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State board member warns elected SLPS board transition talks could be on hold until April

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

Updated Sept. 14 with comments from Bill Monroe — The vice-president of the Missouri Board of Education warned the elected board of St. Louis Public Schools Tuesday night that if the elected board can’t work together then talks to transition district authority back could be put on hold until after the April election.

“We went around the room (during the state board meeting) and it was pretty clear that if we can’t have a working together meeting to make things happen, then we’re wasting our time,” state board vice president Vic Lenz told the elected board during their regularly scheduled board meeting.

“If you guys can get it together we want to work with you,” Lenz said, adding that “there are a lot of things that need to change about the way the board operates and functions before we’re ready to turn it over to you.”

Lenz spoke as an invited guest during the elected board meeting, updating board members on the results of the state board meeting held in Jefferson City earlier in the day.

Transition talks were placed on hold last month after elected board member Bill Monroe showed up despite not being chosen as a representative during the talks, giving the elected board a quorum and forcing the meeting to become public.

Lenz told the elected board that one suggestion from the state board would be to wait until after April’s election to resume transition talks. Monroe is one of the members up for re-election.

 “I’d hate to see the transition process dependent on the whimsy or vagaries of the election,” elected board member Bill Haas told Lenz, adding that elections come and go every few years and board members often disagree.

Lenz said that board members might disagree but a functioning board needs to come together and abide by what the majority has voted on.

Monroe was not at the elected board meeting Tuesday night and did not immediately return a request for comment.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Monroe reiterated his belief that his fellow board members didn’t select him to represent them at transition talks because Rick Sullivan, the president of the state-appointed board of St. Louis Public Schools, told the elected board he didn’t want Monroe there.

Sullivan has told St. Louis Public Radio that he is willing to meet with Monroe and that he never said otherwise.

Asked what he wants to happen during the transition process, Monroe said Wednesday he wants to be part of all transition talks and for all talks to be open to the public.

“I need to be included at the table,” Monroe said. “A black man needs to be included at that table.” (One black man and one black woman have been participating in the transition talks: state board member Mike Jones and elected board president Susan Jones.)

If he does have a seat at the table, Monroe said he would be willing to talk to the state-appointed district board and to the state board of education about transition.

“Why not,” Monroe said, then adding that he didn’t trust the state-appointed board known as the SAB.

“The SAB are lying through their teeth,” Monroe said. “They intend to be an impediment to the process as long as they can because their goal is not to do what lawfully they should do, and that’s hand the power back to an elected power at a certain time.”

Susan Jones said Tuesday she is doing everything she can to make sure her fellow elected board members work together going forward.

"We are working internally to handle the issues of our board," Jones said.

Asked to respond to state board comments that her board needs to show that its ready to work together, Jones said she disagreed with state board member Maynard Wallace's comment that the local board could stay without authority forever until its ready "to engage in procedure."

"The ultimate goal here is not about returning governance to a group of individuals. It’s about returning governance back to the taxpayers who deserve to have a say in education more importantly,” Jones said.

Original story from Sept. 13  — After a disruption in their original blueprint to find a process to return the St. Louis school district to control by an elected board, Missouri state school officials are keeping the discussion on hold until they come up with a new way forward.

Meeting in Jefferson City on Tuesday, the board heard an update on the talks so far from the two members who have taken part – Vic Lenz of south St. Louis County and Mike Jones of St. Louis. They detailed how the first meeting in July went smoothly, but the second was derailed last month when Bill Monroe, a member of the elected board who had not been designated to take part, showed up anyway.

His presence gave the elected board a quorum of four, meaning that the meeting would have to be open to the public. Rather than continue, members of the working group decided to end the session.

Because Monroe has said he plans to continue his protest, asserting that black students aren’t properly represented on the transition group, Lenz and Jones said they did not think that continuing the process would be fruitful.

State board president Charlie Shields agreed and said he wanted to confer with education Commissioner Margie Vandeven on what the next steps might be.

“Let the commissioner and I kind of cogitate on this for a little bit,” he said, “back up and say, what is the ultimate Plan B, now that Plan A didn’t quite work the way we thought it would.”

Other board members expressed doubt that, given what has happened so far, any proposed process would work.

State school board President Charlie Shields and education Commissioner Margie Vandeven listen to Tuesday's discussion.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
State school board President Charlie Shields and education Commissioner Margie Vandeven

“And in fact if that’s what’s going to happen any time,” said board member Joe Driskill, “I’m pretty skeptical about my voting for doing any kind of transition.”

Member Maynard Wallace agreed.

“Let them stay like they are forever, as far as I’m concerned, until they decide to engage in the procedure,” he said. “I thought what we had set up was very fair.”

Jones noted that if any other school district but St. Louis were involved, the issue would be easier to decide, because the law would detail how a transition would take place. But the St. Louis schools are covered by a different law, and it does not spell out the procedure to return to the elected board.

“Our problem in this situation,” he said, “is that the section of the law that governs St. Louis makes this a lot more complicated. The elected board is still there, and we don’t have any statutory authority to create and dictate a transition process that everybody has to comply with.

“That makes this a voluntary effort, if there’s going to be a process, and I think it would be irresponsible for us not to have a process. But if we can’t dictate the process or create the process, we can only get there in a collaboration, and it does require to engage in an honest effort to try to figure out what is in the best interest of the kids.”

Shields noted that the situation is made even more complex by the fact that one of the three members of the appointed board now running the city schools, Melanie Adams, has resigned because she is taking a job out of town.

State test scores

Prior to the discussion on the St. Louis schools transition, the board discussed the latest test scores that were made public last week and progress being made by the Normandy Schools Collaborative.

On the test scores, education officials emphasized once again that, because the state has been changing tests in recent years, comparisons of scores from this year to those of past years are not valid.

What can be compared in any one year, though, is how Missouri students overall are doing compared with students in what is called the super subgroup, which is made of students who are black or Hispanic, who are English-learners, who come from low-income families or have disabilities.

The difference between the overall scores and those of the subgroup, termed the achievement gap, has been steady over the years, in most subjects, and this year’s scores were no different.

A person filling in a standardized test bubble sheet with a pencil.
Credit Flickr | Alberto G.

The percentage of students scoring in the top two categories, proficient and advanced, continues to be 13-15 percent lower in the super subgroup than it is for Missouri students overall, in English, math, science and social studies.

Commissioner Vandeven noted that the scores for the two groups tend to follow each other.

“You can see that that gap is remaining relatively consistent,” she told the board, “even though we’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into closing that gap.

“But basically you can see that as the overall group performs, our subgroup seems to follow suit. When we go up, they go. When we go down, they go down.”

Individual districts’ test scores are set to be released at the end of September, with district report cards due out in November.

Progress in Normandy

On Normandy, Superintendent Charles Pearson detailed improvements his schools is making in its fifth semester of being reconstituted from the old district and being run by an appointed board.

He said the district is putting a strong focus on reading, not just in English class but throughout the curriculum, because analysis has shown that to be a weak spot in student performance.

“We have determined that the reason that our children are still struggling in every single assessment,” he said, “is their ability to comprehend what they’re reading.”

He said the district is still spending more than it is bringing in, largely because of the continued financial drain of tuition paid for students who transfer elsewhere under state law. He said the number of transfers has fallen from 619 last year to below 600 this year, but he added:

“The transfer program is killing us. It’s killing us.”

He urged the state board to continue to urge legislators to make changes in the transfer law.

'The transfer program is killing us. It's killing us.' -- Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson

In general, board members said they were pleased with the progress Normandy has shown. Mike Jones said the current situation is vindication of the move by the state board three years ago to dissolve the old Normandy district and create the new one.

“There was a lot of angst,” he said, “a lot of turmoil. It was totally disruptive at the time. And this board made a real tough decision – not a popular decision, but I would argue that it was the right decision. I argued it then, and I supported it, and I would argue it now.

“What you heard today, and the possibilities of what can happen in the future if Dr. Pearson and his team and the community can continue to execute, they can get better, will be a reformation, not only of the school district but of the community and a lot of kids’ lives.”

Jones contrasted the board’s move with what he called “rampant cowardice” of too many public bodies today.

“None of the things we heard here today would have happened had we not made the decision that we made three years ago,” he said.

He echoed Pearson’s call for changes in the transfer program, noting that it allows students who live in the Normandy district but never attended its schools to still transfer and have the district foot the bill.

“It is a runaway voucher program, for lack of a better way of putting it,” Jones said. “Some of those kids will never come back, because they were never there.”

Follow Dale and Camille on Twitter: @dalesinger @cmpcamille.

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.