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Editor's Weekly: Unanswered questions in Ferguson-Florissant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Dear Beaconites -

Sometimes the news generates more questions than answers. That was certainly the case when the Ferguson-Florissant school board put superintendent Art McCoy on paid leave. The board cited philosophical differences but has not been very specific about what they are.

Yes, it's normal practice and standard lawyerly advice for employers never to discuss personnel matters. But the circumstances surrounding this personnel matter are anything but normal, and the unanswered questions have extraordinary ramifications, as the Beacon's Dale Singer has reported.

The employer is a publicly elected board that only last April renewed McCoy's contract for three years. The district is in the thick of difficult issues related to student achievement. McCoy's departure further roils north St. Louis County, where the neighboring Riverview Gardens and Normandy districts have lost accreditation.Normandy's board this week expressed its continuing angst but moved forward with plans to pay for student transfers and to cut staff and budget.

McCoy has been widely regarded in education circles as a Wunderkind -- hired at age 19 to teach in Rockwood, where he went to school; heralded for common sense and charisma when Ferguson-Florissant made him its superintendent. As the region and the state grapple with the Gordian knot of educational issues and interests, McCoy has been praised for energy and fresh perspective.

All this made his removal not only surprising but significant beyond one district. Adding to the magnitude of the controversy is the issue that runs through many regional disputes -- race. McCoy is African American. Members of the board are not. They say race had nothing to do with their decision. Even if that is so, the matter remains racially sensitive. Questions of fairness continue to be raised by McCoy's supporters, who include a number of prominent African Americans.

This week, the board heard an outpouring of protest but said little. Board member Robert Chabot said "trust issues" had developed between himself and McCoy, Dale reported, and Chabot hinted that student discipline was a problem. If there are indeed philosophical differences between the board and the superintendent, you'd think open discussion might be the best way to develop wise policy and public understanding going forward.

Instead, trust issues stemming from the controversy could further complicate larger efforts to address the racially sensitive issues of student achievement and school accreditation. Those huge challenges have been front and center for the region since last summer, when a court affirmed that Normandy and Riverview Gardens students can transfer at their home district's expense. Hundreds have, not only to nearby Ferguson-Florissant but also to Francis Howell, Mehlville, Kirkwood and elsewhere.

That has brought the challenge home with new urgency across the region. Together, the region faces several fundamental questions that are as yet unanswered:

  • How can students in failing districts get a better education now?
  • How can failing districts improve?
  • How will they afford improvements if they must also fund transfers of their students elsewhere?
  • How can the burden of improving schools be shared fairly?

Addressing any one of these questions is daunting. Addressing them all at the same time is a monumental task. As educators and legislators chart next steps for the region and the state, the Beacon will continue to focus on how or whether these questions get answered.


Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.