• Appointed panel will run St. Louis schools for at least two more years

    12 hours ago  •  By Elisa Crouch ecrouch@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8119

    JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to give St. Louis Public Schools another two years under an appointed board — a situation intended to be temporary, but one that has endured since 2007.

    State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro recommended that the district’s Special Administrative Board remain in place to keep stability. The district, which has shown progress as well as setbacks, now must show improvement in two years or find its academic standing downgraded.

    It was the second time the state board has granted such an extension, keeping the district out of electoral control through June 2016. State education officials often blame the elected school board for the district’s dysfunction in the 1990s and early 2000s.

    “Are people still in support of this?” state board member Charlie Shields of St. Joseph, Mo., asked Nicastro. “Is there a cry out there for local control?”

    “The general overall opinion is that the SAB should remain in place at least for now,” she said.

    The three members of the district’s appointed board — President Rick Sullivan, Vice President Melanie Adams and Richard Gaines — have overseen the city school system since a judge’s decision allowed the state to take leadership of the St. Louis schools.

    They arrived to find a district that had recently lost its accreditation and was in disarray. It had gone through six superintendents in three years. A history of deficit spending had put St. Louis Public Schools on the state’s “financially distressed” list. Academics had slipped to the point that the vast majority of children scored below grade level in reading and math.

    Under the SAB, St. Louis schools has had one superintendent since 2008 and has balanced its budget for several years. Attendance and discipline improved across the district.

    But academic improvements have been harder to come by.

    In the 18 worst-performing schools, half of children are two or more grade levels behind in reading, Superintendent Kelvin Adams has said.

    The district made gradual gains and received provisional accreditation in 2012. Under the new state rating system, however, St. Louis Public Schools found itself in dangerous territory again last fall. Academics must improve over the next two years or the district could be unaccredited again.

    “They have made some progress,” Nicastro said. “They’ve had some disappointments.”

    The three members of the Special Administrative Board have expressed fatigue at times, with Gaines stating at meetings that he never expected to hold the position this long.

    But on Tuesday, Gaines said he felt strongly about continuing in his post as Adams tries new initiatives to improve academics.

    Adams is proposing intense tutoring and improved teacher training in reading instruction in schools where students are struggling the most. He’s also proposing to send more district support and resources to the city’s lowest-performing schools, in hopes of getting children up to grade level.

    “I don’t know that I’ll be there for two years,” Gaines said. “But I do want to see some of these initiatives done.”

    No members of the Special Administrative Board were appointed by the state board, even though the state board established the special board. Sullivan was appointed by former Gov. Matt Blunt. Melanie Adams — no relation to the superintendent — was appointed by Mayor Francis Slay. Gaines was appointed by Aldermanic President Lewis Reed.

    On Tuesday, Slay’s education liaison, Robbyn Wahby, applauded the state board’s decision to keep the appointed board in power, saying the district had shown progress, though not enough.

    David Jackson, president of the disempowered elected board, remained in his chair after the vote, with a copy of the meeting agenda rolled up in his hands.

    Though no longer in power, the seven members of the elected school board continue to meet monthly.

    Jackson said he had traveled to Jefferson City expecting this outcome, but nonetheless found it frustrating that the district will not be returning to elected control at least until 2016.

    He accused the SAB of not having its priorities straight.

    “Their focus is not academics,” Jackson said.

    Gaines said the board’s focus was exactly that — but he’s not at all satisfied with the overall outcome.

    “We’ve not shown enough growth academically so that our students are competitive with the rest of the world,” he said.

    As a former member of the elected school board, having served in the 1980s, Gaines said he supported the district returning to electoral control — at some point.

    “I believe in the whole question of representative democracy. How we get to that is a real concern,” he said. “It can work. The question for St. Louis is, why did it not work for the period it was dysfunctional? … People get who they vote for, I guess.”