FERGUSON • McCluer South-Berkeley High School will turn into a selective academy and three schools will close under the redistricting plan the Ferguson-Florissant School District chose Wednesday night.
Dozens of parents and community members packed the School Board meeting to demand a delay in the decision amid concerns that they hadn’t been given financial details of the plan and that the redistricting would leave Berkeley without any public schools.
“With any of these three options we will not have any schools,” said Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins, one of several people who spoke during a lengthy public comment session ahead of the board’s vote. “I want to know from all seven board members which ones of you would move into Berkeley without any schools?
“Go back to the drawing board and talk in terms of how do we stabilize the Ferguson-Florissant community.”
Officials posted the financial details on two large projectors as the board debated the decision. Option Two, which was chosen, was estimated to save the district about $4.5 million.
The vote was nearly delayed by board member Donna Paulette-Thurman and Board President Courtney Graves, a former student of the district, who said the board should not act without more community support. Their motion to delay ultimately failed. Other board members said that there had been enough discussion and that they were facing a crisis.
“We are at a state of desperation to turn this district around,” board Vice President Rob Chabot said. “We’re the second-worst school district in this metro area. … We can do better.”
In a vote that broke down along racial lines, the board opted 4-3 for the redistricting, with Paulette-Thurman, Graves and Constance Harge voting no.
Vogt and Airport elementary schools and Mark Twain alternative school will be closed or repurposed under the plan. The district’s already-vacated administrative building will also close.
The plan will also create a school just for sixth-graders — officials say students academic performance drops off at that grade — and create early childhood centers for preschool through second-grade students. The proposed changes for early childhood through eighth-grade education could take effect next year.
The early childhood centers and science, technology, engineering, arts and math academy were staples of two other options before the board. One option, which would have closed the least number of schools, would have kept all three current high schools and turned Vogt Elementary into the STEAM high school.
A third option, which would have closed the most schools, would have replaced the high schools with one comprehensive high school, while also turning McCluer South-Berkeley into the STEAM academy.
The decision had been in the works for about a year as the district grappled with a decline in enrollment, caused in part by population decline in the area, leaving the district with nearly 4,000 more spaces than it has students.
The possibility of school closures has not sat well with parents since district officials first proposed restructuring. They expressed concern that the proposals would favor students at the STEAM academy to the disadvantage of others. Other critics have opposed any school closures, recalling the closure of Berkeley Senior High School in 2003 to make way for an expansion of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
District leaders said they had taken that feedback into account over a series of meetings in the last year.
At the meeting Wednesday night, several people repeated the same concerns.
Judy Ferguson Shaw said the plans would further a long trend of decline. “Our children’s parents and grandparents know what happened in this district dating back to 1975 when it first merged: Berkeley at that time had nine schools. Today, Berkeley has three schools.”
“And this plan stands to take one more school from that community, or maybe two because they consider McCluer South Berekely as their school. But the plan says you’re going to take that school and give it to the steam school. They’re not happy about that.”
“My kids were nervous and scared, and they felt that their school was going to be closed under them,” Shaw said. “People were telling them that they were less than good.”
Doug Jackson said the board also had a responsibility to spend money wisely.
“We still don’t have full plans,” Jackson said. “We have a wish list, but we don’t have actual numbers of what these things will cost, what cost savings will look like. It’s like going Christmas shopping without knowing how much is in your bank account.”
Kim Benz also said she was frustrated that no details about the redistricting’s financial impact had been made available. She also said she was appalled the board would pick a plan when none of them specifically outlined what the boundaries for elementary schools would be.
“Parents want to know those boundaries so we can attract people back to our area,” she said. “You really need to show what those boundaries at the elementary level are going to be to the community. And it’s really going to ease our minds.”
After the board’s vote, Kenneth McClendon called the decision a “horrible” one made along racial lines that would leave Berkeley behind. The board members who voted for the plan are white, and those who voted against it are black.
“It should have been tabled so we could look at other options,” McClendon said. “We don’t even have enough students to fill a STEAM school. I think it is a step back for the school district.”
District officials will next develop a timeline for figuring out what to do with the shuttered schools, spokesman Kevin Hampton said. There will be opportunities for public input throughout the process, he said.
Superintendent Joseph Davis said the board was confident in each plan because of the focus on early childhood development. He said administrators would weigh whether to pursue a bond issue for the plan.
“Whichever way they (the board) decided to go, we were excited about,” he said. “I want to honor all of the things that have happened in Berkeley, and we want to find a way to do that. But we’re excited to move forward and create better opportunities for every one of our students.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this story in print said that board member Donna Paulette-Thurman abstained from the redistricting vote. This version has been corrected to show that Paulette-Thurman voted against the redistricting proposals.