ST. LOUIS • The Missouri Board of Education on Tuesday voted to return control of the city’s public schools to an elected board after 12 years of state control.
“I think we can look forward to a new St. Louis Public Schools,” said Donna Jones, the longest serving member of the elected board, which had continued to meet during state control. “The future looks bright.”
The district has been governed by a three-member special administrative board since 2007, when the district lost accreditation after poor financial and academic performance and infighting among elected board members. The district regained full accreditation in 2017 after improvements to graduation rates and finances, among other measures.
Margie Vandeven, state commissioner of education, recommended the handover in a presentation at the state board meeting Tuesday at the Westin St. Louis downtown. The state board voted unanimously to approve the transition.
Vandeven said the special administrative board had achieved its goals of regaining state accreditation, improving the district’s finances and maintaining stable leadership under Superintendent Kelvin Adams, who was hired in 2008 after nearly annual turnover in that top job.
The appointed board will be disbanded as of July 1 and the seven-member elected school board will take over.
Under state control
The long-awaited vote Tuesday was expected to return the district to local control. The appointed board voted last year to do so after a transition task force made the same recommendation.
Since the appointed board took control in 2007, the district has improved in several areas of student performance. The high school graduation rate has risen to 78 percent from 56 percent. Out-of-school suspensions have dropped to 473 from 1,720. Preschool attendance has nearly doubled to 2,100 students.
But during the same period, overall enrollment in the district fell from 33,000 students to fewer than 21,000.
Average test scores in the district remain below state average. Fewer than 20 percent of third-graders are proficient in English, compared with the Missouri average of 49 percent, and 12 percent of seventh-graders are proficient in math, compared with 38 percent statewide.
“They have not improved the scores for the kids, which should have been job No. 1,” said David Jackson, who served on the powerless elected board from 2007 to 2015.
The current special administrative board members are Richard Gaines, appointed by Aldermanic President Lewis Reed; Rick Sullivan, appointed by then-Gov. Matt Blunt; and Darnetta Clinkscale, who was appointed by then-Mayor Francis Slay.
‘Take on this challenge’
Michael Jones, of St. Louis, said Tuesday the state appointees who took over the district in 2007 had taken on “a challenging burden that when they picked it up was in its worst possible condition.”
Jones and other board members thanked the state appointees for their work and advised the elected board to ignore the politics of their position. Jones advised them to “be mindful” of public input but not to take orders from voters.
“The most important relationship you have from an educational point here on is not with the community,” he said. “It’s with those six other people.”
The elected board has continued to meet during the years of state oversight. All but two members, Tracee Miller and Adam Layne, of the seven-member board were present for the vote Tuesday. Miller and Layne, the newest members, were elected April 2. Jones is the only remaining member from the 2007 board.
“I think the cream has risen to the top and we’re going to see some good things out of this school district,” Jones said. “We’re going to work well together. I’m not concerned with what’s happened in the past, because we’re going to move forward.”
Since fall, elected board members have received leadership training over eight weekends, and the newly elected members also will get intensive training before the next school year through the Missouri School Boards’ Association.
“I have never seen a process where I thought a board was better prepared to take on this challenge than you folks,” said state board vice president Charles Shield to members of the elected board present for the vote.
State board member Peter Herschend advised the elected board to retain Adams as superintendent. Adams, who is credited with helping restore community support for city schools, has agreed to extend his contract to 2022.
“The most important single job you have is the selection and maintenance and evaluation of leadership,” Herschend said. “If you do that job well, then the district will succeed. You fail in that job and it is a guarantee that St. Louis as a school district will revert back to exactly what it was.”
Dorothy Rohde-Collins, president of the elected school board, said the board had voted unanimously to extend Adams’ contract and planned to retain him as superintendent. The board has been meeting with him since fall to prepare for the transition to local control and will hold a one-day retreat July 13 to prepare for the school year.
“We’ll be starting out on the right foot,” she said.
The board faces a challenge in regaining the community’s confidence, but the ongoing meetings with Adams and training board members have undergone have put the board in a “good position to lead,” Collins said.
“We’ve got a lot of opportunity to show everyone what we’ve learned,” she said.
Adams said he expected a short turnaround for the elected board members to get used to their new powers.
“I have no doubt in my mind that they’ll be ready,” he said.
The elected board will need to reestablish its leadership role, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban school districts including St. Louis Public Schools.
“Boards have some critical responsibilities. One is in hiring and retaining a superintendent, and they’ve got a good superintendent,” Casserly said.
Casserly said the board’s other roles will include defining an overall direction and culture for the school system, monitoring progress and exercising financial responsibility.
“There are lots of good ways to do those things and lots of dysfunctional ways to do those things,” Casserly said. “We’ll see how they do.”