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Transition talks for St. Louis Public Schools remain on hold

Madison Jones sits with her grandmother, elected school board member Donna Jones, before Monday night's meeting. Madison's mother, Susan Jones, is president of the board.
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 9:30 p.m. Monday: After the most recent meeting broke up after just five minutes, talks about when, how and whether the elected board might regain power over the St. Louis Public Schools are on hold until state officials discuss how they might proceed.

Based on discussions at the elected board’s meeting Monday night, infighting may not be ending any time soon.

The problem at the abortive meeting on Aug. 16 came when Bill Monroe, an elected board member who had not been chosen by his peers to take part in the session, showed up anyway. His presence gave the elected board four member, a quorum, and that would have opened the meeting up to the public.

Other members of the transition group – two from the state school board and Rick Sullivan, head of the appointed Special Administrative Board – have wanted the talks closed. They say they want the freedom to debate issues openly without the public assuming that anything brought up for discussion will automatically become policy.

The state school board’s next meeting is Sept. 13 in Jefferson City, and members of the elected board say that because the state has the final say over any change in authority over the city schools will happen, the future of the talks is up to the state.

Susan Jones, who heads the elected board, says she doesn’t think the infighting among members of her board should affect the perception over whether it is time for the transition to take place.

She said that her board has been trained, is up to date on issues facing the district and is ready to assume power.

“As long as we can begin to continue those conversations about what's going on,” Jones said after the meeting, “then we're going to be successful in that. But we can't do it by ourselves, which is why we need to continue on with the transition committee meetings.”

For his part, Monroe said he plans to continue showing up at the transition talks because he doesn’t feel that others in the group adequately represent the interests of African-American students in the city schools.

That attitude didn’t please board member Katie Wessling, who said that continuing the transition discussion under those circumstances is futile.

“Since we have members who are choosing to sabotage that effort,” Wessling said, “I don’t know there is much point, when one person is acting for his own selfish purposes and preventing us from being taken seriously.”

And, she added, Monroe’s actions have hurt the reputation of the elected board in general.

“I think that the purposes of our meetings,” she said, “which were to see if they felt that we were a partner they wanted to work with, that question may have been unfortunately answered based on the actions of one of our board members.”

One issue that came up at the elected board meeting was whether keeping transition talks behind closed doors is a good idea – and whether it is legal.

Because none of the boards that are taking part has a quorum present, the group cannot make any final decisions, so the law allows the meeting to remain closed. But Bill Haas, an elected board member, questioned whether the decision to meet in private meets the spirit of the law.

He also criticized the view of Mike Jones of St. Louis, one of the two members of the state board who is part of the transition group.

“I’m really tired of Mike Jones calling this a negotiation,” he said. “A negotiation is where all parties have power to agree or disagree. We have no power.”

Our earlier story: The elected board for the St. Louis Public Schools meets Monday night to try to salvage an effort to plan for its eventual return to power over the system, but acrimony among its members remains.

On Aug. 16, a group made up of members of the elected board, the appointed board that now runs the school system and the state school board gathered at the district’s downtown headquarters to continue talk about a possible transition. The group was structured with none of those three boards having a quorum present, so the meeting could be held behind closed doors.

But instead of just the three members that had been designated by the elected board to take part, a fourth member – Bill Monroe – showed up. He insisted on staying, and rather than continue the meeting, the group dispersed after five minutes.

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 entering the meeting of the SLPS transition group on Aug. 16.

Monroe said in an interview afterward that he did not think the group’s members had the best interests of students, particularly black students, at heart, so he wanted to be there to represent them.

Two days after the canceled meeting, Monroe issued a statement on the letterhead of the elected board, complaining about the process, saying it lacks transparency and could violate the state’s open meetings law.

“The transition committee was formed to discuss public business,” he wrote, “and should be an open public meeting, to afford the citizens of the City of St. Louis a view of how it gathers information and procedures for a transition.”

Members of the transition group have said that they want to be able talk frankly about ideas in private, so that the public isn’t confused about possibilities that are discussed, then discarded.

They say any final plan to move from the appointed Special Administrative Board, which has been in place since 2007, to a new board will be discussed in open meetings by the three boards that have representatives on the transition group. The final decision will be up to the state board, which put the SAB in place originally.

One reason the SAB was given authority over the city schools was squabbling among members of the elected board that was in place in 2007. The members of the state board who are on the transition panel, Vic Lenz and Mike Jones, have said that the new arguments among elected board members may not bode well for any change in governance.

Three seats on the elected board will be up for election in April – Monroe, Kathy Styer and Susan Jones, who heads the board. She called the Aug. 29 work session for 6 p.m. at the Schlafly branch library in the Central West End to discuss the transition talks and other issues.

She also has said that Monroe has no authority to use the school board’s stationery for his personal views.

Monroe has complained that Rick Sullivan, who heads the SAB,  has too much power over others on the elected board and in the transition group. He also has claimed that Sullivan will not meet with him – a claim that Sullivan has denied on several occasions.

“Never at any time did I say I wouldn’t sit down or meet with Bill Monroe,” Sullivan said after last week’s SAB meeting. “And he knows that we have met and talked and interacted in the past. So I have no idea where he came up with the idea that we wouldn’t do it, and I’d be happy to sit and talk with him at any time.”

'We have several strong applicants under consideration, none of whom happen to be any of the elected board members.' -- Maggie Crane, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, on upcoming SAB appointment

After Melanie Adams announced she would be leaving the SAB because she is moving to Minnesota, there were suggestions that the transition could begin by filling her spot on the appointed board with one of the members of the elected board.

The appointment will be made by Mayor Francis Slay, who appointed Adams in the first place. His spokeswoman, Maggie Crane, said Friday that Slay has no plans to name someone from the appointed board to the SAB.

“We have several strong applicants under consideration,” she said, “none of whom happen to be any of the elected board members.”

Adams attended her final SAB meeting Thursday night.

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.