EAST ST. LOUIS • With academic performance in dire need of improvement, Illinois state officials grabbed the helm of the East St. Louis School District a year ago this month in an attempt to right the district.
The state's emphasis in the months since has been less about how to turn around the district's failing schools than it has been trying to figure out how much damage has been done and what efforts are needed to achieve a turnaround.
The damage is sizable, education officials say, and the efforts required to fix it, herculean. So as the district's 7,000-plus students wrap up the school year today, they can expect to walk away from a district whose operations might be markedly different by the time school reopens.
The elected School Board might be out on the street next month. As many as five schools will be shuttered over the summer. Dozens of teachers and other employees have been laid off, dozens more have become part time instead of full time, and more cuts are likely.
And officials say there's a lot more work to do.
"Just as the district didn't get in this shape overnight, it's going to take some time for them to turn it around," said Illinois Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch.
Following the district's failure for nine years to meet standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, the East St. Louis School Board approved an intergovernmental agreement last May that allowed the state to take control of the district for at least three years. The agreement allowed the board to remain in place as long as its members or any district officials did not approve any contract, or make personnel, financial or curriculum decisions, without first getting written approval from the state.
But just shy of a year, the state superintendent signaled that the board had violated the agreement and that he was seeking to have the board removed — something never before done in the state (but a move now also being sought regarding the North Chicago Community Unit School District board).
This month, the Illinois State Board of Education named a financial oversight panel to help the East St. Louis district achieve financial stability. And at its meeting next month, the state board will consider Koch's push to remove the elected board and replace it with an independent authority.
At least one of the School Board members takes issue with the proposed ouster. But not because he thinks the board is entirely undeserving of the boot.
"I think they've got a reason to remove all of the rest of them," board member and former East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer told the Post-Dispatch. "But I'd like them to give me one reason why they should remove me. I'd resign if they'd give me one valid reason."
In an April 27 letter to the School Board, Koch detailed actions that triggered the effort to oust the board, among them:
• A push by School Board President Lonzo Greenwood for contracts to be offered to noncertified administrators — among them, his daughter, and a daughter and brother of board member George Mitchom.
• Despite a recommendation by the district's administration that the district not renew a lease for the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center, the board voted last month to extend the lease by another year. In early 2011, civic leaders announced that the district would lease the facility for a dollar a year. What wasn't expected was about $260,000 a year in utility, maintenance, security and other expenses, according to the district. That expense "does not directly benefit instruction in the district's schools," Koch's letter says.
• The board's attempts to delay the start date of a director of risk management, whose job would include addressing "unmanageable" workers' compensation costs.
• Objections by the board regarding a $72,000 annual contract with lawyer Pearson Bush, despite a recommendation by the district's administration that the contract not be renewed. "While Mr. Bush attends board meetings, he does not speak or interact, nor does he perform any legal or other services for the district," Koch's letter reads.
Officer, the only board member reached for comment for this story, acknowledged that the board has serious issues. But he said he plans to fight his removal because he has not voted with the board on controversial decisions and, unlike fellow board members, doesn't have any relatives or friends working for the district.
"I'm the only guy on the board who didn't have any skin in the game, in terms of political chutzpah," Officer said. "I do resent being told I'm being removed for what the other six sons of a gun did. What gives you the authority to tell me you can remove me when I haven't done anything wrong?"
Much of the stigma of the current board stems from the district's financial state, which is now dismal but only eight years ago was healthy. At that time, the district had managed to amass more than $40 million in surplus under the watchful eye of a financial oversight panel that had been in place for nearly a decade. Federal stimulus dollars then poured more than $8 million into the district.
But after the oversight panel was dissolved in 2004, the surplus dissolved, too. Today, the district is grappling with a $12 million deficit.
"They're in very bad financial shape, so in order to right that ship, we're having to make some really tough decisions in a short amount of time to ensure that the district can continue to move forward," Koch said.
HUNTING FOR PENNIES
In his eight months as state-appointed superintendent of the district, Arthur Culver has worked with state financial experts to determine where the money went.
For starters, Culver said, while the district's student population has dropped by an average of 250 a year, staffing numbers have increased. Further, the salaries of many employees have been "extremely high" when compared with salaries in other districts.
Contracts for consultants also have raised eyebrows, as well as contracts for services, such as grass-cutting, snow-plowing and even energy. Meanwhile, the district's internal controls have been lacking, he said.
Culver said the district has since decided to go with a different energy provider, a move he says will save about $450,000 a year. Similarly, the district has decided to have its own employees cut grass and remove snow — services that were costing the district tens of thousands of dollars.
"We're just unturning every stone and trying to find every penny that we can in order to better our financial situation," he said.
And he's not the only one turning over stones. Last summer, the state board announced it had launched an investigation, with cooperation from the U.S. attorney's office, into possible misuse of district funds. The investigation is being led by former federal prosecutor Courtney Cox. (Cox could not be reached for comment.)
Meanwhile, Culver and his team have been pursuing grants to help the district.
Under Culver, the district has received $578,000 in federal Race to the Top money, and a $450,000 grant from the state school board. The district expects to learn soon whether it will receive a federal School Improvement Grant of $6 million. It also recently applied for a $400,000 federal grant to fund counselors for students.
Administrators also have kept busy addressing special education compliance issues and have had to confront cheating on annual standardized tests at Annette Officer Elementary School, where test scores have been tossed out, according to Koch.
But the biggest threat to the district's survival, Koch said, is its financial situation. It remains a possibility that the district could be dissolved, he said.
"We're taking a lot of actions and leveraging what we can to try to make sure the district makes it," Koch said in a recent interview. "But we're willing to stay there and be there as long as it takes to make sure that we start seeing all the compliance cleaned up, the district on its feet financially so it has a positive fund balance again, and decent and strong academic performance coming from its students. And that's going to take a while, but we're in for the long haul."