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St. Louis school board accepts citywide plan blueprint, despite price tag and lack of details

The St. Louis Public Schools’ headquarters on Tuesday, July 11, 2023, in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Schools headquarters on Tuesday in downtown St. Louis. The school board accepted a citywide plan blueprint that acknowledges more school closures are coming to the city.

On Tuesday, the St. Louis Board of Education voted to accept a blueprint that had been years in the making and cost more than $600,000.

The citywide plan for education is an effort to address the biggest issues facing St. Louis schools, including population decline and inefficiencies in how charter and traditional schools operate together. But the document the board greenlit Tuesday is light on specifics, instead calling for further planning on a long list of topics.

The city’s century-old school system is no longer serving students and families, board President Antionette "Toni" Cousins and Vice President Matt Davis wrote in the report.

“The only viable option in 2022 was to construct a plan that responds to the education system’s current condition and not its history,” the pair write.

Over the past year, stakeholders held regular meetings to form the blueprint, including officials from St. Louis Public Schools, some charter schools and others such as union representatives and architects. The board selected Laverne Morrow Carter to facilitate the process. The district paid Carter $225,000, and outside sponsors paid another $400,000.

The lively meetings featured student performances and musical interludes when attendees danced to Marvin Gaye. Participants also gathered in groups to talk about the problems city schools face.

In response to criticism that the blueprint is lacking details, Davis said the purpose of this first phase was to bring together stakeholders who weren’t previously at the table together.

“Before this process, we didn't have agreement across different educational agencies and different educational stakeholders on our way forward,” Davis said. “So I think it's more of a roadmap of what we need to do.”

Sumner High School, photographed on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 in St. Louis. The school has faced repeated attempts at closure by the city.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
A pedestrian walks by Sumner High School on Tuesday afternoon in north St. Louis. The school has faced repeated attempts at closure by the city school district but has remained open and now houses the Northside Economic Empowerment Center.

The blueprint the board accepted has 62 recommendations to further study topics like infrastructure and community engagement. Many set a 12-month deadline for developing more concrete programs.

The plan seems to acknowledge that more school closures are coming to the city. One recommendation in the new report calls for “optimizing right-sized schools” within 12 months, though there are no concrete specifics on what that could look like.

“This was not, ‘How do we close schools, where do we close schools, when do we close schools, when do we open?’” said facilitator Carter. “It's a bigger vision than that.”

St. Louis Public Schools closed seven schools in 2021, prompting the first push for a citywide plan for education, tied to a moratorium on opening new schools in the city. Multiple charter schools in the city have also closed in recent years.

Davis said that the current number of schools is inefficient and that difficult conversations are in the near future.

“There are schools on top of schools in some neighborhoods, there are no schools in other neighborhoods,” Davis said. “It doesn't really make sense. So this was a consensus document that we agree that not just St. Louis Public Schools, not just the charter community, not just certain neighborhoods, but everybody needs to finally work together to make this make sense.”

Although the blueprint calls for heavier reliance on data in decision-making, there is little data in the document. Dorothy Rohde Collins was president of the Board of Education when it last closed schools and was an early proponent of a citywide plan for education. She was hoping this report would include population and school statistics to help leaders make hard decisions.

“It's frustrating to see a two-year-long process end in essentially the same place that it started,” Rohde Collins said. “We've talked a lot about what the problems are for many years. The problems are well documented, but the solutions aren't. And we can't generate those solutions until we have data.”

After accepting the blueprint, the board is now tasked with implementing the goals that are laid out in the document. Board members said that will require creating a new committee.

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.