St. Louis District Seen as Target of State Action
The St. Louis school district begins the new year facing likely state intervention, following a task force’s proposal for the locally elected school board to be stripped of its authority and for an appointed board to run the system on an interim basis.
Under the plan, which could be taken up by the Missouri state school board as early as this week, state and local leaders would jointly pick a three-person team to govern the 34,000-student system for at least six years.
A state-appointed advisory committee made the recommendation Dec. 15 after six months of study and hearings aimed at crafting a state response to the district’s long-standing financial, academic, and leadership problems.
William H. Danforth, a co-chairman of the panel, said the group concluded governance changes are needed in a system that has had six superintendents in four years and is experiencing continued infighting on its board.
“The purpose of the St. Louis public schools is to educate the children, but you can’t do a good job of that without managing well,” Mr. Danforth, who is a former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, said in an interview.
After researching mayoral control and state takeovers elsewhere, the panel opted against recommending either course. Instead, it proposed handing the reins to a three-person board named by the mayor of St. Louis, the president of the city’s board of aldermen, and the governor of Missouri.
The authors of the plan say the state already has the authority to take such action should it deny the St. Louis district accreditation, a status Missouri confers on school systems based on a series of indicators of their academic progress.
A Missouri Department of Education report earlier in December showed the St. Louis district failing to achieve enough of the performance targets needed for the designation, although the state board of education has not yet acted on the evaluation.
State Commissioner of Education D. Kent King appointed the Special Advisory Committee on St. Louis Public Schools last summer, after the city school board ousted Superintendent Creg E. Williams just 15 months after hiring him.
Since then, turmoil on the board has continued. The current superintendent, Diana Bourisaw, has fallen out of favor with board President Veronica O’Brien, who herself last fall said that state involvement was needed.
In a rancorous school board meeting last week, three of the board’s members, including Ms. O’Brien, voted against a motion to keep Ms. Bourisaw. Ms. O’Brien has said she backs the state advisory committee’s plan for a “transitional board.”
“I’m in favor of whatever needs to be done to make this system better,” she said in an interview, “even if that means turning over the reins to someone else.”
Others criticized the proposed change in governance. Arguing that voters should decide who runs the system, board member Peter Downs pointed out that residents of St. Louis are slated to weigh in on two of the seven school board members in an election in April. He also noted that the plan leaves the current board in place, albeit powerless. That, he said, is a recipe for a legal challenge of the new board.
Late last month, a newly elected state representative from St. Louis, Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat, called on the state school board asking for public hearings on the proposed change in governance before action is taken. Opponents to the intervention plan also held a rally in the city.
The advisory committee did recommend an exit strategy by proposing new legislation clarifying that the appointed board would run the district for six years, after which local voters would decide whether to turn the system back over to an elected one.
Jim Morris, the public information director for the Missouri Department of Education, said last week that although the state board’s regular meeting Jan. 11 “will provide time to review and discuss” the intervention plan, it was unclear if action will be taken.
Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, has said he supports the advisory committee’s plan. The governor appoints the state board.
“The bickering and infighting on the [St. Louis] board is embarrassing, and the children are being hurt,” said Brian Hauswirth, a spokesman for Mr. Blunt. “The governor is a big advocate of local control, but in this case, it’s a crisis.”
Vol. 26, Issue 18, Page 8