manage if you're going to transition back to local governance,” he said. "So we'll see.

“We still have the responsibility of making sure that education works in St. Louis, and we're not going to engage with anybody who's not basically a responsible partner in this process.”

No further meetings of the transition group were set.

The terms of three members of the elected board — Monroe, Susan Jones and Kathy Styer — expire next spring, and members of the state board have said that election could play a role in whether, when and how the transition back to power for the elected board takes place.

Original story: The group that is deciding whether, when and how governance of the St. Louis Public Schools will return to an elected board plans to hold its second meeting Tuesday night behind closed doors — if the meeting happens at all.

The reason for excluding the public, members say, is that they don’t want ideas or scenarios that are introduced solely for discussion to be misinterpreted by the public or by reporters as definite plans.

“We haven't even started actually discussing what needs to be discussed as far as getting a process going,” said Vic Lenz of south St. Louis County, vice president of the Missouri State Board of Education. “So it's just in the infant stages. We want to try to work something out, and it's the give and take.”

“If it's an open meeting and somebody floats an idea, that idea may not go. But all of a sudden the idea is published in the newspaper, and everybody thinks, ‘This is what's going to happen.’ And that's not where we are at all,” Lenz said.

The six-person group set to meet at the school district’s headquarters in downtown St. Louis includes members from the state board, the elected city board and the appointed Special Administrative Board. The meeting is structured so that none of those boards has a majority, which would constitute a quorum and that would mean that state law requires the meeting to be open.

Susan Jones, president of the elected board and one of its three members who are on the discussion group, said that its first meeting, held last month, was more of a get-acquainted session than anything else. No real agenda is set for the second meeting, but she said that after this week’s meeting is completed, the group might have a better idea of how things will progress from here — and when the meetings will be open to the public.

“I don't know what everyone is going to bring to the table,” she said. “And once I find out that at this meeting, I'll be able to move forward on my hypothesis of what's going to happen, moving forward.”

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

Joining her on the group from the elected board are Katie Wessling and Bill Haas. Joining Lenz from the state board is Mike Jones of St. Louis.  Rounding out the group is Rick Sullivan, who heads the three-member appointed SAB.

The reason that the meeting might be scrubbed is the insistence of one elected board member, Bill Monroe, to be part of the process. He has said he plans to show up for the meeting; if he does, Susan Jones said she would not replace one of the designated board members on the group with Monroe, and because a fourth member would result in a quorum present, the whole meeting could be canceled.

Jones said that the elected board had chosen her, Wessling and Haas as its representatives, not Monroe. Haas replaced Kathy Styer, the vice president of the board, who attended the first meeting of the group but has since said her schedule does not permit her to continue taking part.

If Monroe insists on taking part, Jones said, “I don't think the meeting would go on.”

“This isn't a personal matter,” she added. “This is based on what was already agreed upon and the board members following the rules which we said apply. “

Steady improvement

The SAB has run the district since 2007, when the state board said that governance of the St. Louis schools had to change for three reasons: Poor student test scores, financial problems and a dysfunctional board.

In the past nine years, all three situations have improved, and the district’s classification has been upgraded from unaccredited to provisionally accredited. On its most recent state report card, the city schools scored in the range that could earn them full accreditation.

During the time that the SAB has been in charge, an elected board has also been in place, but it has had no power in running the district. Now, the schools’ upward trajectories have led state board members to discuss when and how the elected board should resume authority over how the district operates.

The theory is that because the conditions that prompted appointment of the SAB are no longer present, the SAB shouldn’t continue either.

'To have to explain something that somebody proposed that never actually got seriously considered really does a disservice to the process and will undermine the effectiveness of the group.' — Mike Jones, member, Missouri State Board of Education

When the group finally comes up with recommendations on how the change should proceed, members will go back to their respective boards. There, discussions will take place in public. The ultimate decision will be up to the state board, which put the SAB in place originally.

“The reality,” said Mike Jones, “is that this is really just a working group trying to figure out what a proposal should look like for public consideration.”

Until that time comes, he added, keeping discussions private will help encourage candor.

“With the exception of Donald Trump,” Jones added, “most people, when they're speaking in public, try to be overly careful and particularly precise. When you're engaged in a negotiation, there's a level of give and take and putting things on the table for discussion that may or may not go anywhere.

“To have to explain something that somebody proposed that never actually got seriously considered really does a disservice to the process and will undermine the effectiveness of the group. People have to have the ability to have a frank and honest discussion. Given our political environment, that is really not necessarily always conducive to a good outcome.”

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.