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State board could decide future of SLPS transition talks

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

The state board of education will discuss the stalled transition talks for the St. Louis Public Schools at its meeting Tuesday and could decide whether the on-again, off-again talks will resume or will be off for quite a while.

“We’re not going to continue to try to hold meetings as they were planned if, every time, we have to suspend the meeting or call it off,” said Vic Lenz of south St. Louis County, one of two state board members who has been involved in the discussion of when and whether an elected board will resume control over the city schools. “We’re not going to waste people’s time like that.”

The talks were set up by the state board of education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education after continued improvement by the city schools raised the question of how much longer the three-member appointed Special Administrative Board should continue.

It was put in charge by the state in 2007 in the wake of poor academic performance by city school students, financial problems by the district and a dysfunctional school board.

The transition task force was set up with three members of the elected board, two members of the state board and one member of the administrative board. None of those boards would have a quorum present, so the meetings could be held in private – a condition that organizers wanted to encourage a free exchange of ideas.

After one session, which was characterized as a get-acquainted meeting, another was scheduled for Aug. 16. But it broke up after five minutes because of a dispute within the elected board over who will take part. The three members designated to be involved were there, but a fourth, Bill Monroe, crashed the meeting, and his presence gave the state board a quorum.

Monroe said he insisted on being present because he did not think the designated members had the best interests of black city students at heart. He has said he will continue to disrupt the procedure.

At a meeting late last month, members of the elected board said they were looking to Tuesday’s state board meeting for clues about when and how the sessions might resume.

Lenz and Mike Jones of St. Louis, the other state board member who is on the transition group, are scheduled to give an update on the process at the board’s meeting in Jefferson City. Lenz sees a few possible options as a result.

“As I see it,” he said, “ we’re either going to say we’re going to continue and we expect to continue as originally planned, or we sense that this (stalemate) is going to continue and therefore we’re going to suspend the meeting. Or the board could say we’ll decide to just have open meetings and let the chips fall where they may.”

Lenz rejected a suggestion that the elected board have a rotating group of members who take part in the discussions on the transition.

“If we change the people from meeting to meeting,” he said, “then there's no continuity in what we're trying to do, and we have to re-establish the discussion each time, and re-educate new people coming in.  So it would really mess up the process.

“That sounds like really trying to get around the Sunshine Law, if we eventually bring everybody in, in different groups, but rehash the same material, That's not what we're about. “

Only the state board has the power to decide whether and when the elected board will resume control over the school system. But Jones said that because the law doesn’t specify under what conditions such a transfer should take place, all three boards represented on the transition task force are equal partners in deciding terms of the process.

“If there is a discussion about process,” he said, “it is a negotiation between three fairly equal parties. We all have different levels of leverage in the conversation, but there’s no one part in this triumvirate that can impose a process on any of the other two parties.”

'We're not going to continue to try to hold meetings as they were planned if every time we have to suspend the meeting or call it off.' -- Vic Lenz, vice president of the state school board

And, Jones added, keeping the meetings closed, at least for now, is the best way for all possible ideas to get an airing.

“Everybody needs to feel free to be able to offer suggestions, ideas and proposals about how to move forward,” he said. “Despite the chagrin from my friends in the Fourth Estate, that's best done in a climate where people have some sense of confidentiality. 

“I'm not saying that there wouldn't be a process for some public input for what the process ought to look like, but you need to have an opportunity to get to those discussions or suggestions.”

What are the chances that the process will continue and reach a satisfactory conclusion? Lenz hopes that the upcoming report on student test scores will give the process added momentum.

“If I thought it was a hopeless exercise,” Lenz said, “then I wouldn’t even want to do it. I’m hoping that when we look at the scores this year, that the St. Louis Public Schools will have continued to improve, and that means the people who are there are doing a good job.

“Now we just need to turn it over to an elected board, and we need to have a seamless transition, where the schools and the students and the people in the city of St. Louis will not see any change, that it will be a continued improvement of schools, even after the change.”

Jones looks forward to continued progress, but he wouldn’t guess at how certain it will be.

“I’m always hopeful,” he said, “because the opposite of hope is despair, and I don’t believe in despair. But if you ask me how optimistic, I wouldn’t want to handicap that at this point.”

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.