School & District Management

Leadership Changes Roil St. Louis District

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 08, 2006 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

JULY 2003

  • The school board hires Alvarez & Marsal, a New York City-based company, to manage noninstructional operations for the district for one year. William V. Roberti, a former Brooks Brothers chief executive officer, becomes the acting superintendent.
    • SEPT. 2003
    • Mr. Roberti shuts down 16 schools, fires 1,400 school district employees.
      JULY 2004
    • The board names Floyd Crues, a district administrator, as interim superintendent. He resigns in December.
      DECEMBER 2004
    • The board names Pamela Randall Hughes, a deputy to Mr. Crues, as interim superintendent.
      APRIL 2005
    • The board hires Creg E.Williams as superintendent.
      APRIL 2006
    • Two school board incumbents, who backed Mr. Williams, are defeated and replaced by members who are critics of Mr. Williams and have strong backing from the teachers’ union.
      JULY 14, 2006
    • Mr. Williams resigns. The board hires Diana M. Bourisaw as interim chief.
      JULY 27, 2006
    • Missouri Commissioner of Education D. Kent King appoints a five-member panel to make recommendations on how to improve the St. Louis district.

    ";} ?>

      >

    "; } else { echo “

    "; } ?>

    “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.

    No Comment

    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.

    A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as Leadership Changes Roil St. Louis District

    Events

    This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
    Sponsor
    Teaching Webinar
    6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
    As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
    Content provided by Instructure
    Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
    University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
    This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
    Sponsor
    Student Well-Being Webinar
    Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
    Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
    Content provided by Rollins Center

    EdWeek Top School Jobs

    Teacher Jobs
    Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
    View Jobs
    Principal Jobs
    Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
    View Jobs
    Administrator Jobs
    Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
    View Jobs
    Support Staff Jobs
    Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
    View Jobs

    Read Next

    School & District Management Opinion 7 Mistakes Districts Have Made During the Pandemic
    Arrogance and looking at students through the lens of deficits, instead of assets, are among the blunders.
    14 min read
    Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
    iStock/Getty
    School & District Management SEL for Principals: How a Professional Development Program Serves Their High-Stress Needs
    A statewide program in Massachusetts guides principals on how to apply social-emotional learning and self-care skills to their own jobs.
    10 min read
    Image of a professional male in meditation pose.
    iStock/Getty
    School & District Management Some Teachers Won't Get Vaccinated, Even With a Mandate. What Should Schools Do About It?
    Vaccine requirements for teachers are gaining traction, but the logistics of upholding them are complicated.
    9 min read
    Illustration of a vaccine, medical equipment, a clock and a calendar with a date marked in red.
    iStock/Getty
    School & District Management A Vaccine for Kids Is Coming. 6 Tips for Administering the Shot in Your School
    Start planning now, get help, and build enthusiasm. It's harder than it looks.
    11 min read
    Cole Rodriguez, a 15-year-old student at Topeka West, gets a COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Aug. 9, 2021 at Topeka High School's vaccine clinic.
    Cole Rodriguez, a 15-year-old student, gets a COVID-19 vaccine at Topeka High School's vaccine clinic.
    Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP