Published Online: August 8, 2006
Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as Leadership Changes Roil St. Louis District

Leadership Changes Roil St. Louis District

State’s education chief names panel to study troubled school system.

Upheaval in the highest ranks of the St. Louis public schools on the eve of a new academic year has prompted Missouri’s top education official to appoint a special committee to help fix the troubled district.

State Commissioner of Education D. Kent King asked the five-member panel to make recommendations to him on improving a district thrown into turmoil when Creg E. Williams abruptly left his post as superintendent last month.

St. Louis school leaders are rushing to get schools ready to open on Aug. 28.

Leadership Timeline
    1996-2003
  • Cleveland Hammonds Jr. is superintendent of the St. Louis public schools.
    APRIL 2003
  • Four new school board members, backed by Mayor Francis G. Slay and the business community, are elected. They form a new majority on the seven-member board.

    “Currently, I would say it’s one of the worst examples of an urban school district,” said Steven J. Adamowski, a former superintendent in Cincinnati and Clayton, Mo., who is now a senior fellow and a managing director at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington. “That St. Louis has not been able to do what other urban districts with the same challenges of poverty have done in terms of raising the bar on student achievement really speaks to a governance issue.”

    Mr. Williams’ departure, which some believe was forced, has sparked protests, underscored bitter divisions among the seven members of the elected school board, and generated calls for a state takeover. Mr. Williams was St. Louis’ fifth superintendent since 2003.

    His exit also has raised the specter that meaningful academic improvement will be further delayed in the 34,000-student district. And the tumult has cast Missouri’s largest school district as one of the most troubled in the nation.

    “This is a district that is now consuming itself,” Mr. Adamowski said.

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    With the district on the verge of losing its state accreditation and officials under pressure to boost student achievement, Mr. Williams had launched an aggressive five-year plan to restructure failing schools, require mandatory summer classes for entering 9th graders, and convert 25 schools serving kindergarten through 5th grade into K-8 schools.

    Mr. Williams, who was popular in St. Louis’ largely African-American neighborhoods and enjoyed the support of the city’s political and business establishment, left just 15 months into his four-year contract. Eight other high-level administrators left the district with him.

    No one has offered an official reason for Mr. Williams’ exit.

    But outside observers say the explanation is simple: In April, two school board incumbents who backed Mr. Williams were defeated. Their replacements formed a new majority that challenged the superintendent.

    School board President Veronica C. O’Brien, who supported the early exit by the superintendent, said in an interview that Mr. Williams had been “struggling with the politics.” Ms. O’Brien said Mr. Williams further harmed his relationship with some board members when he publicly denounced the panel’s decision to fire a beloved, but controversial basketball coach this summer. She refused to elaborate, saying that board members and the former superintendent agreed they would not divulge details surrounding his departure.

    Mr. Williams could not be reached for comment.

    “There really is a feeling of loss over this,” said David Luckes, the president of the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation. “In St. Louis, we finally had a strong leader with a national track record, who had put together a strategy and a leadership team. I can’t speculate on what the motives were, but on the surface, it makes no sense.”

    Mr. Luckes said the sudden change in leadership was giving pause to local funders who had already invested grant money, or were considering such investments, in a district run by Mr. Williams.

    Lost Opportunity?

    What is clear is that the St. Louis district—with a graduation rate pegged at 39.4 percent in 2002-03 by Education Week’s June national report on high school completion—has lost thousands of students and has dozens of schools failing to meet benchmarks for student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

    Relations among school board members, already tenuous, have grown even more rancorous in the wake of Mr. Williams’ exit, with angry parents staging loud protests at a school board meeting and in front of Ms. O’Brien’s home.

    Board members, Ronald L. Jackson and Robert Archibald, called for the state to take the district over as soon as Mr. Williams left.

    “I’m convinced that the elected school board cannot create and sustain the changes that are necessary to improve the education for the children of St. Louis,” said Mr. Jackson, who was elected to the board in 2003 as part of a slate of reform candidates backed by Mayor Francis G. Slay and, until April, was part of the board majority.

    Mr. Adamowski said the district had created a golden opportunity for a reform-minded administrator like Mr. Williams when it hired corporate-turnaround specialists Alvarez & Marsal of New York City to fix its operations and management in 2003. But that move was widely criticized locally.

    “I think it was an excellent strategy to have a private manager come in and deal with the myriad of management and budget issues in one fell swoop,” Mr. Adamowski said. “Then, by all accounts, the district was able to bring in an outstanding individual, Mr. Williams, to finally focus on student achievement.”

    Mr. Williams had previously held administrative posts in Chicago and Philadelphia public schools where he worked on low-performing schools and high school reform.

    Assembling a Team

    Mr. Williams’ interim replacement, Diana M. Bourisaw, is now working to assign hundreds of teachers to classrooms.

    Since taking over on July 17, she has managed to appoint top-level administrators from inside the district to oversee academics, finance, and operations. She brought in John Martin, a recently retired superintendent of a small district south of Kansas City, to be interim deputy superintendent. Another former superintendent will advise her on the district’s finances.

    In a telephone interview on July 26, Ms. Bourisaw said she was certain that schools would open Aug. 28. She also said that plans for restructuring 13 schools this fall would proceed as envisioned by Mr. Williams. Openings for principals at several schools have been filled, she added.

    But Ms. Bourisaw is also controversial. Fired in 2000 from the superintendent’s post in the Fox school district in suburban St. Louis, Ms. Bourisaw was hired by the St. Louis board to perform an audit of the district two weeks before Mr. Williams left. Some board members said they believe she was brought in by the board’s majority to undermine Mr. Williams and take his job, a charge that Ms. O’Brien rejected as “outrageous.”

    James L. Morris, the spokesman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said state officials are deeply concerned about the upheaval, but do not expect to immediately increase their involvement in the district beyond the special committee. The committee will have no decisionmaking authority over the elected school board.

    Test scores scheduled for release next month will help state officials determine whether St. Louis will lose its accreditation, Mr. Morris said.

    The local teachers’ union, which had tangled with Mr. Williams and was angry at his decision to reassign roughly 1,000 teachers, said his departure was bad for the fragile district.

    “He shouldn’t have been removed, because we needed some stability in this school district,” said Mary J. Armstrong, the president of the St. Louis Teachers and School Related Personnel Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

    PHOTO: St. Louis parent Lisa Blackmon argues with a supporter of interim Superintendent Diana M. Bourisaw following a news conference held to introduce Ms. Bourisaw on July 17.
    —Robert Cohen/St. Louis Dispatch/AP

    Vol. 25, Issue 44, Pages 5,18

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