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State-appointed board endorses returning power over St. Louis schools to elected board

Students at Adams Elementary in St. Louis Sept 2016
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Students at St. Louis' Adams Elementary School work in a reading group in Septemeber 2016.

State authority of the St. Louis Public School district has accomplished its job and it’s time for a return to local control, according to the district’s appointed board. But it’s not clear when that could happen.

In a unanimous vote Thursday evening, the three-person Special Administrative Board approved a motion to return authority of the district to the St. Louis Board of Education, which is elected but powerless, after a decade of state control.

The Special Administrative Board, or SAB, has “done about as much as we can do,” member Richard Gaines said, to steady the district’s finances, put in place stable leadership and oversee improved academic performance for the city’s nearly 22,000 students since taking over.

The SAB was given the reins to a district that was “out of sync” in 2007 following a state takeover, said Gaines.

Backing the elected school board falls in line with the recommendation of a task force the SAB formed to collect public input and study different types of board governance.

The task force deliberated for eight hours Wednesday on that recommendation, failing to agree on many specifics. The SAB also declined to put a timeframe on returning to the elected board. A transition process will be worked out in the coming weeks after studying numerous recommendations, said Gaines, emphasizing the process will not be drawn out.

There is “still a daunting task in front of us,” SAB president Rick Sullivan said.

In taking control of the district in 2007, the state legislature disenfranchised but did not dissolve the city’s elected school board. The city has continued to elect members to the board and it holds regular meetings, though it has struggled to shake a long reputation of dysfunction.

The State Board of Education granted SLPS full academic accreditation in early 2017, fueling desires from the elected board and some community members for an end to state involvement.

Graduation and standardized testing scores in SLPS still lag behind state averages and the district has lost a third of its students since the state takeover to charter schools and a declining city population.

There are “challenges for the people who come next,” Gaines said.

The governance task force held three community forums in November and collected hundreds of comments through an online survey. Comments, especially those made at the forums, were in favor of  return to local control.

Sullivan said he regularly fields concerns from “a silent majority” about ending the SAB.

Ending state control of SLPS will require action from the State Board of Education and possibly also the state legislature.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.